Edgar Allan Poe is so famous he shows up almost everywhere. Whether it’s a Beatles album cover, an episode of South Park, or on the side of Raven Beer bottle; his face is so familiar, many people likely think they know him. Especially around this time of year, students across the country are learning about Poe’s life and work. So how is it that we still know so little about someone this famous? Maybe it began with his death.
This October 7 marked the 165th anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. After all these years scholars are still debating what caused his untimely demise at the age of forty. In fact, there are dozens of published theories, and the number continues to grow. Why the mystery? In today’s age of modern medicine, it is difficult to understand how little doctors in Poe’s time knew about internal medicine. Many diseases that medicine has since controlled were still unidentified or misunderstood. Poe died in Washington College Hospital where his attending physician John Moran paid close attention to the author’s condition, but Poe still died after four days in his care. According to the below record of 1849 Baltimore deaths, Poe’s cause of death is listed as “Phrenitis.” On this list, the date, name, and age are correct, but Poe’s occupation is incorrectly listed as “Physician” by whoever transcribed the information. (We are grateful to Sabrina Ricketts for finding and providing the Poe Museum a scan of this document.)
Phrenitis is an archaic medical term that means inflammation of the brain. The term was later replaced with the word delirium, and the symptoms are now most commonly associated with meningitis or encephalitis. The cause of these conditions may be attributable to a variety of different viral and bacterial sources. This means scholars are still not much closer to unraveling the mystery of Poe’s death.
Knowing what happened to Poe in the days immediately preceding his admission to the hospital might help determine the cause of his condition, but that information is also missing. We know that Poe had survived a bout of cholera in the summer of 1849 and that he was ill during his time in Richmond between July and September. On September 26, he visited his fiancée Elmira Shelton who later recalled, “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated.”
Poe left Richmond on the morning of September 27 on a trip to Philadelphia, but his whereabouts are unknown until he was found in a Baltimore polling place on October 3. He was already very ill and was asked if he knew anyone who could help him, so he called for magazine editor Joseph Snodgrass.
Poe was delirious and unable to tell what had happened to him or why he seemed to be dressed in someone else’s clothes. That’s right–he appeared to be dressed in ill-fitting clothes that looked nothing like his usual mode of dress, so some people speculated he may have been beaten and robbed of his clothing. When he entered the bar-room of the tavern in which the voting was taking place, Snodgrass recounted he “instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”
After Poe’s death, Snodgrass clipped the small lock of Poe’s hair now in the collection of the Poe Museum. Snodgrass also wrote lectures and articles about Poe’s death to promote his agenda to ban alcohol in America.
At the same time, Poe’s attending physician wrote articles and a book contradicting Snodgrass’s account. If Snodgrass’s retellings were distorted in order to portray Poe as a hopeless drunk, Moran’s were skewed in order to show the poet as a perfect saint.
Both versions grew more colorful with each retelling. As just one example, we can cite Moran’s recollection of Poe’s last words. In a November 1849 letter, Moran said they were “Lord, help my poor soul.” In an 1875 article, Moran said they were “Self-murderer, there is a gulf beyond the stream Where is the buoy, lifeboat, ship of fire, sea of brass. Test, shore no more!” In his 1885 book, A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, Moran recorded them as, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being, and upon demons incarnate.”
If these accounts did not do enough to spread confusion about Poe’s death, Poe’s rival Rufus Griswold attempted to defame Poe’s character in a scathing obituary and memoir of the author. Griswold’s obituary begins, “…This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” His memoir of Poe became the first widely distributed biography of Poe but was so riddled with distortions and fabrications that some of those who had known Poe felt the need to come to the poet’s defense. Among these were John Moran and Poe’s fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman.
We will probably never know the exact cause of Poe’s death, but scholars will continue to try to solve Poe’s last mystery. If you would like to propose your own theory, you can read more about Poe’s death and submit your ideas here.