Edgar Allan Poe and his riddlesome death

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By: Liah Noboa, 9th Grade

The name Poe often evokes memories of stories of killers and madmen, premature burials, and enigmatic women emerging from the dead. But one of the things that captivated and puzzled the most, not only his audience but the majority of the world, was his very-debated death. 

Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most prominent American authors from the 19th century, was the first author to attempt to make a professional living out of it. Nowadays, we recognize him as the American Romantic Movement writer, who had been, in addition, the first person globally to produce the ascent of science fiction stories, modern detective short stories, and the burst of emo kids. And like the bizarre characters of Poe’s tales caught the imagination of the audience, so did Poe himself. He is also seen in the darkness of moon-lit cemeteries or decaying castles as a morbid, shadowy figure lurking.   

The majority of Poe’s childhood was quite rough, which led him to develop depression and his unfortunate premature death. But how exactly did he die? Was it brain congestion? Alcoholism complication? Diabetes? His cause of death is unknown because there was not an autopsy performed on him and no contemporary accounts remain. These questions are yet to be answered, but before we take a look at the theories, let’s dive into what happened beforehand.

In June 1849, Poe went on a tour to fundraise a literary magazine he was planning to publish. He was expected to ride a ferry from Richmond, Virginia, to Baltimore, Maryland, on September 27, 1849, and then on to New York. He was seeing a doctor in Richmond the night before the ferry ride because of a fever. Very little is understood for certain about the next two days. The next day he arrived in Baltimore, but a month later he ended up in a tavern in the same place. Bystanders thought he was a drunk man, but he was just in poor health, almost unresponsive. A letter was then sent to a nearby doctor and Poe was admitted to the hospital shortly afterward. One small but curious fact is that it did not seem that the clothes Poe had on were his own. He was additionally carrying a chap, ill-fitting suit, and a straw hat instead of his regular black wool suit. It is also important to take into account that he had been missing for 1 week before his death. 

Poe was slipping in and out of consciousness in the hospital, hearing voices and saying nonsense while he was awake. Moreover, he died on the 7th of October. A Baltimore newspaper furthermore stated that congestion in the brain was the reason why he passed away. On another perspective, this was not backed up by any evidence and the reasons are still unclear, although there have been many speculations on how and why exactly he died. 

Among the dozens of theories presented by people around the world, the most influential one which can explain his death is that he died from alcohol complications. J. Snodgrass, the doctor who saw Poe in the pub, declared that Poe drank excessively and that he eventually succumbed to the tremors and delirium that can follow the withdrawal of alcohol. Snodgrass appears to be confirmed by a number of secondhand sources, claiming that Poe had met friends in Baltimore and went on a drunken bender. Poe had engaged in instances of heavy drinking during his life. However, he had just entered a temperance organization at the time of his passing, so this was also unlikely. 

A second proposition that has been brought to the light is rabies. Some suggested that Poe died from this virus, whose symptoms match his delirious fits and the history of his hospital deterioration. It was later pointed out that Poe was hesitant to drink water, which M. Benitez (the person who proposed the theory) said was also associated with rabies symptoms. Nevertheless, Benitez was somewhat unreliable given the fact that most of his narratives and comparisons have shown a lot of contradiction to what has actually been proven beforehand. 

Last but not least, there is the interesting presumption that assumes that Poe may have been subject to a violent crime. Since the pub where Poe was found was used as a polling place (it was normal practice in the 19th century for elections to take place in drinking establishments), it was speculated that he might have been caught up in an unusual form of electoral fraud known as “cooping”. Gangs working for crooked politicians would snatch reluctant bystanders off the street in a cooperative scheme and drive them off the street. To make them compliant, victims were frequently beaten or coerced to drink alcohol. To encourage the victims to vote several times, disguises were used. This may explain Poe’s bizarre outfit when he was found.

Some last hypotheses, though both have been widely debunked, are that he died from carbon monoxide poisoning and heavy metal toxicity. And then there’s the theory, too, that he’s been tortured to death painfully, but that sounds more like something out of a Poe novel than the truth. 

It’s hard to believe that there will ever be a fully definitive conclusion to what killed Poe, given the ambiguous and often conflicting data that remains about Poe’s last days. That may be excellent news for the numerous armchair detectives who like to practice their ratiocination powers upon his death. However, we may never know the truth that unfolds behind his paradoxical passing, until there is concrete evidence, this will remain an unsolved mystery.

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