What’s the Real Story Behind Edgar Allan Poe’s Death?
Was it alcoholism, rabies, or a violent election day scam? More than 160 years later, the burning question remains: What killed Edgar Allan Poe?By Matthew Thompson January 19, 2015
Edgar Allan Poe’s eeriest tale may be the real-life mystery of his unexplained death.
It was a rainy night in October 1849 when the master of the macabre was found slumped in a gutter on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and dressed in ill-fitting clothes. A typesetter for the Baltimore Sun spotted the babbling author and rushed him to Washington College Hospital. Four fitful nights later, a hallucinating Poe finally succumbed to his delirium.
Doctors were unable to determine just how Edgar ended up in such a ragged state. Over the years, Poe researchers have crafted their own answers. Here are the 6 most intriguing possibilities.
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1. Poe died of cooping
Poe was discovered on election night outside Gunner’s Hall, a pop-up polling station for the day’s events. Many believe the author fell prey to a bizarre brand of voter fraud from the 19th century known as “cooping.” Cooping gangs would kidnap a victim and strong-arm him into repeatedly voting for a candidate under different identities. Disguises were often involved – as was forced consumption of drugs or alcohol. Given Poe’s strange costume, his woozy state and proximity to the ballot box, perhaps the author was duped in the name of bully democracy.
2. Poe died of a previous illness
Poe was on the road when he died in Baltimore, having left Richmond, Virginia for Philadelphia. In the days before his departure, the author reportedly visited a physician, complaining of a fever and weak pulse. Both Poe’s doctor and his wife-to-be advised against the journey. What’s more, Poe reportedly passed through Philadelphia in the midst of a cholera epidemic earlier that year, and was convinced he had contracted the contagion. Given his frail immune system and the dreary weather that fateful night, Poe may have very well slipped into a deadly fever.
3. Poe died of alcoholism
This prevailing death theory is also the most problematic when you start to dig around. Rufus Wilmont Griswold penned Poe’s obituary shortly after his death. While a colleague of Poe’s, Griswold was also one of his biggest rivals. The not-so-fond memorial painted Edgar as a friendless soul prone to addiction. The following year, Griswold published a posthumous collection of Poe’s work, in which he concocted outright lies about the author as a hopeless drunk. Even Poe’s close associate in Baltimore Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass – a fervent advocate of the temperance movement – saw an opportunity in Poe’s death, repeatedly blaming it on the evils of drink. For the record, Poe did struggle with alcohol – though evidence suggests he was trying to get sober. Perhaps he still took a deadly spill from the wagon that rainy night in October.
4. Poe died of rabies
In 1996, doctors attending a medical conference were asked to inspect the health files of anonymous patients and provide a diagnosis. Dr. R. Michael Benitez received a file on “E.P.” – a writer from Richmond. After assessing each symptom – confusion, hallucinations, lethargy, shallow breathing – he delivered a diagnosis of rabies. E.P., of course, turned out to be Poe, and news of Dr. Benitez’s inadvertent discovery sent shockwaves through the literary community. Turns out, rabies was a fairly common virus in the 19th century, though it is impossible to prove without DNA evidence. Nevertheless, as Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House Museum in Baltimore, points out: “This is the first time since Poe died that a medical person looked at Poe’s death without any preconceived notions. Dr. Benitez had no agenda.”
5. Poe died of a brain tumor
After his death, Poe was quickly buried in an unmarked grave. Twenty-six years later, his corpse was exhumed for a more proper burial. According to reports, one gravedigger noticed something striking about Poe’s skull – a solid mass rattling around inside. Some now believe this mass was a brain tumor, which can sometimes harden into a ball after death. Author Matthew Pearl explores the theory in his historical thriller The Poe Shadow. If true, Poe’s erratic behavior and feverish disposition on the night of October 3 may have been physiological rather than chemically induced.
6. Poe was murdered
Author John Evangelist Walsh offers a far more sinister explanation of Poe’s demise. In his book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe Walsh accuses the brothers of Poe’s wealthy wife-to-be of murder, suggesting they were none to happy about welcoming the author into their family. According to Walsh’s theory, Poe was actually hiding out from the brothers that night in Baltimore – hence the strange clothes. Alas, the siblings still tracked down Edgar, beating him and forcing alcohol down his throat until he was nevermore.
A less conspiratorial theory that still ends in bloodshed contends that Poe had too many drinks that fateful night in October, and was the victim of a violent bar brawl or a deadly mugging.[via Smithsonian and the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore]
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Gray Lensman