The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe
On October 3, 1849, a man named Joseph W. Walker stumbled upon a man who seemed “in great distress.” The man was identified as American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe. He died in the hospital four days later at the age of 40. What lies behind the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe?
The life and times of Edgar Allan Poe
To understand how the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe unfolded, we should first talk a little about the man’s life — since, obviously, it led up to his death. But, let me first give a shoutout to Gillian Knight, @liljeani on Twitter, who suggested the topic for this post. She runs a podcast, Smiling Horror, that you should certainly check out. We got connected on Twitter and I contributed one of my poems, “River Water,” to her podcast.
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809 in Boston — in my home state of Massachusetts! Woo-hoo! I actually didn’t know this before beginning research for this article. By 1811, Poe was parentless. A couple in Richmond, Virginia, named John and Frances Allan, took him in — this is where he acquired the first part of his surname.
In 1827, after leaving the University of Virginia, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army and launched his publishing career with the publication of a collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which at the time was attributed to “a Bostonian.” Soon after, Poe left West Point, where he’d been training as an officer cadet, and proclaimed his desire to become a writer.
Working for several magazines and publications, Poe became known as a literary critic with a unique style. He married his cousin Virginia in 1836, but she died in 1847 of tuberculosis. (She was thirteen at the time they married, but this type of young marriage as well as cousin marriage were still fairly commonplace at this time in American history.) It seems that they enjoyed a loving relationship, though it may have been more of a fraternal relationship than a romantic or sexual one. They lived together on and off and had to move frequently to accommodate Poe’s career.
But at any rate, Virginia’s death had a severe effect on Poe. Some readers of his prose and poetry have suggested that it lies behind the appearance of dying young women in numerous of his works, including his most famous — like “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” In a letter, Poe wrote to a friend that he had “[become] insane” during the course of Virginia’s struggle against her illness. In the same letter, he described himself as “constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree.”
I mention these features of his personality because they may have bearing on his later years. At any rate, Poe had come to view his wife’s illness as his own — and therefore a cure lay in “the death of [his] wife.” Hardly a pleasant thought. During Virginia’s illness, despite having maintained abstinence from alcohol for many years, he turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. Following her death, he frequented her grave often.
Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published not long before Virginia’s death, was a runaway success, and established him as a household name. But following Virginia’s death, his behavior became erratic and unpredictable, likely due in part to his excessive alcohol consumption. For a time, he courted Sarah Helen Whitman, a fellow poet, but nothing ever came of their relationship. Poe returned to Richmond and re-established a relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, who he would propose to shortly before his mysterious demise.
And that brings us to where we began: October 3, 1949, some two years and nine months after the death of Poe’s wife Virginia. On September 27, Poe had left Richmond to head home to New York City. We don’t know what transpired during the six days between his departure from Richmond and his re-appearance on the streets of Baltimore.
He was found by a man named Joseph W. Walker, weak and delirious, in an establishment known as Ryan’s Tavern.
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…
Thus wrote Joseph W. Walker to Poe’s acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass. Snodgrass gave an account describing “[Poe’s face]… haggard, not to say bloated, and unwashed, his hair unkempt, and his whole physique repulsive… that full-orbed and mellow, yet soulful eye, for which he was so noticeable when himself, now lusterless and vacant…” If you want to read more of the account, you can find it here.
There are a few inconsistencies in Snodgrass’s narrative. For example, Snodgrass states that six days elapsed between the time when Poe entered the hospital and the day he died. Actually, only four days passed. But Snodgrass is right to attack the people who claimed Poe died “hours” after being admitted to the hospital, since certainly days did pass. Snodgrass claims that Poe did have lucid moments, one in which he exclaimed that “[his] best friend would be he who would take a pistol and blow out these d—d wretched brains!” — clearly indicating that he wished to be dead.
Snodgrass came to the definite conclusion that Poe’s disease was “mania a potu,” or, in English, the delirium caused by drunkenness, and that the moment when he asked his friends to kill him was one of the few moments of rationality he observed in Poe during his days in the hospital. Snodgrass rejects the notion that Poe’s death was the result of a “beating,” saying that there was no evidence for this.
But you should know something about Snodgrass. He was a temperance advocate, and may have used Poe’s death as a means of spreading his beliefs in the dangers of alcohol and alcoholism. For this reason, it’s very possible that his narrative lacks certain elements of credibility that we’d need to determine the true cause of the death of Edgar Allan Poe.
No death certificate for Poe has ever been found.
Meaning that we don’t know his declared cause of death. There may never have been a death certificate, or it may have been lost over the years.
Thus, it remains unclear whether Poe died of alcohol abuse, since the doctor who treated him — and who was one of the only people or perhaps the only person to see him in the few days leading up to his death — stated that Poe “had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person.”
Poe had attempted suicide in the past and nearly succeeded, but most researchers tend to agree that his death was probably not the result of a suicide attempt. However, he had likely been in a major depressive episode towards the end of his life, so suicide can’t be ruled out.
Others have presented evidence of various types of poisoning — mercury or lead most likely — and conditions ranging from diabetes to heart disease to cholera to rabies. Another theory holds that Poe could’ve fallen prey to a form of voting fraud known as cooping, in which victims were abducted, drugged, and used by political parties to vote at multiple locations. This theory gained traction because Poe was found on the day of an election at a polling place, a striking coincidence.
It’s likely we’ll never know what lay behind the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe. We can all speculate, though! It seems likely to me that Poe died of a disease relating to complications with his alcoholism (in the latter half of his life), though he could just as easily have died of complications from a suicide attempt or from cooping. Who can say? In the end, let’s remember him as the brilliant writer he was. I’ll close with some lines from “The Raven.”