In October 1849, now-legendary horror and suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe was found in a tavern in Baltimore, delirious, with clothes that didn't appear to be his and no concrete answer for where he'd been since he left Richmond, Virginia almost a...
In October 1849, now-legendary horror and suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe was found in a tavern in Baltimore, delirious, with clothes that didn't appear to be his and no concrete answer for where he'd been since he left Richmond, Virginia almost a week before. Just days later, the author would be dead - and it's still unknown what exactly caused his death, and what happened to him in the time before his tragic demise.
Was goth king Edgar Allan Poe the victim of alcoholism? A fatal illness? Was he suicidal? Or was he...murdered? We take you through the sad life and death of Edgar Allan Poe, and all the theories - plausible, unbelievable, or downright strange - behind his mysterious end.
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I’ve been a Poe-head for a really long time, probably thanks to my dad, who was an English teacher and taught some of his short stories. As a child, I had a little palm-sized Illustrated Classics book of “Tales of Mystery and Terror”, which included such childhood favorites as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” for me to enjoy. Later, I read some of his works in 7th grade and went to see a production of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and let me tell you, it was some of the only stuff I liked reading in 7th grade English. Woof. In college, my thesis film had a character who was himself a literature teacher, and I included a scene where he taught my favorite poem, “Annabel Lee”, in his class. I later included the poem as a reading at our wedding, with a few choice excisions - namely the bits about her being dead, because that is kind of a romance killer. So, needless to say, along with William Shakespeare and Stephen King, Poe was one of the biggest influences in my life when it came to reading, and continues to be one. In fact, when I had the opportunity to adopt my first dog at age 25, I knew what his name would be even before I found him: Poe. It turned out to be a very appropriate moniker, because our Poe is definitely a little weirdo, and I think EAP would’ve enjoyed him.
There’s a lot I like about the man Poe aside from what is only found in his works. I love that he was the original goth boi, that he clearly had depressive tendencies and was very morbid - which I find very relatable - and that he could be a real sassy bitch too when critiquing other works. I don’t love that he married his 13 year old cousin, but the best I can do with that is a “times were different” and attempt to ignore it. Poe invented the detective fiction genre and was a huge contributor to early science fiction, horror fiction, and Romanticism. Of course, Poe also has something going for him in his life that sets him apart from other horror legends: a mysterious death that seems ripped straight from one of his short stories, and remains an enigma to this day.
In honor of Poe’s 213th birthday just this week on January 19th, we’re taking a look at the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe - the mysteries, the theories, and the strange characters that make it such an enduring puzzle even almost 175 years later.
To provide context for the man that Poe was when he died in 1849 at just 40 years old, we need to go back and sketch out his life until his strange death, and what made him such a wonderful and yet dark writer…and possibly, what set him up for his dark end.
Edgar Allan Poe was born Edgar Poe on January 19th, 1809, to actors David and Eliza Poe in Boston. He had a brother, William, and a sister, Rosalie, who may or may not have had a different father. Things started off difficult and never really got easier for young Edgar: David Poe abandoned the family in 1810, and Eliza died soon after of consumption, now known as tuberculosis. After this point, the 3 Poe children were split up: William went to family in Baltimore Maryland, Rosalie went to family friends the Mackenzies, and young Edgar was taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Richmond Virginia merchant who dealt in a variety of goods including cloth, wheat, tombstones, tobacco, and unfortunately, slaves. The Allans bestowed Edgar’s famous middle name upon him, though never formally adopted him.
Poe’s relationship with John Allan was a complicated one. Allan would alternate between spoiling him and aggressively disciplining him. He had the life of a well-off son, studying at times in Scotland and London in the 18teens, acting as lieutenant of the Richmond youth honor guard for the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, and registered at the University of Virginia to study ancient and modern languages in 1826. He also may have been engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster, who may have helped inspire “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”, around this time.
The University of Virginia had been established on the ideals of founder Thomas Jefferson, with strict rules against gambling, horses, guns, tobacco, and alcohol. Not slaves presumably, though, huh, Tom? The system of study utilized by the university was fairly chaotic, and most of the strict rules were ignored. While studying at UV, Poe’s possible engagement with Royster was broken off, and he incurred a high rate of gambling debts after claiming that John Allan had not given him enough money to register for classes, purchase books, and live in a dormitory. Poe dropped out of UV about a year later but didn’t have much to return to in Richmond - he had a strained relationship with Allan due to his debts and Royster had married another man. He spent a little time in Boston taking odd jobs, then enlisted in the US Army in 1827. Here he printed his first book, a 40 page collection of poetry called Tamerlane and Other Poems, which only received 50 printings and was virtually critically ignored. He served for 2 years and attained the rank of Sergeant Major for Artillery, and then wanted to get out ahead of the 5 year enlistment mark. His commanding officer would only allow Poe to be discharged if he reconciled with John Allan, who spent several months ignoring Edgar’s letters until Allan’s wife Frances died in 1829. Perhaps feeling wistful after his wife’s death, Allan told Edgar during his visit for the funeral that he would support his discharge if he would get appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
For about a year between his discharge and entering West Point, he lived in Baltimore with his widowed aunt Maria Clemm, his cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm, his brother William Henry, and his grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. He received his first positive review by literary critic John Neal, which helped bolster his confidence. He traveled to West Point for his service in July 1830, but drama followed: John Allan married his second wife Louisa Patterson, and the marriage and bitter quarrels with Poe over the children born to Allan out of extramarital affairs led to John Allan finally disowning his foster son. At that point Poe was like, screw this, and attempted to get purposefully court-martialed. He was tried in February 1831 for gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders for refusing to attend formations, classes, or church, which honestly, I get it. He tactically pleaded not guilty to induce dismissal, knowing that he would be found guilty, and he was free to go.
Poe headed to New York, released a third volume of poems, and then returned to his family in Baltimore in March. Poe’s brother William died in part due to his alcoholism in August 1831. After yet another traumatic death in his life, Poe began in earnest to seriously attempt to jump start a writing career. Unfortunately, it was a difficult time to do so, and though Poe was one of the first Americans known to live by writing alone, he was hampered by a lack of international copyright law, which led to American publishers often producing unauthorized copies of popular British works rather than paying for new, original works by Americans. Fueled by this, he turned his eye to writing prose, publishing stories in several periodicals and literary journals. He scored an assistant editor job at the Southern Literary Messenger, but was fired just a few weeks later for being drunk on the job. Edgar - and it seems the entire Poe family - was full of demons that, while contributing to his brilliance, also likely contributed to his early death.
In September 1835, Poe returned to Baltimore, where he obtained a license to marry his first cousin, Virginia Clemm. He was 26 and…yeah, she was 13. Not great, Edgar. Very very not great. I’ll discuss the relationship a little bit, because it’s incredibly important in the context of Poe’s life. Though their marriage was loving, some biographers suggest they viewed one another more like a brother and sister. Not sure if this is more wishful thinking than anything, but it’s a possibility. Their public marriage ceremony was on May 16th, 1836, and the marriage bond listed Virginia’s age as 21. Some scholars have read many of Poe's works as autobiographical and thus concluded that Virginia died a virgin. It has been speculated that she and her husband never consummated their marriage, although no evidence is given aside from the interpretation that Virginia was represented by the title character in the poem "Annabel Lee", which describes her as a "maiden... by the name of Annabel Lee". Poe biographer Joseph Wood Krutch suggests that Poe did not need women "in the way that normal men need them", but only as a source of inspiration and care, and that Poe was never interested in women sexually. On the flip side, contemporary friends of Poe suggested that the couple did not share a bed for at least the first two years of their marriage but that, from the time she turned 16, they had a "normal" married life for a few years. Either way, Poe's one-time employer George Rex Graham wrote of their relationship: "His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty,” and Poe himself once wrote to a friend, "I see no one among the living as beautiful as my little wife." Whether he saw her as a sister or a lover, he was clearly devoted to her.
Poe was reinstated at the Southern Literary Messenger with a promise of good behavior, and published several poems, book reviews, and stories in the paper. His only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, was published and widely reviewed in 1838, pushing Poe to becoming assistant editor for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839. He intended to start his own journal, but that dream never came to fruition. He moved to Graham’s Magazine after this, and then yet another tragedy struck Poe’s life.
One evening in January 1842, Virginia began to show the first signs of tuberculosis - then consumption - the same deadly disease that had already killed his own mother. While singing and playing the piano, it appeared that Virginia broke a blood vessel in her throat, and after this she only partially recovered, with her health beginning to decline. Poe fell into a deep depression watching his wife’s illness, and her momentary signs of improvement were only delays of the inevitable. Poe described his feelings thusly: "Each time I felt all the agonies of her death—and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive—nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” The latter, you may recognize, is one of Poe’s most enduring quotes. In hopes of finding a healthier environment for her, the Poes moved several times, stopping in Spring Garden Philadelphia and New York. In January 1845 he published his poem The Raven in the Evening Mirror, and it quickly became a sensation. Though it made Poe a household name, he only received $9 for its publication. He became editor and then owner of the Broadway Journal, which failed in 1846. In January 1847, Virginia died at the young age of 24 at what’s now known as Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in Fordham, New York. Poe also seems to have contracted the illness somewhere around this time. Fittingly for our morbid king, Poe realized a few hours after her death that he had no image of Virginia, and so commissioned a watercolor portrait to be painted of her fresh corpse.
After Virginia’s death, Poe became increasingly unstable - a feat, considering he was fairly unstable even at his best times. He became engaged to poet Sarah Helen Whitman, which didn’t last; and he also returned to Richmond to resume a relationship with childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster, who was by this time a widow. He was not long for the world at this point, and would meet his strange end within two years.
We’ll investigate that end and what might have really caused the death of the unlucky Edgar Allan Poe…after the break.
So we’ve taken a trip through the tragic life of gothic romanticist Edgar Allan Poe - abandoned by his father, disowned by his foster father, forced to watch his mother, brother, and cousin-wife all die tragically, and never reaching the level of success he so desired and which his talent truly deserved. And, as the saying goes, it gets worse!
Let’s go chronologically through the events, and attempt to find some answers.
On September 27th, 1849, Poe left Richmond Virginia for the last time to head home to New York City, with only a trunk of belongings and writings in tow. For the next several days, it’s unclear what Poe got up to, and we’ll circle back with some possibilities. On October 3rd he was found, delirious, at Ryan’s Tavern - also referred to as Gunner’s Hall - in Baltimore, Maryland. A printer named Joseph W. Walker sent a letter requesting help to Joseph E. Snodgrass, a physician, editor, and acquaintance of Poe. Walker’s letter reads as follows:
“Dear Sir—There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance. Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker”
Snodgrass came to Poe’s aid, and he was taken to the Washington College Hospital. Snodgrass later attested that Poe’s appearance was “repulsive”, his hair was unkempt, his face was haggard and unwashed, and his eyes were “vacant”. Curiously, he had ill-fitting and worn clothing on, including a dirty shirt, unpolished shoes, and no vest, which apparently was noted as it was unusual. John Joseph Moran, Poe’s attending physician, also mentioned that he was wearing a “stained, faded old bombazine coat” and “an old straw hat”. Because of this, it’s believed that the clothes were likely not Poe’s own, as even despite his money problems it was uncharacteristic of him to be wearing shabby clothing.
Moran cared for Poe at the hospital in a section of the building reserved for drunks. Indeed, Snodgrass even later claimed that Walker’s initial note stated Poe was in a “state of beastly intoxication”, though it seems apparent the actual note did not include these words. Perhaps they felt he was intoxicated, though - he was incoherent and unable to explain what circumstances led him to this point. He was also said to repeatedly call out the name “Reynolds” - it’s uncertain who this is, as there are no major figures in Poe’s life with this name; it could’ve been a reference to newspaper editor Jeremiah N Reynolds who had inspired his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, or perhaps Henry R Reynolds, one of the judges overseeing the 4th Ward Polls at Ryan’s Tavern, where Poe was found. It’s also speculated he may have been calling out the name “Herring”, which was the surname of his uncle in law in Baltimore. Later, Dr. Moran wouldn’t talk much about the Reynolds references, but did mention a visit by a Mrs Herring. True to Poe’s morbidity, during one of the few times he was awake, when Moran told his patient that he would soon be enjoying the company of friends, Poe allegedly replied that, "The best thing his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol".
He also made delusional references to a wife in Richmond, which may have been confused ramblings thinking Virginia was still alive, or possibly referring to Sarah Elmira Royster, his recent fiancee. He didn’t know where he had left his trunk of belongings, though it appears it was recovered at the Swan Tavern in Richmond. Moran initially reported that Poe’s final words were “Lord, help my poor soul” before tragically dying days after being discovered, on October 7th, 1849. He was only 40 years old.
So, what happened? Unfortunately, all medical records and documents relating to the case, including Poe’s own death certificate, have been lost. Complicating matters, there is some debate over the credibility of Dr John Joseph Moran. Moran was likely the only person to see Poe in his final days, unless a Mrs Herring really did visit. But throughout the years his story changed as he wrote and lectured about Poe’s death, certainly the result of some embellishment to keep public interest in his perspective alive. Moran claimed a couple of times that he had immediately contacted Poe's aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, to let her know about Poe's death. Well, this wasn’t the case - in fact, he wrote to her only after she had requested it on November 9, almost a full month after Poe departed this world. He also claimed that Poe had said, quite poetically, as he prepared to draw his last breath: "The arched heavens encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair." The editor of the New York Herald, which published this version of Moran's story, admitted, "We cannot imagine Poe, even if delirious, constructing [such sentences]." Author William Bittner in Poe: A Biography attributes Moran's claim to a convention of assigning pious last words to console mourners. Moran’s accounts even changed up dates, alternately claiming Poe was brought to the hospital on October 3rd, October 6th, and October 7th. Perhaps he had lapses or memory, or again, wanted to embellish. It’s unsure what the real truth is through Moran’s eyes.
Because of this, and the confusion over the state Poe was in when he was found and where he had been, it’s unclear what Poe’s cause of death actually was, which just adds to the mystery, and of course makes up the main mystery of our episode.
So first, we have basically the possibility that Poe died of alcohol poisoning. Joseph Snodgrass, Poe’s acquaintance, was convinced that Poe had died from alcoholism - remember, he had embellished Walker’s note to include that Poe appeared intoxicated. Thing is, Snodgrass was also a big supporter of the temperance movement, which encouraged complete abstention from alcohol, and he thereafter used Poe as a warning example in his temperance work. Moran, who of course wasn’t much more trustworthy himself, contradicted Snodgrass by stating in his 1885 account that Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant. Moran claimed that Poe "had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person". Unfortunately, whether or not he was under the influence at the time, some contemporary newspapers reported Poe's death as "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation", back-in-the-day euphemisms for deaths from so-called “disgraceful” causes such as alcoholism. In the book Edgar A Poe: A Psychopathic Study, psychologist John W Robertson suggested that Poe may have had dipsomania, a medical condition involving an uncontrollable craving for alcohol or drugs. However, we have to keep in mind that this book came out in the early 1920s, when temperance was still a hot topic thanks to the ongoing prohibition, and might have influenced this determination.
Was Poe an alcoholic? Accounts conflict on this possibility. His onetime drinking companion, Thomas Mayne Reid, admitted that the two enjoyed wild "frolics" with regards to partying, but that Poe "never went beyond the innocent mirth in which we all indulge ... While acknowledging this as one of Poe's failings, I can speak truly of its not being habitual". Some believe Poe had a severe susceptibility to alcohol and became drunk after one glass of wine, which may have run in his family - remember, his older brother had died of alcoholism. Also, in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Poe Museum curator Chris Semtner stated "It has been documented that after a glass of wine he was staggering drunk. His sister had the same problem; it seems to be something hereditary."
It seems in general he only drank during difficult periods of his life and sometimes went several months at a time without alcohol, and was even a member of the “Sons of Temperance” society at the time of his death. However, if you’re talking about a hard time in his life, this might’ve been it - could the death of Virginia have prompted him to hit the bottle once more? Or did he have a little positivity back in his life now that his old flame Royster had returned to the fold? Also mentioned in the Smithsonian Magazine article was the writing of biographer Susan Archer Talley Weiss, who wrote in her biography The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe that Poe had fallen ill near the end of his time in Richmond, and after making a somewhat miraculous recovery, was told by his attending physician that "another such attack would prove fatal." According to Weiss, Poe replied that "if people would not tempt him, he would not fall," suggesting that the first illness was brought on by a bout of drinking. Poe’s friend J. P. Kennedy wrote 3 days after Poe’s death that: "On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch. . . . He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe! . . . A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched." Of course, it’s uncertain whether Kennedy knew this for sure, or just had heard about it from the likes of Snodgrass or the newspapers. One thing that does go against the possibility that Poe died after a bout of drinking is that samples of Poe's hair from after his death show low levels of lead, which is an indication that Poe remained faithful to his vow of sobriety up until his demise…I guess because liquor contained a lot of lead back in the day, or something?
Let’s address other theories. Was Poe ill? Theorists have put forward more than a dozen possible causes of death by illness for Poe over the years, including a rare brain disease, diabetes, enzyme deficiencies, syphilis, epilepsy, delirium tremens - which goes back to alcoholism - heart disease, and cholera. Lead poisoning was also theorized until the hair samples we previously mentioned were tested in 2006. Public health researcher Albert Donnay argued in 1999 that Poe's death was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from coal gas that was used for indoor lighting during the 19th century. However, tests on Poe’s hair were inconclusive to this point. BUT, the test did reveal an elevated level of mercury in Poe’s system before his death. Curator Chris Semtner feels that this is likely due to Poe being exposed to a cholera epidemic in Richmond earlier in 1849, for which doctors prescribed calomel - aka mercury chloride. Mercury was also used much more often back in the day in things like medicine and even makeup, which you may remember from our Renaissance Poisons episode. Mercury poisoning could help explain some of Poe's hallucinations and delirium before his death, but the levels of mercury found in Poe's hair were still 30 times below the level consistent with a typical mercury poisoning.
So maybe it was…rabies? Yep, that’s been a theory too, and it caused a bit of a stir back in 1996. According to the New York Times, Dr. R. Michael Benitez, then an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center, realized after working on Poe’s case at a clinical pathologic conference that the culprit had actually been rabies. As stated in the article: “Doctors are presented with a hypothetical patient and a description of the symptoms and are asked to render a diagnosis. Dr. Benitez said that at first he did not know that he had been assigned Poe, because his patient was described only as ‘E. P., a writer from Richmond.’ But by the time he was scheduled to present his findings a few weeks later, he had figured out the mystery…The writer entered Washington College Hospital comatose, Dr. Benitez said, but by the next day was perspiring heavily, hallucinating and shouting at imaginary companions. The next day, he seemed better but could not remember falling ill. On his fourth day at the hospital, he again grew confused and belligerent, then quieted down and died. ‘That is a classic case of rabies,’ the doctor said.” Further, the article quoted Dr. Henry Wilde, who is said to frequently treat rabies at Chulalongkorn University Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand - which must be a hell of a job - and stated “Poe had all the features of encephalitic rabies”. Within four days, which is the median length of survival after the onset of serious rabies symptoms, Poe was dead. There are some things that may work against this theory - those with rabies tend to develop a fear of water, and it was reported that he’d drank some at the hospital before he died; there was also no reported evidence of an animal bite. However, back in 1996, Poe House Museum curator Jeff Jerome did agree with this diagnosis, saying "This is the first time since Poe died that a medical person looked at Poe's death without any preconceived notions…If he knew it was Edgar Allan Poe, he'd think, 'Oh yeah, drugs, alcohol,' and that would influence his decision. Dr. Benitez had no agenda."
Maybe, just maybe, Poe died of a brain tumor. When Poe’s remains were moved in Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore - for more on this haunted location, check out our series on Haunted Cemeteries - one worker remarked that they could hear and feel a mass rolling around on the inside of Poe’s skull. Press at the time thought it was just Poe’s shriveled-up brain, but Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe's death, contacted a forensic pathologist, who told him that “while the clump couldn't be a brain, it could be a brain tumor, which can calcify after death into hard masses.” The Smithsonian article goes on to note, “Pearl isn't the only person to believe Poe suffered from a brain tumor: a New York physician once told Poe that he had a lesion on his brain that caused his adverse reactions to alcohol.” I’m unsure of how brain lesions affect or are affected by drinking, but I do know from personal experience that they can be an early sign of multiple sclerosis, which can manifest with slurred speech, mental issues like memory loss, fatigue, and confusion, symptoms which it seems Poe also suffered from just before his death. But I don’t know - it seems like an incredibly quick onset of any long-term disease, if this was the first or only occurrence of these particular symptoms. Brain lesions could also be caused by genetics, other diseases like lupus, chemical or infection exposure, brain trauma, and - yes - brain tumors.
One more possibility could be a standard flu. Semter explained that before he left Richmond, Poe visited a physician, and Sarah Elmira Royster had noted he had a weak pulse and fever the last night he was in town. She didn’t feel he should travel, and the physician told him the same. According to newspaper reports from the time, it was raining in Baltimore when Poe was there. "The cold and the rain exacerbated the flu he already had," said Semtner, "and maybe that eventually led to pneumonia. The high fever might account for his hallucinations and his confusion."
But maybe it wasn't an illness at all. Was Poe depressed, and committed a kind of suicide? In 1848, soon after Virginia’s death, Poe nearly died from an overdose of laudanum, which was readily available as a tranquilizer and pain killer. It’s unclear if this was a true suicide attempt or just a miscalculation on Poe's part. In 2020, a psychological analysis of Poe's language by Ryan Boyd, Assistant Professor in Behavioral Analytics at Lancaster University, theorized that he was suffering from a major depressive episode near the end of his life and that suicide could not be ruled out. Boyd analyzed all of Poe’s available writings with a depression index, which used language patterns commonly utilized by those who later died by suicide to score any spikes in his depression. For instance, those who later committed suicide were found in research to “consistently use more ‘me’ words and fewer ‘we’ words, which points to their social withdrawal. Importantly, these patterns tend to increase drastically as they get closer to suicide…Depressed people also typically use more ‘working through’ language – also called ‘cognitive processing’ words – which includes ‘think’, ‘suppose’ and ‘understand’.”
Boyd wrote, “Throughout Poe’s life, nearly 20 texts scored abnormally high on our depression index, half of which were written in 1843, 1845 and 1849 — the year of his death. Poe’s depression scores were most pronounced in his personal letters, which are often the best reflection of one’s ‘authentic self’. They are largely absent from his professional writings. Notable exceptions include The Light-House, which scored extremely high on our depression index and was still a work in progress at the time of his death.” Boyd concluded, “Although our analyses reveal that Poe was spiralling into a depression at the end of his life, we can’t say for sure whether his death was a suicide. Considering his rather high suicide risk from a clinical perspective, paired with our objective analysis of his mental states, it remains a real possibility that he did kill himself. Following our analyses, the suicide hypothesis currently stands as the only cause of death that has objective evidence behind it.” HOW he may have committed suicide stands to reason, but it is a possibility.
Or, most dastardly of all…was Poe murdered? That’s the flavor du jour of Poe death theories at the moment, as far as I can tell. And, as far as I can tell, this theory usually breaks one of three ways: he was beaten and robbed by street toughs, he was killed by his fiancee’s brothers, or he was a victim of cooping. What’s cooping, you may ask? I’ll get to that in a moment.
In her article Autobiographic Notes: Edgar Allan Poe, biographer E. Oakes Smith wrote “At the instigation of a woman who considered herself injured by him, he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. It is well known that a brain fever followed. . . ." Other accounts also mention "ruffians" who had horribly beaten Poe before his death. He may have also been robbed, accounting for his strange appearance. But here’s a weird little tidbit I found while researching this angle: remember that physician Poe visited the last day he was in Richmond, who told him not to leave town? This was Dr. John F Carter. The most popular Poe biographies from the early 1900s all agree on one point about this visit: Poe, possibly accidentally, had left his own walking stick at the doctor’s office and instead had taken Dr. Carter’s cane, which he may have still had with him in Baltimore. Biographer Hervey Allen wrote of when Poe was found delirious, “A carriage was sent for, and the dying man was carried to the conveyance, still grasping Dr. Carter’s Malacca [wood] cane that he had brought by mistake from Richmond.” This particular cane, interestingly, seemed to be one of those where you could pull out a sword or dagger from sheathed inside of it. Some thought that he couldn’t have been beaten or robbed if he had this cane in his possession: why would he not fight back with it if he was attacked? The cane also wasn’t super fancy, but it was valuable. Why wouldn’t a robber steal it? The first-hand accounts of finding Poe in his delirious state don’t mention the cane, so while we know that he did take it, as Dr. Carter held onto Poe’s cane until his death, we don’t know for certain whether it was with him in Baltimore or left behind at his home in Richmond. There are no photos available of the Carter cane, either, so I can’t compare them and figure out if Poe really could have mistaken them or was possibly sneakily trading up for a better model - though I doubt he would’ve done so. If he had the cane with him in Baltimore and was attacked, maybe he didn’t know there was a sword inside he could defend himself with, or was confused. Either way, it’s an interesting little nugget that either could or might not disprove the robbery theory. Yes, it’s useless, but it’s interesting!
Next thought, it could’ve been straight-up murder. In Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, author John Evangelist Walsh posits that Poe was murdered by Sarah Elmira Royster’s brothers, who detested him. Here is how the Smithsonian presents the theory: “Walsh argues that Poe actually made it to Philadelphia, where he was ambushed by Shelton's three brothers, who warned Poe against marrying their sister. Frightened by the experience, Poe disguised himself in new clothes (accounting for, in Walsh's mind, his second-hand clothing) and hid in Philadelphia for nearly a week, before heading back to Richmond to marry Royster. Shelton's brothers intercepted Poe in Baltimore, Walsh postulates, beat him, and forced him to drink whiskey, which they knew would send Poe into a deathly sickness.”
Lastly, was his death the result of cooping? Ok, this is what cooping is, and bear with me: cooping was a form of electoral fraud in the US at the time where citizens were kidnapped off the street and forced to vote, often several times over, for a particular election candidate. Remember, no one had driver’s licenses or state IDs at the time, and cooping was rampant in contemporary Baltimore. According to several of Poe's biographers, so-called 'cooping gangs' or 'election gangs' working for a political candidate would hold random victims in a room (the "coop") and ply them with alcohol to get them to comply or face beatings. Often their clothing would be changed to fool voting officials and vote multiple times, or they would be given disguises such as wigs, fake beards, or mustaches. Certainly this theory caught fire because of a few interesting details in Poe’s death: he was in strange, shabby clothing; he was confused, possibly suffering from alcohol poisoning; and most interestingly, he was discovered at Baltimore’s Ryan’s Tavern on Election Day. It was a known place where coopers brought their victims.
Poe could’ve b een plied with alcohol by a cooping gang, but there was another possibility: at the time, a drink was usually given to voters to celebrate having cast their vote. The polling place was at a bar, after all. If Poe had been forced to go to polling place to polling place and vote multiple times, he may also have been forced to have multiple drinks, which could’ve made him sick, due to his predisposition. Around the late 1870s, Poe's biographer J.H. Ingram received several letters that attributed Poe's death to a cooping scheme. A letter from William Hand Browne, a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins, explains that "the general belief here is, that Poe was seized by one of these gangs, (his death happening just at election-time; an election for sheriff took place on Oct. 4th), 'cooped,' stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted, and then turned adrift to die." This theory has gained a ton of traction in recent years. You may argue, why would you choose someone “famous” as a cooping victim? Well, remember, Poe wasn’t famous in that way - he was known for The Raven, for sure, but who really knew what he looked like? There are literally 2 pictures of him in existence. Yes, he was a known entity in Baltimore, but surely not to everyone. Unless you were already familiar with him, one might just think he was some droopy-eyed dope ripe for the coopin’. Hey, he could’ve even been cooped, and died from rabies from rat bites during days of being held captive in a cooping gang’s coop.
So, Sean, what do you think led to the strange death of Edgar Allan Poe? Was it alcohol? Was he sick? Was he suicidal? Was he attacked? Was he cooped? Some combination of a couple or all of these?
Edgar Allan Poe was buried on Monday, October 8th, 1949. Just a few people attended, and the ceremony only lasted a couple of minutes. His coffin was cheap, lacking handles, a nameplate, cloth lining, or a cushion for his head. He was buried in an unmarked grave. He had died as he lived - with the love of a few, the admiration of some, but with a talent long overlooked and even unknown. Piece of shit Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote his New York Tribune obituary, which alternated between praising the dead author's abilities and eloquence and damning his temperament and ambition. In the obit, which was reprinted many times, he asserted that "few will be grieved" by Poe's death as he had few friends, and claimed that Poe often wandered the streets, either in "madness or melancholy", mumbling and cursing to himself, was easily irritated, was envious of others, and that he "regarded society as composed of villains". Griswold had once been friendly with Poe, but they competed for editing jobs and even the affections of a woman, poet Frances Sargent Osgood. Much of Griswold’s characterization in the obituary was lifted almost verbatim from a Victorian novel. Griswold also claimed that Poe had asked him to be his literary executor and in 1850 presented a collection of Poe's work that included a biographical article titled "Memoir of the Author", in which Poe was depicted as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman, which was denounced by many who knew Poe. Unfortunately, this was the only full biography available of the writer and was widely printed, and Griswold’s characterization of Poe wasn’t fully disproved until 1941, though many still have that same preconceived notion of Poe spread by Griswold. A couple months after writing the obituary, Griswold wrote in a letter to Sarah Helen Whitman "I was not his friend, nor was he mine". Great guy to write up an obituary and take over Poe’s literary estate. I fuckin’ hate Rufus Griswold.
But, unlike some asshole named Rufus, Edgar Allan Poe has been elevated to heights I don’t think he ever would’ve dreamed of in his life. This was a man with clear demons, with a creative’s penchant for folly; who dealt with an incredible amount of trauma, sadness, and tragedy on top of his frustrated attempts to become known for what he truly loved: writing. Yet, eventually, though his persona wasn’t presented factually until recently, his writing did achieve the kind of glory few have ever attained and will ever attain. He has become a legend, and I think he more than anyone else would have been stunned by this turn of events. I doubt he would’ve ever imagined there would be museums in his old homes, that the Edgar Award would be named after him and would be the highest honor in mystery writing, and that, somewhere in Connecticut, some twentysomething with a penchant for the morbid would grow up with his work and eventually name her beloved dog after him. Eventually, Poe was reburied at Westminster Burying Ground under a beautiful monument near the front of the church in 1875. The remains of his wife, Virginia, were saved from obscurity, and her and her mother Maria Clemm would be interred beside him. At the reburial, a poem contributed for the occasion by Alfred Lord Tennyson was read:
“Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.”
Poe even received a proper funeral in 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birth. While less than 10 people attended his borderline pauper’s funeral in 1849, the two services held more than 350 people each - the maximum the adjoining church could hold. Actors portraying famous poets and Poe’s contemporaries also attended, delivering eulogies adapted from their works about Poe.
So, however he left this world, I hope he’s looking down from wherever he is and knows what a difference he made in it, and will continue to make for centuries to come.
No news this week friends. Instead, I will leave you with my favorite poem - unabridged - by the man himself.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful. Don’t forget to screenshot your 5-star reviews and share with us on social media for your chance to win a gift straight from us!
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