October 8, 2013
Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious death
by Claire Kelley
Yesterday, October 7th, marked the 164th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe‘s death — an event that is still shrouded in mystery. On September 28, 1849, Poe was found lying unconscious on a wooden plank outside a bar in Baltimore, and was taken to a hospital. Medical reports indicate that he was delirious and had slipped into a coma. According to the Baltimore Commissioner of Health, Dr. J.F.C. Handel said that Poe’s death was “congestion of the brain,” which was a euphemism for alcohol or drug related causes.
But other details that appeared in newspapers at the time offered possible clues for others causes of death. Poe, who was known for being well dressed, was found wearing shabby clothes that didn’t fit him, and were presumed not to be his own. And in his final days in the hospital, the attending physician Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was the only person present, reported that Poe repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds.” This may have been a reference to Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a newspaper editor and explorer, who might have been the inspiration for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which is now available as part of the Melville House Art of the Novella series. Some question Moran’s credibility about the sequence of events that led to Poe’s death, and all hospital records and the death certificate have been lost.
Without reliable documentation, a number of ideas about what caused Poe’s death have been proposed. Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers says Poe died of hypoglycemia, while John Evangelist Walsh puts forth a murder conspiracy theory. Matthew Pearl, author of The Poe Shadow, now believes that Poe died of a brain tumor. In 1996, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center published a review of Poe’s medical case, concluding that he died of rabies. Because Poe died on the day of an election, some think he was a victim of “cooping,” which refers to a practice when unwilling participants were forced to vote many times—often they were drugged and used like dummies to vote at multiple locations. This may explain why he was wearing a different set of clothes, which would prevent him from being recognized by officials at polling stations.
Other theories are listed on the Edgar Allan Poe Museum website, and include causes such as diabetes, syphilis, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, and dipsomania (uncontrollable craving for alcohol).
In dying under such mysterious circumstances, the father of the detective story has left us with a real-life mystery which Poe scholars, medical professionals, and others have been trying to solve for over 150 years.
This week, an Edgar Allan Poe exhibit, “Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul” opens at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.