Even 165 years after Poe’s death, we still have little idea what ended his life.
This is what we know for sure:
On September 27, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond, Virginia with $1,500. One week later a Baltimore printer by the name of Joseph W. Walker sent a letter to a Joseph E. Snodgrass, writing:
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, and he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you he is in need of immediate assistance.
That same day, October 3, Poe had been found in or about Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore. Gone was his trademark black wool suit; he was instead wearing uncharacteristically shabby and tattered clothes. Delirious, he was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he was sequestered in a drunk tank. Mostly incoherent when he awoke, Poe was denied visitors at the hospital and died there on October 7, 1849. If medical records and documents regarding his death were ever drafted, they have all since been lost.
So what happened?
There are a number of theories regarding Poe’s death, and they range from plausible to disturbing to downright insane. Here are some of the most interesting:
Possible Cause of Death No. 1: Alcoholism
Joseph E. Snodgrass, a temperance man, believed that alcoholism drove Poe into delirium and, ultimately, death. Snodgrass’s testimony, however, has since been disputed, with accusations claiming that his views on alcohol led him to manipulate the facts.
That said, Poe’s friend Susan T. Weiss offers some support to Snodgrass’s theory: Writing well after the fact in 1878, Weiss recalls one of Poe’s last days in Richmond in 1849. She describes the poet then as “so pale, so tremulous and apparently subdued as to convince me that he had been seriously ill.” According to her, Poe made a recovery from his “relapse,” then suffered another one, from which he also recovered. He was told by doctors that “another such attack would prove fatal,” to which he responds that “if people would not tempt him, he would not fall.”
Possible Cause of Death No. 2: A Whole Grabbag of Health Problems
Brain lesions, heart disease, cholera, enzyme disorder, tuberculosis, epilepsy, diabetes, rabies — theories abound about any one of these, or a couple in conjunction, killing Poe. He himself noted in a letter to his aunt Maria Clemm on July 7, 1849 that he had “been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen.” He later wrote, on July 19, that he was in better health, but Poe was occasionally in denial about his medical problems, like in May of 1848 when he rejected a doctor’s heart disease diagnosis. The author was also quite secretive about his health and his past. A nurse who had cared for Poe’s first wife Virginia noted in a letter that “I have seen the scar of the wound in the left shoulder, when helping [Maria] change [Poe’s] dress or clothes while ill. She said only Virginia knew about it.”
Possible Cause of Death No. 3: After Effects of a Robbery
The $1,500 that Poe took with him from Richmond has a number of possible origins:
1. It was a collection for subscriptions to his magazine, The Stylus;
2. It was at least partially an advance for an article;
3. It was the profits from a lecture he had delivered.
Regardless where the money came from, it was gone by the time Poe was found on October 3, indicating that the author may have been robbed. A mugging would also explain his poor physical and mental states.
Possible Cause of Death No. 4: “Cooping”
The political landscape of the 1800s was rife with corruption — judges were bribed, election ballots forged and politically motivated assaults committed. “Cooping” was a form of coercing undecided voters by kidnapping them, plying them with alcohol, beatings or both, then forcing them to vote, sometimes repeatedly in disguise under various aliases.
Some scholars dismiss the theory that Poe may have been a victim of cooping due to his recognizability in and around the Baltimore area. Cooping would, however, explain his change of clothing. Furthermore, Alexander Hynds, an attorney who traveled in circles similar to Poe, claims to have seen a man almost identical to the author near the polls on October 3 — election day. If Poe had been “cooped,” the forced intoxication and/or physical violence may explain his delirium and eventual death.
So, what do you think? Which of the above theories sounds the most plausible? Which sounds the most insane? Have you heard of/come up with any other theories about Poe’s death? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
Nicholas Laskin is a Los Angeles-based writer who primarily works in screenwriting but also dabbles in prose and journalism. He is the co-creator of the upcoming web series Talents and has worked for the American Film Institute and Sundance. In his spare time, he can be found doing one of the following things: reading, writing, binge-watching movies, making meager efforts at the gym or seeking out exotic and possibly dangerous Thai food.
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