The Most Mysterious Thing About Edgar Allan Poe Might Be How He Died
If it had been the ending of one of his stories, critics might have said it was unbelievable. But Edgar Allan Poe’s death, which came suddenly and without a definitive cause, was very real—and it's just as mysterious today as it was when it happened.
On October 3, 1849—Congressional election day in Baltimore—a typesetter for the Baltimore Sun named Joseph W. Walker spotted Poe near a tavern that was being used as a polling place. The writer was disheveled, barely awake, and dressed in clothes that weren’t his own. Poe struggled to speak or move, but was coherent long enough to mention the name of Joseph E. Snodgrass, an editor and physician friend. Walker reached out to Snodgrass in a note: “There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe and who appears in great distress,” Walker wrote, “and he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.”
The situation hadn’t improved by the time Snodgrass arrived a little while later, accompanied by one of Poe's uncles. Poe was delirious and couldn’t provide any clues as to what had landed him wandering the streets in a shabby outfit that clearly didn’t belong to him. The people close to him also weren’t any help: Poe had been missing for six days before his sudden reappearance, so how he ended up near the tavern, let alone in Baltimore, was a mystery.
The last anyone had seen of him was September 27. He had been staying in Richmond, Virginia, where his new fiancee lived. He told her he was heading to Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems, but there was no clear record of him ever arriving in the city. Instead, he next surfaced in Baltimore nearly a week later, clinging to life.
Poe died at Washington College Hospital on October 7. He spent the days leading up to his death tortured by hallucinations and fever dreams. At one point he called out the name “Reynolds” several times, though the identity of this person has never been discovered. His official cause of death, by some accounts, was listed as phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, but the medical records have disappeared, and some historians believe the full story is much darker—and more complicated.
Many experts at the time, including Snodgrass, held that Poe drank himself to death. It was well-known that Poe had a hard time holding his alcohol, and according to some sources, all it took was a glass of wine to make him sick. The alcohol theory remains popular today, but one crucial piece of evidence runs against it—lead was frequently added to wine in the 19th century, and as Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe House in Richmond, Virginia, explained to Smithsonian.com, lead analysis of Poe's postmortem hair samples suggests he'd been avoiding alcohol toward the end of his life. Other theorists also believe Poe was suffering from some kind of poisoning or sickness, but blame carbon monoxide, mercury, rabies, the flu, or a brain tumor for his demise.
Then there are the more colorful theories, which posit foul play was involved. In 1857, biographer E. Oakes Smith claimed that Poe was viciously beaten by a man defending a woman’s honor. A few years later, a different writer published a story of a drunken Poe being attacked by muggers in the days leading up to his death.
Another group of theorists think that Poe was the victim of a deadly voter fraud scheme. During 19th century elections, gangs would sometimes kidnap people and force them to vote for the same candidate multiple times, wearing a different disguise each time to hide their identity. This practice was known as cooping, and it was prevalent in Baltimore at the time of Poe’s death. Voters were usually given booze as a reward for performing their civic duty, so if lightweight Poe was forced to vote over and over again, that could explain the sloppy state in which he was found. The theory also provides the most solid explanation for why he was wearing a stranger’s outfit. The fact that Poe was discovered on Election Day not far from a polling spot that was a common cooping target makes this one of the more popular possibilities.
Of course, there’s also a school of thought that says Poe was murdered. According to this theory, which was formulated by writer John Evangelist for his 1998 book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe did make it to Philadelphia after leaving Richmond. There he was confronted by his fiancee's brothers, who were dead-set against him marrying their sister. After the scuffle, Poe changed into new clothes to disguise himself, hid in Philadelphia for a week, and eventually retreated to Baltimore. But the brothers followed him there and further antagonized him by beating him and forcing him to drink whiskey, which they knew would have a terrible effect.
Though it’s not impossible, this theory is based more on conjecture than hard evidence and isn’t a favorite among experts. In a review for the journal Poe Studies, Poe scholar Benjamin F. Fischer had this to say about Walsh's book:
"Had Walsh stated forthrightly that he was presenting us with a novel, in the detection vein, about Poe’s demise—not a work of academic scholarship—I, for one, would find Midnight Dreary a far more palatable accomplishment […] As it is, Walsh gives us far too many conjectural sentences and phrasings, along with too much shuffling aside of any previous bit of work that does not offer direct support to his thesis."
Over 168 years later, the questions surrounding Poe’s death make it one of the literary world's greatest unsolved mysteries. Despite his macabre reputation, that’s a legacy the writer likely would have been happy to leave behind.
Additional source: Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses