originally published June 16, 2014
So much has been written about Edgar Allen Poe that my contribution of words #898,001-899,000 of this project to the great writer will hardly land an impact crater upon his legacy. But there’s one chapter of Poe’s life – specifically that last one – that stupefies me. Most famous figures from the modern era of recorded history have the details of their demise fairly well documented. Some – like Kurt Cobain, Natalie Wood and JFK – might be vague on a few pertinent specific details, but we’re aware of the physiological nature of what scooted them off this planet.
Poe’s death swims so deep in a reservoir of murky suspicion and guess-work, it’s almost unfathomable, especially when one considers that he died at a well-known hospital in a populous American city less than two centuries ago. I’ve been picking on the state of medical science in the mid-1800’s a lot lately, but you’d think a celebrity’s cause of death should have been something they could have pinned down.
So much of Poe’s life is open to conjecture, in particular his final few days. All we know for certain is that he bid adieu to Richmond, Virginia on September 27, 1849, headed for his home in New York. Six days later he turned up in Baltimore, walking the streets in a delirious state, one which he was never able to adequately explain to anyone. Four days after that, he was nevermore.
There were few witnesses to Poe’s weird final days. Among them were Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, an acquaintance, and Dr. John Joseph Moran, his attending physician. Snodgrass was the man called to Poe’s side at his request, and he describes the writer as having been found unkempt, dirty and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. This didn’t jive with Poe’s style – the man prided himself on looking snazzy when out in public. But when he turned up in Baltimore he was incoherent, and could not explain how he ended up in this condition.
Dr. Moran brought Poe to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore, where he kept the author in a barren, prison-like room with barred windows. This was the ward that was often reserved for the drunk and disorderly; whether Poe was brought there because of his babbling condition, because Moran was worried about curious on-lookers trying to barge in, or simply because Moran was kind of a dick, I have no idea. But this was where Poe met his end. Witnesses say he called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, but no one knows for certain who that would be. Instead, he may have been calling “Herring” – not because he liked the fish, but because he was close to his uncle-in-law, Henry Herring.
As I said before, the gritty details of what led to Poe’s demise were never figured out. Dr. Moran had complete access to the man’s final few days, but he could never piece it together. Moran himself was eventually seen as an unreliable witness, as the details of his story changed frequently over subsequent retellings. And not just specific dates and times – he messed those up too, pinpointing Poe’s arrival at the hospital at October 3rd, 5:00pm and then later October 6th at 9:00am and again on October 7th at something called “10:00 in the afternoon” – but Moran had all sorts of holes in his story.
Any official record of Poe’s death, including his death certificate, has been lost. Alcoholism is the culprit many people pointed to – no doubt in part because one of Poe’s rivals, an editor with the impossibly awesome name of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, wrote Poe’s less-than-flattering obituary. Despite the fact that that Rufus was a bit of an asshole who had engaged in character assassination against Poe while the great author was alive, he somehow became the literary executor of Poe’s estate, publishing a snarky biography about the man that was (according to Poe’s surviving friends and acquaintances) filled with a soggy crouton bowl of lies.
How much did Poe really drink? His buddy Joe Snodgrass pushed the alcoholism angle, as he himself was a supporter of the temperance movement, and Poe’s early death from boozing made for a great cautionary tale, whether it was true or not. Even Dr. Moran disputed alcoholism as Poe’s cause of death, as did Thomas Mayne Reid, a popular novelist and occasional drinking buddy of Poe’s. Reid claimed that Poe tied one on from time to time, but he wasn’t a frequent imbiber, nor did he rip up the town with any sort of gluttonous zeal.
So what killed the guy?
A year earlier, Poe had nearly died from an overdose of laudanum, an opiate-derived painkiller and tranquilizer. It remains unknown if this was a suicide attempt or simply a botched effort at self-medication, but some theorized he might have tried suicide again in September, 1849. That’s a longshot, as is the extensive theory of murder, pushed by contemporary author John Evangelist Walsh.
Others have suggested hypoglycemia, epilepsy, apoplexy, rabies, syphilis, influenza, delirium and meningeal inflammation. A doctor who examined Poe in May of 1848 claimed the man had heart disease, a claim Poe vehemently denied. Cholera was a suspect, as Poe had recently travelled through Philadelphia during a nasty cholera outbreak, and it did make him sick. Scientists examined a sample of Poe’s hair in 2006 and discovered evidence of possible – again, this is possible – lead or mercury poisoning. So maybe the murder theory isn’t that far-fetched.
One of the more unusual theories of Poe’s death – and indeed one that popped up as the most likely culprit in a number of the man’s biographies – is that he died from cooping. Cooping was a devious practice of 19th century American politics. People would be grabbed off the street by gangs who were working for a particular party or candidate, then they’d be locked in a room and force-fed booze and drugs. The victims would then be sent out to vote for that candidate, several times at several polling stations (though they were often sent back to the same one in disguise). If they refused, they’d be beaten or killed.
Poe was found on October 3, which was an election day. The theory here is that he’d been rounded up and sent on multiple voting runs, with the drugs in his system leading to his demented state and eventual death. This is so hard to believe it’s almost laughable. Poe was a Baltimore celebrity – he’d be a lousy mark for a cooping gang.
And that leaves us squarely in the realm of the unknown. Poe’s legacy was so soundly and immediately trounced by Rufus Griswold, and the witnesses to his final days have been proven so incredibly unreliable, it’s safe to say the truth behind Poe’s final chapter will never be known.