The ongoing mystery of Edgar Allen Poe’s death

It’s a mystery that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the author’s famous stories: Edgar Allen Poe was found by a passer-by in October of 1849, lying in a gutter near a public house in Baltimore, delirious and dressed in shabby second-hand clothes that appeared not to belong to him. He was only semi-conscious, and unable to move, and couldn’t (or didn’t) say what had happened to him, or how he came to be there. Poe spent his final days wavering between fits of delirium, gripped by visual hallucinations. The night before his death, according to his attending physician, Poe repeatedly called out for “Reynolds”—a figure who, to this day, remains a mystery. The famous poet and author died four days later, but to this day, no one knows what happened to him.

Poe had departed Richmond, Virginia almost a week earlier, bound for Philadelphia, to edit a collection of poems for Mrs. St. Leon Loud, a minor figure in American poetry. But he never arrived. When he was found in the gutter, it was the first time anyone had heard or seen of him after he left Richmond. After editing the poem collection, he was supposed to travel to his home in New York, to escort his aunt back to Richmond for his impending wedding, but he never arrived in New York. His death certificate listed the cause of death as phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, but the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death have led many to speculate about the true cause. “Maybe it’s fitting that since he invented the detective story,” says Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, “he left us with a real-life mystery.”

Among the theories about his death are:

1) He was beaten by thugs: In 1867, biographer E. Oakes Smith theorized that Poe was beaten “at the instigation of a woman who considered herself injured by him,” and a brain fever followed. Eugene Didier wrote in 1872 that while he was in Baltimore, Poe ran into some friends who asked him to join them for drinks, and he became so intoxicated that he left his friends and wandered the streets, and was “robbed and beaten by ruffians, and left insensible in the street all night.” This theory doesn’t explain why Poe was wearing clothes that appeared to belong to someone else, however.

2) He was a victim of “cooping”: Some believe Poe died as a result of a practice called cooping, a method of voter fraud practiced by gangs in the 19th century, where an unsuspecting victim would be kidnapped, disguised and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under multiple identities — often under the influence of alcohol. Voter fraud was extremely common in Baltimore around the mid 1800s, and the polling site where Walker found the disheveled Poe was a known place that coopers brought their victims.

3) He drank himself to death: Poe was known to suffer from what appeared to be a hereditary inability to handle alcohol — he was said to get staggering drunk from a single glass of wine, a problem shared by his sister. Poe had earlier become ill, and after recovering his doctor said “another such attack could prove fatal.” Based on Poe’s comments about the incident, a number of people believed the attack had something to do with alcohol. His close friend J. P. Kennedy wrote in 1849 that Poe died “from the effects of a debauch. He fell in with some companions here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness.”

4) He died from a brain tumour: One of the most interesting theories about Poe’s death suggests he succumbed to a brain tumour. When Poe died, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore graveyard, but twenty-six years later, a statue was erected to honor him and his coffin was exhumed so he could be moved to the new location. The coffin collapsed while workers were moving it, and his skull fell out, along with a clump of something hard rattling around inside it. Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe’s death, was intrigued by this clump and asked a forensic pathologist what it might be, and the expert told him it could have been a tumour, which calcify after death into hard clumps.

5) He died from the flu: One theory suggests Poe died from the flu, which turned into pneumonia. In the days leading up to his departure from Richmond, the author visited a doctor, complaining of illness. His fiancee said he had a weak pulse and a fever. She and his doctor recommended he not make the trip to Philadelphia. So why was he wearing clothes that appeared not to be his own? According to newspaper reports from the time, it was raining in Baltimore, which some believe led to him changing into borrowed clothes after getting soaked. The cold and rain worsened his flu, they say, and he got pneumonia, which led to a fever, which caused his hallucinations and his confusion.

6) He was murdered: In his 2000 book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, author John Evangelist Walsh theorizes that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancée, Elmira Shelton. Using evidence from newspapers, letters and memoirs, Walsh argues that Poe actually made it to Philadelphia, where he was ambushed by Shelton’s three brothers, who warned Poe against marrying their sister. Frightened by the experience, Poe disguised himself in new clothes (accounting for, in Walsh’s mind, his second-hand clothing) and hid in Philadelphia for nearly a week, before heading back to Richmond to marry Shelton. Shelton’s brothers intercepted Poe in Baltimore, Walsh postulates, beat him, and forced him to drink whiskey, which they knew would send Poe into a deathly sickness.

(via Smithsonian magazine)

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