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Imagine a 19th century mystery that begins with a man slipping in and out of consciousness in a Baltimore hospital bed in clothes that are not his own. While he has periods of semi-lucidity, he is more often wracked by delirium, incoherently babbling and shouting out the name “Reynolds” to the puzzlement of all around him. After a short period of recovery, he suddenly takes a turn for the worse, says “Lord, help my poor soul!” and dies.
This is the 19th century, so the cause of death is listed as alcoholism, because how else can you explain such strange symptoms. But in reality, no one knows. Nor do they know how the man came to be found unconscious in a city he wasn’t supposed to be in wearing someone else’s clothes after having disappeared for five days.
It would be the perfect case for Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Morse or, dare we say, C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective to appear in fiction. This last investigator would be fitting as the scene is ripped from the real life and real death of his creator, Edgar Allan Poe.
On Oct. 7, 1849, Poe died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 40. His life may have been short, but it was filled with drama and turbulence—literary brilliance, scandal, tragedy, and heartbreak, some of which was due to life circumstances, some to circumstances of his own making.
Poe set the standard for what horror could achieve in fiction and invented the mystery genre. Then, in death, he embraced that Oscar Wilde quote that life imitates art with a demise that was worthy of his most eerie of gothic horrors. Nearly 170 years after he took his last breath, people are still speculating about what actually happened to Edgar Allan Poe.
“This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it”
From his earliest days, Poe’s life was difficult, filled with death and struggle. But things seemed to be turning a corner leading up to his final moments, at least according to some sources.
In 1842, Poe’s wife Virginia (also his cousin, who was 13 when the 27-year-old married her), was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Her five-year-long illness was harrowing and Poe wrote that watching her painfully deteriorate had rendered him “insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Never a stranger to the bottle, it had also magnified his alcoholic tendencies.
But in the two years after Virginia’s death, Poe had begun to pull himself out of his downward spiral. His career was better than ever, and taking medical advice, he had become a member of the Sons of Temperance and was allegedly giving sobriety a try. He was also finally engaged to the woman he had fallen in love with while in college, and was planning to marry her after a short speaking trip to New York.
But those marriage vows would never be taken. On Sept. 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond bound for New York. He arrived in Baltimore on the 28th during a short ferry layover, and there his trail went cold. Poe never showed up in Manhattan and for five days his whereabouts were—and continue to be—entirely unknown.
The story picks back up on Oct. 3, an election day, when a Baltimore Sun typesetter happened upon a man lying in the street outside of the Gunner’s Hall tavern. The man was a mess—shabbily dressed and incoherent. The newspaper employee was shocked to recognize that it was the famous author Poe.
Poe was able to give the good Samaritan, Joseph Walker, the name of an editor he knew in town. Walker wrote an urgent letter to the man saying Poe “appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.” He signed it, “Yours, in haste,” then took Poe to the hospital.
Poe died several days later, and with that, his last great mystery was born.
The initial debate surrounding his cause of death was focused almost single-mindedly on whether or not the writer was a drunkard. It was reported that he passed due to “congestion of the brain,” a polite way of saying “the drink.” And this theory was backed up by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a literary critic and enemy of Poe’s who wrote the New York Tribune’s obituary of the writer.
“This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it,” Griswold wrote in his harsh remembrance that was picked up by papers around the country. “The poet was known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the States of Continental Europe, but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.”
While Griswold and many who knew Poe pointed to the fact that he was a notorious drinker, others argued that he really had embraced sobriety in that last period of his life, though that’s no guarantee that he didn’t fall off the wagon in Baltimore. But John Moran, Poe’s doctor in his final days, noted that the course of his illness did not conform with that of a deadly bout of alcohol poisoning.
And so, for over a hundred years, speculation has raged on. The Poe Museum compiled a list of the theories that have been proposed over the years. These include syphilis, cholera, diabetes, epilepsy, tuberculosis, carbon monoxide poisoning, and a heart problem.
In addition to medical causes, there are also theories that sometime of a more nefarious nature occurred. Perhaps he was beaten to death or murdered—though there is more solid credence for the theory that he was a victim of a peculiarly dastardly practice in the day known as “cooping.”
At the time, politicians were known to hire local goons to kidnap random men on the street, force drugs or a copious amount of alcohol in them, then send them to the polls again and again, changing their outfits every time, in order to ensure themselves the vote. Given that Poe was found on an election day in a stranger’s clothes has given this hypothesis some plausibility over the years.
But more recent scholarship suggests that the medical causes can’t be ruled out. In 1996, doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center published a report that theorized Poe’s symptoms in his final days, including his moments of clarity in the middle of delirium and his disinterest in drinking water, suggested a case of rabies might have been to blame.
In 2007, writer Matthew Pearl, who was researching Poe’s final days for a novel, found clues that Poe may have had a brain tumor. Twenty-six years after Poe died, the cemetery he had been buried in (during a funeral attended by only seven people) decided to upgrade his plot. The process included exhuming and moving his body, a process local papers reported on with surprise as they caught a look at the state of Poe’s brain: “The cerebral mass... evidenced no sign of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished.”
Consulting with forensic experts, Pearl discovered that it was impossible that these reports were accurate. After the amount of time that Poe had been in the grave, there is no way that his brain would still exist. What could linger in a skull, however, was a hard, shrunken tumor that formerly occupied the now-decayed brain.
Pearl’s research added yet another plausible theory to the long list of possible resolutions to Poe’s last, and possibly greatest, mystery, one that continues to this day.
As Pearl told The Guardian, “You can have a brain tumor and still get actually killed by something else.”