The Strange Demise of Edgar Allen Poe

November 20, 2022

Edgar Allen Poe Portrait

American writer Edgar Allen Poe is regarded as the inventor of the detective fiction genre and was known for his short stories and poems of dark romanticism. But the author’s end of life imitated his art as his death has been cloaked in mystery. What happened to Edgar Allen Poe?

Poe had been on a speaking tour that started in June 1849. The months passed before Poe was supposed to leave Richmond, Virginia, on September 27, 1849, by steamer ferry to Baltimore, Maryland, and then on to New York. But Poe never made it to New York. He stopped in Baltimore on September 28, 1849, and for the next five days, no one knew the whereabouts of Poe.

On October 3, 1849, Joseph Walker, a printer for the Baltimore Sun, found Poe outside of the Gunner’s Hall tavern. Poe was intoxicated and almost unresponsive. He also appeared to be in dirty clothes that were not his own, as he usually wore a black wool suit.

Walker sent a note to J.E. Snodgrass, an acquaintance of Poe in Baltimore, asking for help. Poe was sent to Washington College Hospital for patients who were ill due to intoxication. He went in and out of consciousness for the next few days and had bouts of hallucinations. When he spoke, his words were incoherent. According to his attending physician, Dr. John J. Moran, Poe repeatedly said the name “Reynolds,” the night before his death. Who “Reynolds” was remains a mystery today.

Poe died on October 7, 1849. A Baltimore newspaper reported that his death was caused by “congestion of the brain.” But what happened in those five days Poe was missing, and how did he end up in the state he was in outside Gunner’s Hall tavern? That is the mystery that no one has been able to answer, but there are many interesting theories.

Theories to Poe’s Disappearance and Death

A Victim of Cooping

Cooping was a common method of voter fraud in the 1800s, where victims were kidnapped by gangs, disguised, and forced to vote for a particular candidate several times. Poe was found on Election Day, and Gunner’s Hall was a polling location. The tavern was also known to be where coopers would bring their victims. This would help explain why Poe was wearing different clothes. Cooping is the most widely held belief on what happened to Poe that day in October 1849.

Beaten and Robbed

There is a theory that Poe was beaten by “ruffians” after becoming intoxicated with a group of friends from West Point. As the theory goes, Poe, who became drunk, wandered the streets and was robbed and beaten by these “ruffians.” There is also a mention that Poe may have drawn the ire of a woman, and she had him beaten as payback. These accounts originated in 1872 and 1867.

Alcoholism

Poe reportedly had a significant problem with alcohol and became intoxicated with only a little alcohol, to the point of quickly becoming a staggering drunk. It was said to stem from a heredity issue with alcohol, which his sister also suffered from.

Poe was a supporter of the temperance movement, but he was still known to have given in to the temptation of drinking. This theory holds that Poe did give in to a bout of drinking, which ultimately caused his demise. This was the theory given by his acquaintance, Snodgrass, who was also a supporter of the temperance movement.

This theory has not held up to science, however, as samples of Poe’s hair were tested and found to have low levels of lead, which indicated that Poe hadn’t been inebriated at the time of his death. In addition, Dr. Moran, the attending physician when Poe was in the hospital, didn’t believe Poe had been drinking before coming there. The course of his illness improved slightly before worsening, which to Dr. Moran was not consistent with someone dealing with alcohol withdrawal.

Disease

Many diseases have been theorized to have caused Poe’s death, and one of the most intriguing was that Poe may have died from rabies. In 1996, Dr. R. Michael Benitez presented at a clinical pathology conference when he presented an anonymous patient going by E.P. whose supervising physician was Dr. J.J. Moran.

The symptoms E.P. had were consistent with rabies, such as lethargy, confusion, and difficulty drinking water. Benitez discovered who E.P. was and published his findings in the Maryland Medical Journal in 1996. Though, without DNA evidence, it was impossible to definitively determine if Poe had died from rabies.

Another theory was that Poe succumbed to the flu, which developed into pneumonia. Before traveling from Richmond, Virginia, Poe visited a doctor due to an illness. The doctor advised against him going on his upcoming trip.

A Continued Mystery

Edgar Allen Poe’s demise is still a mystery. While some theories help to explain Poe being in the state he was in and wearing clothing that didn’t appear to be his own, a lurking question remains about where Poe was during those five days he was missing and what he was doing. The intrigue from this mystery would have fit as an ending to one of Poe’s writings.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, National Park Service, Britannica, Biography

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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