6 Theories on the Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe at 40 in 1849
Edgar Allen Poe at 40 in 1849

Edgar Allen Poe was the Stephen King of his day.  A master poet and author of mystery and the macabre. To this day, his name alone evokes a chill down ones spine. Amongst his most popular works were Murders in the Rue Morgue and Masque of the Red Death. His life may have been cut short, but it was filled with brilliance, scandal, tragedy, and heartbreak. Perhaps fittingly, Poe’s death has also long been cloaked in mystery, with competing, twisted theories as to how and why in 1849, he vanished for a week, then passed away at only 40.

As a young adult, Poe was forced to drop out of the University of Virginia due to increasing gambling debts. After a short time in the military, he went to West Point, but was ultimately kicked out of there as well. Poe moved to Baltimore, which at the time was a squalid city of grime and graverobbers that proved the perfect inspiration for macabre and horror.  He worked at various newspapers and magazines, and began to write and publish his own poems and short stores.

In 1835, Edgar married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clamm (he was 27). 

They were married for 11 years and she died of consumption/tuberculosis at only 24. The death of Virginia sent Edgar into a long, downward spiral.  Poe wrote that watching her deteriorate had rendered him severely depressed and ‘insane.’ Never a stranger to the bottle, her sickness only magnified his drinking.  It was during his wife’s 5 year long illness, and after her death, that Poe wrote some of his darkest tales, including his famous, grim poem, The Raven, in 1845. 

Poe’s run as a successful author and poet was relatively short. He popularized the horror genre with stories like The Pit and the Pendulum and Fall of the House of Usher. Long before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he created the mystery genre in 1841, with his stories about French detective C. Auguste Dupin, in The Purloined Letter and The Tell Tale Heart.

By 1849, Poe had begun to turn a corner, both mentally and financially. His career was better than ever.  He was now a famous author who drew large audiences at his readings. He took his doctor’s medical advice, and was now sober. He’d even become a member of the Sons of Temperance. Edgar proposed to his first love, Elmira Royster Shelton, who he had fallen in love with while in college. They were planning to marry after he took a short speaking trip in Philadelphia and New York.

On Sept. 27, 1849, Edgar Allen Poe left Richmond by train, bound for New York City.  He got as far as Baltimore before suddenly vanishing for nearly a week. He never made it to Philadelphia, where he was to edit a collection of poems, nor to New York for his speaking engagement.  He was then to escort his aunt back to Richmond for his wedding.  Poe was never to leave Baltimore. For five days his whereabouts were—and continue to be—entirely unknown.

He turned up on October 3rd in a shabby, delirious state outside a tavern called Gunner’s Hall. 

This was the first anyone had heard or seen of him since leaving Richmond.  It was raining on October 3rd, when Joseph Walker, a typesetter for the Baltimore Sun, headed out to Gunner’s Hall to vote. It was Election Day, and Gunner’s Hall was a polling station for the 4th Ward. Walker found a man, delirious and dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothes, lying in the gutter. The poor soul was semi-conscious and barely able to move.  Joseph Walker realized the man was the famous Edgar Allan Poe!

Walker knew the famous poet shouldn’t be dressed as he was, nor laying in a gutter, so he offered to help. He asked Poe if there was anyone nearby that he could contact on his behalf.  Poe mentioned a magazine editor named Joseph Snodgrass. Walker immediately wrote Snodgrass a quick note urging his assistance and sent it by messenger:

Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849
Dear Sir,

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

Snodgrass arrived and took Poe to Washington College Hospital. There he stayed alone in a windowless room with an attendant physician, Dr. John Moran. The week he spent missing, and the unreliability of the newspapers all contributed to speculation as to what had happened to him. He never regaining enough lucid consciousness to explain what happened.  He spent his final days in fits of delirium, plagued by hallucinations. According to Dr. Moran, Poe repeatedly called out for “Reynolds”—a name who, to this day, remains a mystery.

Edgar Allen Poe died on Sunday, October 7th His last words being, “Lord, help my poor soul.” Perhaps fittingly, with Poe’s death his last great mystery was born. Theories about its cause began cropping up almost immediately. There are no remaining records of his hospitalization.  Poe was listed as dying of phrenitis, or congestion of the brain — a polite, 19th century term often used for alcoholism or opium overdoses.  But in reality, no one knows for sure.

A public debate arose surrounding Poe’s death, focused on whether or not the writer was a “drunkard.” That theory was backed up by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a literary critic and one of Poe’s leading rivals.  He wrote Poe’s New York Tribune’s obituary that was picked up by newspapers around the country.

“This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England and Continental Europe, but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.”

Griswold was the executor of his literary estate and became a major figure in the mystery. He used his position to write a cruel biography that suggested the author was also an opium addict as well as a drunkard. Snodgrass wrote that when he once found Poe at a bar, the author was “utterly stupified with liquor” and could only produce “mere incoherent mutterings.”

Poe was a lightweight when it came to liquor. When he did drink, it didn’t take much for him to fall into a stupor. He wasn’t remembered as a heavy drinker, except during his wife’s prolonged illness and following her death. On the advice from a doctor, Poe had pledged his sobriety and joined the Sons of Temperance, along with Snodgrass.

Edgar Allen Poe tomb In Baltimore
Edgar Allen Poe tomb In Baltimore

Poe had spent years crafting the image of a man well versed in the macabre.  It’s certainly fitting that since he invented the detective thriller, he left us with a real-life mystery on his death. So given all this, what did kill Edgar Allen Poe? There was no autopsy performed to go back to. And so, for over a hundred years, speculation has raged on.  In addition to medical causes, there are also theories that something more nefarious took place. Let us take a look at the six most likely theories:

1. Alcohol

Poe couldn’t handle his liquor.  After a glass of wine or ale he was staggering drunk. His sister had the same hereditary problem.  Poe had fallen ill before leaving Richmond.  After making a recovery, he was told by his attending physician that “another such attack could prove fatal.” Poe replied that “If people would not tempt me, I would not fall,” suggesting that the illness was brought on a bout of drinking after falling off the temperance wagon.

At the time, Poe acquaintances seemed convinced he did indeed, fall to temptation, and drink himself to death.  His close friend J. P. Kennedy said “Poe died from the effects of a debauch.  He likely fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a just few days the termination his sad days in the hospital. Poor Poe! A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched.”

This theory fails to explain his five-day disappearance however, or his second-hand clothes.  It was nonetheless, a popular theory propagated by Snodgrass and Griswald after Poe’s death.  Snodgrass even gave temperance speeches cross the country, blaming Poe’s death on binge drinking.

2. Cooping

Voter fraud was common in Baltimore around the mid 1800s. Unscrupulous politicians were known to employ cooping, the practice of hiring local goons to kidnap random men on the street.  They’d then force drugs or alcohol in them, then send them to the polls to vote again and again.  They’d change their outfits every time, in order to ensure themselves a new vote. Given that Poe was found on an Election Day, outside Gunners Hall, a polling place, in a stranger’s clothes, has given this theory some plausibility and acceptance over the years.

Repeat voters were given alcohol either forcibly before or as a reward after.  If Poe had been forced to drink and vote multiple times in a cooping scheme, that would explain his abandoned, ragged, and semi-conscious state.

3. Rabies

Some have speculated that Poe died of rabies as the symptoms match his delirious decline in the hospital. This is in part based on Dr. Moran’s accounts, who said that Poe’s madness had ebbs and flows, with periods of lucidness in between spikes of mania.  Moran noted that Poe drank little water, which also matches up with the symptoms of rabies. Dr. Moran is something of an unreliable narrator, however, because he wrote his observations down many years later.

Rabies’ symptoms are similar – lethargy and confusion with a rapid downward spiral towards delirium, hallucinations, and rapid, shallow breathing. Within four days—the average length of survival after the onset of serious symptoms—Poe was dead. Rabies was a fairly common in the 19th century with no vaccines yet. But without DNA evidence, it’s impossible to say. There was also no mention of any animal bites.

In fact, it may well have been the flu that advanced into pneumonia.  Before his fateful trip, Poe visited a Richmond physician, complaining of illness. His fiancé noted that he had a fever, and she didn’t think he should travel.  The doctor also told him we was too sick to take such a journey. It was raining in Baltimore when Poe was found. The cold rain may have exasperated the flu and eventually lead to pneumonia. The high fever might account for his hallucinations and confusion.

4. Poisoning

In 1999, public health researchers argued that Poe’s death was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.  It would have come from the coal gas that was commonly used for indoor lighting during the 19th century. They took preserved clippings of Poe’s hair and tested them for certain heavy metals that would reveal the presence of coal gas. The test was inconclusive however, leading historians to discredit this theory.

The tests did reveal elevated levels of mercury in Poe’s system. They were most likely elevated as a result of a cholera epidemic he’d lived through in July of 1849, while in Philadelphia. Poe’s doctor there prescribed calomel, or mercury chloride. Mercury poisoning could explain some of Poe’s hallucinations and delirium before his death. However, the levels of mercury found in Poe’s hair were still 30 times below the level consistent with mercury poisoning.

5. Brain Tumor

A more modern theory states the author succumbed to a brain tumor, which caused his symptoms and behavior before death. Poe was buried in an unmarked grave in Baltimore’s Westminster Presbyterian Cemetery. 26 years later, a statue was erected, honoring Poe, near the graveyard’s entrance. Poe’s coffin was dug up, and his remains exhumed, in order to be moved to the new place of honor. After two decades of decay, Poe’s coffin fell apart as workers tried to move it. Little remained of Poe’s body, but the workers did remark on a strange feature of Poe’s skull. A mass appeared to be rolling around inside!

Newspapers of the day claimed that the cerebral mass was Poe’s poor brain, diminished yet somehow still intact. After 26 years however, there is no way that his brain would still exist. What could linger in a skull, was a hard, shrunken brain tumor.  A forensic pathologist said that a tumor can calcify after death into a hard mass.  A New York physician once told Poe that he had a ‘lesion on his brain,’ that caused his adverse reactions to alcohol.

6. Murder most Foul

Another story says that at the instigation of a woman who considered herself injured by his writing, ‘ruffians’ were hired to cruelly beat him senseless, to the point where his brain fever followed.  Another story went like this: While in Baltimore, Poe ran into some old friends from West Point.  They convinced him to join them for just one drink. Poe, unable to handle liquor, became madly drunk after a single glass of champagne.  After he left his friends, he wandered the streets in a daze. In his drunken state, he was robbed and beaten by ruffians, then left delirious in the gutter all night, until he was found in the rain the next day.

Yet another salacious theory was that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancée, Elmira Shelton.  It claims that Poe actually made it to Philadelphia, where he was ambushed by her three brothers. They warned Edgar not to marry their widowed sister. Frightened by the threat, Poe disguised himself in shabby clothes and hid for a week, before heading back to Richmond to get married. Her brothers followed Poe to Baltimore, beat him up, and forced him to drink whiskey, which they knew would send Poe into his final spiral towards death.

Interestingly, mystery author Agatha Christie likewise disappeared for a week almost a century later. She was later found alive, claiming amnesia.

While all these Poe theories are darkly entertaining, they’re not very plausible or persuasive. So there you have it.  None of the theories above fully explain Poe’s sad and pitiful end. Most likely Poe’s cause of death resulted from a combination of unfortunate factors.  His works of mystery and gothic horror have been made into stage plays and numerous Hollywood movies over the years. There was even a fictional account of the poet’s death in the 2012 movie, The Raven, starring actor John Cusack as Poe. 

In death, Poe ironically embraced the old saying that “life imitates art,” with a mysterious demise worthy of his most eerie, gothic horror story. After 170 years, people still speculate about what actually happened during that mysterious missing week in the life of Edgar Allen Poe. Will we ever know the truth? Perhaps it’s best summed up by the poet himself:

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

For more by historical writer, Paul Andrews, click BOOKS

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

3 thoughts on “6 Theories on the Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe

  1. I loved this article! As a huge fan of Poe, I have always found the mystery surrounding his death to be interesting. Honestly, I hope it’s never revealed during my lifetime how he died because I don’t think it could be nearly as good as the theories surrounding his death!

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