Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849, but historians still disagree on exactly what caused his untimely and horrific demise.
The year is 1849. A man is found, delirious, on the streets of a city in which he does not live, wearing clothing that is not his own, incapable or unwilling to discuss the circumstances under which he arrived. Within days he is dead, having suffered from crippling hallucinations in his final hours, repeatedly calling out for a man whom no one knew.
The story of Edgar Allan Poe’s death is as chilling as his own writings, so much so that had he told it himself it could have been a bestseller. Though historians have spent the past century and a half pouring over the details of the event, there is still so much that remains a mystery.
What historians do know is relatively little.
Six days before his death, and not long before he was to be married, the poet Edgar Allan Poe disappeared.
He had left his home in Richmond, Va. on Sept. 27, 1849, bound for Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for a friend. On Oct. 3, he was found semi-conscious and incoherent outside a public house in Baltimore. It was later revealed that Poe had never made it to Philadelphia and that no one had seen him in the six days since he’d left.
How he’d gotten to Baltimore was unknown. He either didn’t seem to know where he was or chose not to reveal why he was there. When he was found, wandering outside a local pub, Poe was wearing heavily soiled, shabby clothing that was clearly not his own. Once again, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide a reason for his current state.
He was, however, able to communicate one thing. The man who found him, a local typesetter for the Baltimore Sun named Joseph Walker, claimed that Poe was coherent only long enough to provide him with a name – Joseph E. Snodgrass, an editor friend of Poe’s who happened to have some medical training.
Fortunately, Walker was able to reach Snodgrass by 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.”
Within a few hours, Snodgrass arrived, accompanied by an uncle of Poe’s. Neither they or any of Poe’s other family members could explain his behavior or his absence. The pair brought Poe to the Washington College Hospital, where he fell into a blind fever.
For four days, Poe was wracked with fever dreams and vivid hallucinations. Repeatedly he would call out for someone named Reynolds, though none of Poe’s family or friends knew anyone by that name – as with most of the details the identity of this Reynolds remains a mystery.
Eventually, on Oct. 7, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe succumbed to his affliction. His official cause of death was initially listed as phrenitis or swelling of the brain. However, these records have since disappeared. Today, historians have more than a few theories, each as sordid as the next.
One of the most popular theories, supported by Snodgrass himself, was that Poe drank himself to death, or was a victim of “cooping.” Cooping was a method of voter fraud in which gangs would kidnap citizens, force-feed them alcohol, and take their drunken victims door to door at election houses in order to sway a vote. As it was, Poe had a reputation as a notorious lightweight, and many of his acquaintances claimed it took no more than a glass of wine to make him sick, lending merit to the theory that he imbibed too much – whether on purpose or by force.
However, another physician, who tested Poe’s postmortem hair samples, claimed that in the months before his death Poe had been avoiding virtually all alcohol. It was this analysis made way for other theories about the mystery writer’s mysterious death to arise.
In the 169 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s death, his body has been exhumed, and the remains studied countless times. Most diseases, such as influenza and rabies have been cast aside, though a few researchers claim that it’s impossible to prove that either disease didn’t kill him. Other theories that involve poisoning of any kind have also been debunked as additional studies done on Poe’s post-mortem hair samples revealed no evidence.
However, one recent theory seems to have some merit.
When Poe was exhumed, in order to be moved from his unmarked Baltimore grave to a much nicer one, there was a slight mishap. After twenty-six years underground, the structural integrity of both Poe’s skeleton and the coffin it lay in was pretty much zero, and the entire thing broke apart. One of the workers who was tasked with putting the pieces back together noticed a strange feature in Poe’s skull – a small, hard something rolling around inside it.
Immediately physicians jumped at the information, claiming it was evidence of a brain tumor. Though the brain itself is one of the first body parts to degrade, brain tumors have been known to calcify after the degradation of the brain, and remain in the skull. The brain tumor theory has yet to have a hole poked in it, though of course, it has also yet to be corroborated by more experts.
Last but not least, as is to be expected in the death of such a mysterious man, there are those that theorize that foul play was involved. An Edgar Allan Poe historian named John Evangelist Walsh theorized that Poe was murdered by the family of his fiance, whom he had been staying with, in Richmond before his death. Walsh claims that the family of Poe’s fiance, Elmira Shelton, didn’t want her to marry such a man and that after threats against Poe failed to drive them apart, the family was driven to murder.
Of course, even 169 years later, the death of Edgar Allan Poe is still as mysterious as ever, which, naturally, is fitting. After all, he practically invented the detective mystery; it should come as no surprise that he left the world in a real-life one.