Sunday, October 7, 2012
Edgar A. Poe Dies in Baltimore Hospital 1849
The death of Edgar Allan Poe on October 7, 1849, has remained mysterious: the circumstances leading up to it are uncertain and the cause of death is disputed. On October 3, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, "in great distress, and ... in need of immediate assistance," according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died at 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.
Much of the extant information about the last few days of Poe's life comes from his attending physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran, though his credibility is questionable. Poe was buried after a small funeral at the back of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, but his remains were moved to a new grave with a larger monument in 1875. It has been questioned whether the correct corpse was moved. The 1875 monument also marks the burial place of Poe's wife, Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria. Theories as to what caused Poe's death include suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, and that Poe was a victim of cooping. Evidence of the influence of alcohol is strongly disputed.
After Poe's death, Rufus Wilmot Griswold wrote his obituary under the pseudonym "Ludwig." Griswold, who became the literary executor of Poe's estate, was actually a rival of Poe and later published his first full biography, depicting him as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. Much of the evidence for this image of Poe is believed to have been forged by Griswold, and though friends of Poe denounced it, this interpretation had lasting impact.
All medical records and documents, including Poe's death certificate, have been lost, if they ever existed. The precise cause of Poe's death is disputed, but many theories exist. Many biographers have addressed the issue and reached different conclusions, ranging from Jeffrey Meyers's assertion that it was hypoglycemia to John Evangelist Walsh's conspiratorial murder plot theory. It has also been suggested that Poe's death might have resulted from suicide related to depression. In 1848, he nearly died from an overdose of laudanum, readily available as a tranquilizer and pain killer. Though it is unclear if this was a true suicide attempt or just a miscalculation on Poe's part, it did not lead to Poe's death a year later.
Snodgrass was convinced that Poe died from alcoholism and did a great deal to popularize this idea. He was a supporter of the temperance movement and found Poe a useful example in his temperance work. However, Snodgrass's writings on the topic have been proven untrustworthy. Moran contradicted Snodgrass by stating in his own 1885 account that Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant. Moran claimed that Poe "had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person." Even so, some newspapers at the time reported Poe's death as "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation," euphemisms for deaths from disgraceful causes such as alcoholism. In a study of Poe, a psychologist suggested that Poe had dipsomania, a condition that causes frequent seizures that lead to excesses, often alcoholic, during which the victim cannot remember what has happened to him or her.
However, Poe's characterization as an uncontrollable alcoholic is disputed. His drinking companion for a time, Thomas Mayne Reid, admitted that the two engaged in wild "frolics" but that Poe "never went beyond the innocent mirth in which we all indulge... While acknowledging this as one of Poe's failings, I can speak truly of its not being habitual." Some believe Poe had a severe susceptibility to alcohol and became drunk after one glass of wine. He only drank during difficult periods of his life and sometimes went several months at a time without alcohol. Adding further confusion about the frequency of Poe's use of alcohol was his membership in the Sons of Temperance at the time of his death. William Glenn, who administered Poe's pledge, wrote years later that the temperance community had no reason to believe Poe had violated his pledge while in Richmond. Suggestions of a drug overdose have also been proven to be untrue, though it is still often reported. Thomas Dunn English, an admitted enemy of Poe and a trained doctor, insisted that Poe was not a drug user. He wrote: "Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere – I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander."
Numerous other causes of death have been proposed over the years, including several forms of rare brain disease or a brain tumor, diabetes, various types of enzyme deficiency, syphilis, apoplexy, delirium tremens, epilepsy and meningeal inflammation. A doctor named John W. Francis examined Poe in May 1848 and believed Poe had heart disease, which Poe later denied. A 2006 test of a sample of Poe's hair provides evidence against the possibility of lead poisoning, mercury poisoning, and similar toxic heavy-metal exposures. Cholera has also been suggested. Poe had passed through Philadelphia in early 1849 during a cholera epidemic. He got sick during his time in the city and wrote a letter to his aunt, Maria Clemm, saying that he may "have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad."
Because Poe was found on the day of an election, it was suggested as early as 1872 that he was the victim of cooping. This was a ballot-box-stuffing scam in which victims were shanghaied, drugged, and used as a pawn to vote for a political party at multiple locations. Cooping had become the standard explanation for Poe's death in most of his biographies for several decades, though his status in Baltimore may have made him too recognizable for this scam to have worked. More recently, credible evidence that Poe's death resulted from rabies has been presented.