Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most influential writers in the English language, was born January 19, 1809 to thespian parents who died when he was young. Poe would live only forty years but in those troubled years he became a poet and short story writer of the American Romantic movement whose work was so original and macabre that his name has become synonymous with mystery and intrigue two hundred years after his birth. Much of his life is a mystery and certainly his death remains one of the great mysteries in American folklore.
The sheer number of authors he has influenced and inspired is staggering; a fact recognized by every biographer that has studied his work. He is given credit to the birth of the detective story, as well as being extremely influential in the development of the modern horror and science fiction genre of writing.
His death in Baltimore, Maryland, October 7, 1849 has been surrounded by mystery from the very moment he was found unconscious in a Baltimore tavern a few days before he died in a hospital. Several theories have revolved around the reason for his death, which have included a gang beating, rabies, diabetic coma, meningitis, hypoglycemia, and alcohol poisoning.
For decades it was believed that Poe was the victim of political chicanery called “cooping.” In order to stuff the ballot box, ruffians were hired to find derelicts to vote in various voting precincts. They were plied with drink and drug and eventually discarded in the streets when the election was over. Poe was believed to be such a victim when he was found in a tavern wearing someone else’s ill-fitting clothes, an outfit that included a palm leaf hat.
Author John Evangelist Walsh’s Midnight Dreary, The Mysterious Death of Edgar A. Poe, offers a unique theory on how the writer died.
Walsh has rejected the many prevailing theories just outlined and for many good reasons. Only one person ever seriously advocated the theory of cooping during an October 1849 election, and according to Walsh there is no real evidence that this ever occurred. However, evidence that cooping existed within Baltimore has been reported within newspapers of the time, material that Walsh may have missed in his research. [Boulter, Edgar Allan Poe Society Web site]
In his book, Walsh has pieced together letters between some of Poe’s friends and acquaintances and pasted together a grand detective story suitable for its father.
It is common knowledge that Poe had financial problems during his life, which coupled with a low tolerance for alcohol caused him great grief. Less than year before his death in Baltimore, he was so despondent that he tried to kill himself with an overdose of laudanum, a highly addictive medicinal mixture of ethanol and opium that was one of the few anesthetics of the day.
In September of 1849, Poe allegedly asked his old childhood friend, Elmira Shelton, (and possible model for Leonore of the poem “The Raven”) to marry him. Though she supposedly accepted, her children and her brothers were shocked and begged her to reconsider. They believed, and possibly with merit, that the celebrated master of the macabre was a gold digger, who, given a chance, would use Elmira’s considerable wealth from a previous marriage to inaugurate and fund a magazine that Poe had been trying to launch for years – The Stylus.
Backed with reinterpretations of letters and various accounts concerning the affair, Walsh reconstructs the steps of Poe as he leaves Richmond, Virginia and travels to New York to retrieve his father’s sister, Mrs. Clemm for what he hoped to be a wedding in Richmond, a city where he spent considerable time growing up under the guardianship of John Allan. Walsh believes that Elmira’s brothers followed him. After being warned to stay clear of Elmira, Poe somehow escaped the brothers and tried to disguise himself with pauper’s clothes, which included a ridiculous, tattered palm leaf hat. Walsh believes Poe was trying to return to Richmond incognito in an effort to tell Elmira of his plight. Seeing that Poe was not heeding their advice, the brothers intercepted him again and forced liquor on him, hoping to incapacitate him, placing his debauchery in the papers, and thus ruining his chance at marriage.
In fact, Poe was found drunk in a tavern, not a gutter as legend has it. He died a few days later babbling incoherently about a man named Reynolds – a figure, Walsh surmises, that might or might not have played into the scheme, but nevertheless someone who remains a mystery.
Walsh writes that he believes that Poe spoke to a friend just a few days before his death concerning people following him and troubles with a woman. He had every reason to look forward to the future and no reason to do anything other than what he intended when he left Elmira: collect $100 for a lecture, which he desperately needed for his upcoming wedding; travel to his aunt in New York; and return to his fiancé. He had joined a temperance society just weeks earlier in hopes of ridding himself of any craving for alcohol.
In the end, as Walsh puts it: “From the barely moving lips came a murmur of something that the nurses reported as ‘God help my poor soul.’ The two women bent over the prostrate figure and found that his breathing had stopped.”
Poe was dead but not the mystery of his death nor the many mysteries he wrote.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy, Cooper Square, 2000.
Walsh, John E. Midnight Dreary, The Mysterious Death of Edgar A. Poe, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2000.
Edgar Allan Poe Society