Edgar Allan Poe, master of the macabre, is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. Timeless prose and poems such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven still give spine-chilling experiences and grim amusement to readers, even though more than a hundred sixty years have passed since he died. As it turns out, Poe’s life and death were as captivating as his legendary stories and characters. His wife died at the age of 24, which, coincidentally, is the same age of death as both his mother and brother. Poe devoted the rest of his life to writing and editing, but suffered from further personal tragedy, as well as alcoholism and literary scandal.
While on a lecture tour of the East Coast, Poe rekindled his romance with a former lover, Elmira Royster Shelton, by then a wealthy widow, and eventually they were set to wed. Ten days before the wedding, however, he was found on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland “in great distress and… in need of immediate assistance,” according to the man who found him. While on the verge of death, Poe was never coherent enough to explain the cause of his condition, eventually dying in the hospital on October 7, 1849.
When Poe was found in the streets that night, he was wearing shabby clothes that were very uncharacteristic of his usual attire. Joseph Snodgrass, a friend of his and one of the few people who was with him during his last hours, said in a first-hand account that his clothing included an ill-fitting dirty shirt and unpolished shoes. Dr. John Joseph Moran, Poe’s attending physician, had his own detailed account of Poe’s appearance: “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.”
He was hospitalized for a number days after he was discovered in the streets. However, his condition didn’t improve and he drifted in and out of consciousness. On the night before his death, he repeatedly called out the name, ‘Reynolds,’ but no one ever discovered of whom he was referring.
Poe’s medical records and death certificate disappeared, never to be found again. With no documentation, theories and speculations have swirled around his adult life, even more so when a libelous obituary came out shortly after his death that labeled him as a drunk and drug addict for much of his literary career.
Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous obituary, and, later, his biography. In reality, however, Griswold was a professional and personal rival of Poe. This obituary, which Griswold signed as “Ludwig” to hide his identity, portrayed the poet as a mad, depraved, drunk, drug fiend. Although Poe’s friends denounced the defamations, this portrayal put an indelible stain on the author’s image.
The night he was found delirious in the streets of Baltimore was the same day as an election. Many speculate that Poe was the victim of cooping – a fraudulent voting practice in the 19th century where people were coerced to vote, often several times, and forced to wear disguises. Cooping was known to be widespread in Baltimore in the 1800’s, and the night Poe was found in his incapacitated state, his frail body lay in an area where coopers often brought their victims.
Snodgrass attended to Poe during his time of need, but was convinced that the writer died from alcoholism. As an advocate of the temperance movement – a social crusade that urges moderate consumption of alcohol, he made efforts to popularize this notion as an example of its harmful effects. Moran contradicted Snodgrass’ claim by saying in his 1885 account that Poe was not under any intoxicant when he died.
Theories of his demise have ranged from death by beating to carbon monoxide poisoning to alcohol withdrawal, and many of these theories have been published over the years. The Edgar Allan Poe museum houses a list of these publications.
There were reportedly so few people attending his funeral (numbers have been put at somewhere between seven to ten), that the reverend presiding over it decided not to bother with a sermon. The entire ceremony lasted three minutes.
Death is a recurring element in Poe’s works, and, ironically, it seems that it also haunted his own life. His death remains surrounded by questions these many years later, and seems to echo his own dark poetry. He may no longer be with us in this world, but as Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia said, “He left us with a real-life mystery.”
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