There is much that can be said about Edgar Allan Poe, but in terms of his literary habits, little that needs to be. Much more famous in death than he was in life, he was nevertheless a literary critic of some renown in his own time. His true love, however, was lurid, ghastly fiction. Poe unknowingly fathered the genre of detective fiction, through his tales of C. Auguste Dupin. The most well-known Dupin story was The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which served to set the stage for Sherlock Holmes and his ilk. He is best known now for his gothic fiction, morbid tales filled with crumbling stone castles and candle-lit catacombs, of demonic foes and bitter sweet revenge. He brought us The Raven, Hop-Frog, The Fall of the House of Usher. The creative mind of Poe was deep and dark and mysterious as a night ocean.
… but little is so mysterious as Poe’s own death.
A little about the man, first: Edgar Poe was born in the depths of a Bostonian winter on January 19 1809 to stage actors David and Eliza Poe. He had an older brother, Henry Leonard, and would soon have a younger sister, Rosalie. His father abandoned the family in 1810, leaving Eliza to care for the three children on her own. Eliza died scarcely a year later at the age of 24 of tuberculosis, called consumption at the time; his absent father, he would learn much later, died the year following. The three children were split up after Eliza’s death, and young Edgar was fostered by John and Francis Allan of Virginia, who added “Allan” as his middle name but chose to not formally adopt him. Edgar spent a few years in Virginia with his new family before moving to Britain with them in 1815. He attended three different boarding schools there before moving back to Virginia with the Allans in 1820.
Poe attended the University of Virginia for a year and did very well, but financial constraints — in part due to his foster father having given him too little to live on, and in part due to some gambling debts — cut his education short. He enlisted in the US Army and assumed the name Edgar A. Perry. He later attended West Point, but intentionally failed out, having decided to pursue a career as a writer. He quickly became a critic of some note.
Poe by this point in his life had fallen out with John Allan after the death of his foster mother, with whom he was very close, and moved in with his biological aunt, to whom he quickly became devoted. In time, he would marry her daughter, his cousin Virginia, who at the time was 13 years old. Poe himself was 27. The two had a seemingly loving marriage, until her death of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Poe took her death incredibly hard. He would only live for another two years himself.
A month later, Poe left for New York, where he was to retrieve his former mother-in-law Maria, with whom he remained very close, and return to Virginia with her, where he intended to marry his first love Sarah Elmira Royster, with whom he had recently reconnected.
No one knows what happened between his departure from Richmond on September 27th and October 3rd, when he was found by Baltimore Sun compositor Joseph W. Walker outside Ryan’s Tavern, which was being used as a polling station for a local election. Poe was incoherent and rambling, but Walker was able to get the name of a mutual friend, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, whom he promptly summoned. The usually well-dressed and fastidious Poe was unkempt, dressed in ill-fitting, soiled clothing that were clearly not his own, face bloated and dirty. Snodgrass, a fervent abolitionist, believed he might have been drunk. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he remained in an incoherent state until his death at 5 am on October 7. He is said to have repeatedly called out for someone named Reynolds, though no one has identified who this was. His body was not autopsied, and his medical records and death certificate have been lost. The newspapers at the time claimed he had died of alcoholism.
So, what happened? Theories abound.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can be triggered by excess alcohol consumption in diabetics, which Poe may well have been. It’s certainly true that a severe hypoglycemic condition can cause confusion, hallucinations, and shaking, and eventually death. Poe’s health had suffered due to his drinking in the past. On June 30, 1945, Poe stopped off in Philadelphia on a trip elsewhere, and there he became thoroughly intoxicated and was subsequently arrested for disorderly behavior. While in jail, he reportedly experienced delirium tremens – severe alcohol withdrawal, characterized by tremors, hallucinations, fever, and confusion.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that it was unrelated to alcohol consumption. A literary rival of Poe’s, the sinisterly-named Rufus Griswold, is largely responsible for the depiction of Poe that still persists today. Using forged letters, a harsh obituary under the pseudonym “Ludwig,” and a largely fabricated biography, he popularized a vision of Poe that Poe’s friends and loved ones insisted was overblown and grotesquely distorted. Certainly, Poe was a heavy drinker and was prone to binge drinking, but he was not the drunken philandering madman who frequented opium dens and other places of vice that Griswold had alleged.
Related to this theory is that Poe was the victim of cooping, a form of election fraud in which people were abducted, held in a “coop” (room, cell) until election day and plied with alcohol or narcotics and threatened with beatings, and forced to vote for the cooper’s favoured candidate repeatedly, in different disguises. Certainly, in combination with his potential hypoglycemia that Meyers suggests, this could well explain both the state he was found in, as well as the strange clothing he was found in and his 5 day absence from the world.
Against the theory that Poe died as a combination of circumstances, alcohol, and low blood sugar is the physician who treated him during this period, Dr. John Moran; Moran insisted that Poe was not intoxicated, and he was the only person who was in a position to know. In fact, no one has come forward from those missing five days who has reported seeing him drunk. He was very well-known in the area; surely someone would have noticed.
If the cooping theory is correct, however, it wouldn’t necessarily have been alcohol that killed him. Some have suggested that Poe could have gotten rabies from rat bites during his period of confinement during the cooping, or it could have resulted from a beating, which were certainly common in cooping incidents at the time.
There are, additionally, a number of disorders that experts have suggested could have resulted in his demise. He may have caught cholera, which at the time was active in areas he had passed through, or syphilis. He may have died of a chronic illness, such as epilepsy or an enzyme deficiency. Some have suggested a brain tumor.
There’s something to be said for the brain tumour theory. Poe’s body was moved in 1875, to its permanent home, where his wife and his mother-in-law would in time be interred as well. His coffin, cheaply-made, broke apart as it was moved, and his corpse was visible though the breaks in the wood. A witness to the event commented that his brain was still clattering around in his skull, a thing we know to be impossible – brains rot very quickly. Modern experts say that this may well have been a calcified brain tumour, which eventually killed him.
Heavy metal or carbon monoxide poisoning was once considered as a possibility, but in 1999 a sample of Poe’s hair was analyzed and the levels of heavy metals were found to be too low to indicate a poisoning of that sort.
Author John Evangelista Walsh believes that Poe was murdered. In his Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, he posits that the brothers of Poe’s wealthy fiance Elmira Royster intercepted him on his trip, and force-fed him whiskey until he became deathly ill.
Aside from the cause of his death and his whereabouts during his missing five days, Poe’s death holds one final mystery for us.
Every year, beginning the night of Poe’s birth and precisely a century after Poe’s death, some time past midnight a black-clad figure would silently part from the murky shadows cast by the buildings surrounding Poe’s original burial place, and clothed in a long black coat, a black hat, and a single point of contrast: a white scarf, settled gently around his neck. This figure would toast Poe with a glass of cognac from a bottle he carried, and leave three roses (commonly said to symbolize Poe himself, Virginia, and her mother Maria) behind, along with the bottle and occasionally a note. His quiet ritual completed, he would vanish again into the winter’s night.
No one has ever identified the figure, known in the media as “The Poe Toaster.” One man, Sam Porpora, has come forward claiming to be the Toaster, but Poe expert Jeff Jerome, curator emeritus of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, points out that Porpora’s account of events gets some important details wrong and therefore believes it to be untrue. Jerome believes that there was a single Toaster from 1977 until 1999. That year, the Toaster left a note saying only that “The torch has passed.” Several observers noticed that the figure looked different that year, and Jerome believes that the original Toaster had died and that someone else, perhaps a son, was to carry on the tradition. In 2009, there was no appearance by the Toaster. Jerome believes that the Toaster had chosen to end the yearly tribute that year, and had chosen the bicentennial of Poe’s birthday, as a logical endpoint.
However Poe died, be it a genetic disorder or alcoholism or misadventure, it feels somehow appropriate that such a mystery surrounds him in death. Poe spent his life obsessed with things mysterious and dreadful, and surely the disappearance and reappearance of a dark poet, raving wildly in the grips of hysteria and crying out for an enigmatic figure as he meets his end, would have appealed to him. Poe himself could have written such a tale.
SOURCES – FURTHER READING
Anon. “Poe’s Death Theories.” Poe’s Death | Edgar Allan Poe Museum | Richmond, VA, www.poemuseum.org/poes-death. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021
Birch, Doug. “The Passing of Poe: What Really Happened to the Master of the Macabre in the Days Leading up to His Death Here 145 Years Ago?” Baltimoresun.com, 24 Oct. 2018, www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-10-02-1994275208-story.html. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021
Edgar Allan Poe: A Life from Beginning to End. Hourly History, 2018. Kindle ed.
Eschner, Kat. “Who Was the Poe Toaster? We Still Have No Idea.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 19 Jan. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/who-was-poe-toaster-we-still-have-no-idea-180961820/. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021
Geiling, Natasha. “The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 7 Oct. 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/still-mysterious-death-edgar-allan-poe-180952936. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021
Kay, Liz F. “Poe Toaster Tribute Is ‘Nevermore’.” Baltimoresun.com, 9 Dec. 2018, www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bs-xpm-2010-01-19-bal-poe0119-story.html. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021.
Lovejoy, Bess. Rest in Pieces. Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Miller, John C. ‘The Exhumations and Reburials of Edgar and Virginia Poe and Mrs. Clemm,” Poe Studies, Dec. 1974, Vol. Vii, No. 27: 46-4, www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1974204.htm. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allen Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Pruitt, Sarah. “The Riddle of Edgar Allan Poe’s Death.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 26 Oct. 2015, www.history.com/news/how-did-edgar-allan-poe-die. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021.
Semtner, Christopher P. “13 Haunting Facts About Edgar Allan Poe’s Death.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 13 Jan. 2021, www.biography.com/news/edgar-allan-poe-death-facts. Retrieved 5 Sept. 2021.
Walsh, John Evangelist. Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.