For Poe, life imitated art

Edgar Allan Poe, father of detective fiction and master of the macabre, is known for such poems and short stories as The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and his C. Auguste Dupin tales. But it appears that the legendary writer may have authored his most lasting mystery with his untimely death on Oct. 7, 1849 at the age of 40.

Poe suffered the death of his wife, Virginia, in 1847. She was only 25, but had suffered for a few years with illness, which may have exacerbated Poe’s drinking problem. His dependency on alcohol continued after her death, at which point he left New York (where she had died) and returned to his hometown of Richmond, Va. He spent the next two years bouncing between Richmond and Baltimore.

On Sept. 27, 1849, it is generally believed that the writer departed Richmond by boat and arrived in Baltimore the next day. His whereabouts over the next few days are unknown. At the time, he was seeking funding and subscriptions for a magazine that was starting, entitled The Stylus. Many unreliable accounts of this period exist, including the idea that Poe travelled to Philadelphia where he came down with an unknown illness and intended to continue on to New York, but instead mistakenly boarded a train bound for Baltimore.

A man by the name of Joseph Walker found Poe six days later, delirious on the streets of Baltimore. A letter that he wrote to Dr. J. E. Snodgrass survives.

“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,” Walker wrote.

Snodgrass responded to help Poe, and he was taken to Washington College Hospital. He died there in the early hours of Oct. 7. He drifted in and out of consciousness and therefore was never able to explain his circumstances.

The accounts of his last four days are recorded by his attending physician, Dr. John Moran, though researchers have questioned the doctor’s credibility due to the variance in his stories. One interesting tidbit from almost all written accounts of those who saw Poe during these days is that he was not wearing his own clothes. Though he struggled financially throughout his life, Poe was known to have tried his best to dress well. When he was found by Walker, he was wearing a suit made of cheap material with a straw or palm-leaf hat and his shoes were worn to the heel.

According to Birgit Bramsback, the official death certificate has been lost, but it is believed that Moran listed his cause of death was phrenitis, or the swelling of the brain. It is also a common belief that he died from alcohol poisoning. But more interesting theories have arisen since the time of his death.

A few years after his death, a friend of Poe’s presented the idea that he had died from cooping. Cooping was a practice prevalent in corrupt electoral districts where people were pulled from the streets and coerced into voting repeatedly. Alcohol was often given before voting as a way to force them to comply or as a reward. Many times, their clothes were changed to disguise their appearance. Given the fact that Poe was found in his stupefied state on Election Day and that he was found at Ryan’s 4th Ward polls, as well as the corrupt nature of Baltimore politics and his out-of-character dress, it is believed that he could have fallen victim to such a plot. There are also suggestions that Poe was suffering from lesions on his brain, which could explain his adverse reactions to the alcohol.

Other theories include Poe contracting rabies or dying as the result of injuries sustained during a mugging.

For the record, Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, told Smithsonian Magazine that he believes a combination of factors led to the writer’s demise, with either encephalitis or meningitis as the leading cause.

Throughout The Raven, the avian symbol of death continually reminds the narrator of the fleeting nature of his life by repeating the word “nevermore.” Conversely, the identity of the Poe’s personal raven shall remain a mystery forevermore.


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