Edgar Allan Poe’s Strange Death
Posted by WCPLtn
By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Edgar Allan Poe, famous American author and the first American writer of mysteries, was a mystery himself. His death is still a mystery. Not that he died, of course, but exactly how and why.
Poe had never been wealthy from his writings. From time to time he did well, but the money was gone sooner or later. One of the problems was the lack of copyright laws. Anyone could publish his works, poems and short stories, and that person would reap the benefits, not Poe. And this happened quite often. His “detective” stories were very popular—everyone wanted to make money from them. He was, after all, the father of the mystery genre. There would be no Sherlock Holmes without Poe.
He had to drop out of the University of Virginia for lack of funds (his step-father didn’t give him enough money to complete the year). He was so poor that he had to burn his dorm furniture to stay warm!! He was engaged to marry Elmira Royster, but when he went to visit her after his first and last year of college, she had become engaged to someone else. He went back to Baltimore to throw himself upon the mercy of his relatives. His aunt, Maria Clemm, took him in; she also had a daughter, Virginia, whom Poe developed a passion for. A job took him to Richmond, VA; there he became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. He became known for his criticisms of authors and their works. He was usually correct, but in this time where for a bribe critics wrote good criticism, he stood out as honest, but also made enemies. He made one in the Reverend Rufus Griswold.
We have to set the scene a little: Poe had been living in Richmond, VA, with his Aunt Maria, and his wife, Virginia, who died from Tuberculosis at age 24. (He had married her when she was 15.) He was devastated when she died, and didn’t write anything for months. He was in demand as a speaker and was trying to set up a new literary magazine which he would be editor of. He returned to Richmond to visit Elmira Royster, the fiancée who had jilted him. He learned that she was a widow and asked for her hand in marriage (again.)
Poe was on his way to Philadelphia from Richmond to edit some poems for a Mrs. St. Leon Loud. Then he was to go to New York and bring his aunt down to be with him for his wedding. His fiancée told him he looked ill, and he did go see a doctor. Dr. Carter suggested he delay his trip a few days, but he went anyway. He never made it to either city. Somehow he ended up in Baltimore, delirious and ill, in dirty ragged clothing, obviously not his own, without any luggage.
He was found outside of a polling place and bar – it was an election day, and this bar was a pop-up station. You went to vote (correction – the men got to vote) and then have a drink or two. The man who found Poe recognized him, and sent a letter to a friend of Poe’s, Joseph Snodgrass, who, luckily, had had some medical training. A letter was sent asking him to come at once. His own person doctor, Dr. Moran, also cared for him as he lay dying. He spent four days in and out of fever, never able to explain what happened to him. He did say one word, “Reynolds!!” but no one ever found out who he meant to call for. He was said to have said out loud, “Lord, help my poor soul,” and died. As to what cause his death? There are many theories, but no true cause of death was ever found.
As to what might have killed him? Here is a list of possibilities
- He could have been mugged, and died from his injuries (there is such a thing called cooping, a form of ballot-box stuffing which involved kidnapping and taking the person to vote at many polling places—many have dismissed this because Poe would have been too well recognized)
- He could have ingested some kind of poison, either by his own hand of by someone else’s (In 2006, doctors test a sample of his hair and found no evidence of lead or metal poisoning)
- He could have died from alcoholism – even though he was known to drink moderately. Like many authors, coffee was his drug for writing late into the night
- He could have been murdered – this seems to be a bit farfetched since he was in the hospital for four days, but it could have happened
- He could have died from suicide complications (but why, he was getting married in ten days?)
- He could have died of rabies or epilepsy
- He could have died of carbon monoxide poisoning – no one was aware of this issue, and he was known to have burned anything to keep warm
- He could have had a heart attack, diabetes or even cholera
- He could even have died from rabies
No autopsy was performed—he was buried two days after he died, and evidently there was a great frenzy to have a lock of his hair as he was taken to the cemetery. No one has ever found a death certificate—it could have been lost or stolen by Dr. Moran or anyone seeking to have a piece of the great man Poe. He was buried in an unmarked grave; a headstone was later added, but was destroyed in a wreck. He was reburied in 1875, with the remains of his wife, Virginia and Aunt Maria.
One final insult to Poe’s memory was the obituary published anonymously, later known to have been written by Reverend Griswold. Griswold was still very mad at Poe, and in his obituary described Poe as a drunk, a womanizer and a man with no morals. Unfortunately, this was considered Poe’s real character for over a century, until people began to learn more about what kind of person he really had been. Unfortunately for Griswold, he never became as famous as Poe, which was all he wanted.
Further Resources at our library:
- The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe (818.309 PEE)
- The Beautiful cigar girl: Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Rogers and the invention of murder (813.3 STA)
- Poe-land: the hallowed haunts of Edgar Allan Poe (818.309 OCK)
- Midnight dreary: the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe (818.309 WAL)
- Edgar A Poe: mournful and never-ending remembrance (92 Poe)
- Edgar Allan Poe: the fever called living (818.309 COL)
- The Annotated Poe (818.309 POE)
- Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes (823.8 SIM)