The unexplained death of the master of Gothic horror.
It was election day in Baltimore, Maryland, on the east coast of America. Ryan’s Tavern, a popular saloon bar, had doubled up for the day as a polling station and men had been shuffling in and out to cast their votes since daybreak. Many stopped for some light refreshment before going about their business but few of them took any notice of the resident drunks slumped in the corners, propped against tables or generally scattered around the bar. Then, for reasons that are unclear, a voter called Joseph Walker went over to help one tramp. The man, in a state of confused desperation, called out random names until finally Walker recognized one of them and immediately sent a note to Dr Joseph Snodgrass, which read: ‘There is a gentleman, rather worse for wear, at Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls, and who appears to be in great distress. He says he is acquainted with you and I assure you he is in need of immediate assistance.’
Just five days later, on 8 October 1849, the Baltimore Sun published a sombre notice:
We regret to learn that Edgar Allan Poe Esq., the distinguished American poet, scholar and critic, died in this city yesterday morning, after an illness of only four or five days. This announcement, coming so sudden and unexpectedly, will cause poignant regret among all who admire genius and have sympathy for the frailties all too often attending to it.
Yet Poe wasn’t supposed to have been in Baltimore at all; he was meant to have been in Philadelphia for a business meeting, followed by a journey to New York to meet his former mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. But Edgar Allan Poe never arrived in Philadelphia, and Maria Clemm was never to see him again. The dark events and insecurities of his life were dramatized throughout Poe’s writings, and it’s possible that his mysterious death was connected with someone very close to him.
Edgar Poe was the son of travelling actors. He was not yet three years old when his parents died, within a few days of each other, and the three Poe orphans (Edgar had an elder brother and a younger sister) were separated and sent to live with different foster families in Richmond, Virginia. Edgar was taken in by John and Frances Allan, a wealthy, childless couple who raised him as their own. As a sign of respect for his foster parents, Poe later adopted their surname as his middle name and thereafter became known by the name for which he would become famous the world over: Edgar Allan Poe.
But a serious rift developed between Poe and his foster father when Edgar returned from university in 1827 with large gambling debts that John Allan angrily refused to pay. Shortly afterwards Poe joined the army, achieving the rank of sergeant major before returning, in 1829, for the funeral of his beloved foster mother, Frances. The following year John remarried and when the new Mrs Allan promptly produced three sons, she became openly hostile to the grown-up foster son she had inherited.
This reached crisis point in March 1834 when Poe discovered that John Allan was gravely ill. He rushed to his bedside, only to find the route blocked by the second Mrs Allan. When Poe angrily pushed past her, he was confronted by a furious John Allan, who cursed him from his deathbed, banishing him from the house. Poe then discovered, after Allan’s death, that the man whom he had once lovingly called ‘Pa’, and whose affections he had relied upon as a small boy, had changed his will, removing any mention of him.
Whilst Poe had been at university, losing at cards, he also began writing poetry, anonymously publishing his first collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827. In 1831 he turned his attention to the short stories of mystery and the macabre that he was to become famous for. They were instantly popular. Before long Edgar had progressed from mere contributor to editor at the Southern Literary Messenger.
Throughout all this, his ties to his real family remained very strong and they became stronger when in 1836, aged twenty-seven, he fell in love with his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. Despite Virginia being so young, the two married within the year, with the full blessing of his aunt (and mother-in-law) Maria Clemm, who then became the third mother figure in the young writer’s life.
In 1839 he accepted the job of both editor and contributor at Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in Philadelphia and, during his time there, wrote the macabre tales ‘William Wilson’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. It was the popularity of psychological thrillers like these that saw his personal reputation flourish, and in 1841 Poe had completed his most enduring tale, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, featuring, for the first time, his fictional detective Auguste C. Dupin. The story was truly unique in the sense that it introduced a new and popular genre where a series of seemingly unconnected clues are presented to the reader and not drawn together until the final scene, in which the murderer is unmasked in front of the other characters by the detective. The style had never before been used in literature and Poe’s sleuth is credited with being the first fictional detective in the history of storytelling, paving the way for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, among many others.
However, it was Edgar’s poem ‘The Raven’, published in 1845, that signalled his true rise to fame, with the public queuing up for Poe’s lectures just to hear the writer perform his work in person. The effect in 1845 was something like a modern songwriter or musician would achieve with a number one hit single these days. Other successful poems followed and Poe’s popularity continued to increase until disaster struck in 1847 when his beloved wife Virginia died. Edgar was heartbroken and his grief is believed to have inspired the short poem ‘Deep in the earth my love is lying / And I must weep alone.’ Her death was to mark the beginning of Poe’s downhill struggle leading to his own mysterious death only two years later – a period that was marked by alcoholism, depression, a suicide attempt and several failed romances. All of which was accompanied by a desperate attempt to raise funds to support his beloved mother-in-law and for the launch of his own publication, The Stylus. (Despite his literary success, much of own his money had been spent on drink.)
Then, during the summer months of 1849, things started to look up again. Poe, who was once again out on the lecture circuit, met Elmira Shelton, an old childhood sweetheart, back in Richmond and they rekindled their romance. With Elmira’s encouragement, Poe joined the Sons of Temperance movement and renounced alcohol. He wrote to Maria Clemm: ‘I think Elmira loves me more devotedly than anyone I ever knew and I cannot help loving her in return. We may get married before I start my next trip.’
And it wasn’t just his love life that had turned the corner. His lecture tour was also proving to be a great success and he had gathered over 300 annual subscriptions for his proposed new magazine, at $5 per year. This would mean Poe was in funds to the tune of at least $1,500, a considerable amount in 1849. He was due to leave Richmond for his next engagement in Philadelphia, where he had been commissioned by a wealthy piano manufacturer, John Loud, to spend two days editing his wife’s collection of poems. The fee was to be $100, a large sum for two days’ work, and Poe had eagerly accepted the commission. He then intended to leave Philadelphia and continue to New York. Here he would collect Maria Clemm and her possessions and bring her back to Richmond where he intended to settle down with Elmira.
Before leaving Richmond on 27 September, Edgar visited his physician Dr John F. Carter and, after a short conversation, walked to the Saddlers restaurant on the opposite side of the road, absent-mindedly taking Carter’s malacca cane instead of his own. There he met acquaintances at the restaurant, who later walked with him to catch the overnight boat to Baltimore from where he would catch the train to Philadelphia. They left him ‘sober and cheerful’, promising to be back in Richmond soon.
Poe had written to Maria Clemm advising her that ‘on Tuesday I start for Philadelphia to attend to Mrs Loud’s poems and on Thursday I leave there for New York’. He also asked her somewhat cryptically to write to him at the Philadelphia post office, addressing the letter to E. S. T. Grey Esq., and suggesting that, rather than turning up at her house, he should send for her instead on his arrival in the city. It is not clear why he needed to use a false name in Philadelphia or why he felt unable to visit the house in New York. Was he in debt, perhaps, or in some kind of danger?
Nothing more is known for sure about Edgar Allen Poe’s movements until he turned up dishevelled and disorientated at Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore five days later on 3 October. Apart from his failing to keep his appointment in Philadelphia with Mrs Loud, that is. And there are various theories why he didn’t. One account claims he fell ill as soon as he arrived in Philadelphia and, on intending to catch another train to New York, boarded at the wrong platform and returned to Baltimore by mistake. A second account makes the same claim, but suggesting that he was drunk rather than sick.
When a guard on the train to Philadelphia claimed he had witnessed Poe being ‘followed through the carriages’ by two mysterious men, speculation arose that friends of Elmira Shelton, possibly her brothers, had followed the writer, suspecting he was having a liaison with another woman, and then had forced the writer back to Baltimore, beaten him into a stupor and left him on the street, where he wandered into the bar and was discovered. Meanwhile another theory suggests that Poe had been in regular correspondence with a lady with whom he subsequently argued. When Edgar refused to give back her letters, she sent the men to enforce their return and they then beat up her former lover. Were they the two men on the train and not Elvira’s brother – assuming the guard’s testimony is to be believed and there were any mysterious men in the first place?
Lending substance to this last claim is the suggestion that, prior to meeting Elvira again, Poe had been engaged to a wealthy widow after only a brief courtship in what some regarded as a callous attempt by the writer to gain funding for his new magazine. This was broken off after a violent confrontation between a drunken Poe and his terrified fiancée and it is possible that this lady had been the sender of the letters Poe had refused to return. In addition, rather than just being simple love letters, they may have contained a promise of funding that Poe intended to later claim as a contractual obligation. Hence the rather extreme measures the lady had to resort to in order to get them back.
Though varied and unreliable, each account is consistent with the idea that Poe did not stay in Philadelphia and possibly did not even leave Baltimore in the first place. He certainly failed to collect the letter from Mrs Clemm addressed to E. S. T. Grey because the post office, as was common practice, published receipt of it in the Philadelphia Public Ledger on 3 October 1849, the same day that he lay dying in the bar in Baltimore. Such was Poe’s devotion to Maria Clemm, it seems unlikely he would not have made straight for the post office to collect a letter he was expecting if he had arrived in Philadelphia as planned.
But while there were no confirmed sightings of Poe in Baltimore during the week prior to his death, the writer’s physical condition offers some clues as to what may have happened. Writing to Maria Clemm, Dr Moran (the doctor at the hospital to which Poe was admitted) noted:
Presumably [as] you are already aware of the malady of which Mr Poe died, I need only state concisely the particulars of his circumstances from his entrance until his decease. When brought to the hospital, he was unconscious of his condition, who brought him or with whom he had been associating. He remained in this condition from 5.00 p.m. in the afternoon, the hour of his admission, until 3.00 a.m. next morning. This was on 3 October.
To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy, but not violent or active delirium, constantly talking, in vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration. We were unable to induce tranquility before the second day after his admission. Having left orders with the nurses to that effect, I was summoned to his bedside as soon as consciousness supervened, and questioned him in reference to his family, place of residence, relatives, etc. But his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory. He told me, however, he had a wife in Richmond, which I have since learned was not the fact, that he did not know when he left that city or what has become of his trunk or clothing.
The most obvious clue lies in a reference to his clothing: Dr Snodgrass later described what Poe had been wearing at the time he was found:
His hat, or rather the hat of somebody else for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in an exchange, was a cheap palm leaf one. Soiled and without a band. His coat was of commonest alpaca [cheap camel fleece] and evidently second hand. His pants of grey cassimere [plain wool] were dingy and badly fitting. His shirt crumpled and soiled. On his feet were boots of coarse material, giving no sign of having been blackened for a long time, if at all.
Edgar Allan Poe had not been so attired when he left Richmond, so this is the first real evidence of foul play. Snodgrass wondered if Poe had not fallen off the wagon in spectacular style and sold or exchanged his own clothes for more liquor. A week-long drinking binge could well have had fatal consequences, but as Snodgrass did not know at the time, Poe had been in possession of a considerable sum of money when he arrived in Baltimore, which was now missing, and even he would have had trouble drinking through $1,500-worth of whiskey in a week. (I tried it at the time of writing – for experimental reasons you understand – and it is near impossible in 2007)
This theory of the demon drink reclaiming Poe has often been repeated over the years, but it is worth remembering that the main architect of such an idea is Dr Snodgrass himself, who later became famous during the 1850s for his temperance lectures and often used the famous writer as an example of what can happen should a person succumb to the evils of alcohol. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to look back at the now collected evidence and see that Snodgrass was not adverse to a little exaggeration. For example, in his written account, ‘The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial’, published in May 1867 in Beadle’s Monthly, he transcribed the note he had first received from Joseph Walker. Where Walker describes Poe as ‘rather worse for wear’, Snodgrass changed the wording to ‘in a state of beastly intoxication’.
Dr Moran also made a career out his deceased patient by lecturing and writing about Poe for many years. He flamboyantly claimed in his Defense of Poe, published in 1885, that Edgar Allan Poe’s final words to him had been: ‘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.’ While they certainly sound like the words of a delirious man, I am unable to decide who was the more so – Poe or the good Dr Moran. And this is completely undercut by Moran’s letter to Maria Clemm on 15 November 1849 that the writer’s final offering was ‘Lord, help my poor soul’, which would mean the only reliable information from Dr Moran was his initial description of how Poe had appeared in hospital.
In his first letter to Maria Clemm, Dr Moran refers to Poe’s trunk, which was discovered at a hotel a few days later. But Moran fails to mention Poe still had the key in his pocket, despite having apparently had his clothing stolen, or that he still had Dr Carter’s malacca cane, which Moran sent to Maria to be returned to the doctor in Richmond. And why would the thief hand Poe back the key to his trunk having presumably forced him to change clothes?
Even more suspiciously, there has been no mention of the large sum of money Poe was known to have had in his possession on his arrival in Baltimore. Some are puzzled by the revelation that Poe’s trunk was booked into a hotel, when the writer was only supposed to be passing through on his way to Philadelphia, but 28 September 1849 was a Friday and, in his letter to Mrs Clemm, Poe informed her he was travelling on Tuesday 2October, so it is quite conceivable Poe had checked into a hotel with the intention of meeting somebody in Baltimore for the weekend, although, as yet, nobody has been able to ascertain who that was.
Four days after Poe’s death, his cousin Neilson wrote to Mrs Clemm on 11 October 1849 claiming to have carried out an exhaustive enquiry as to Poe’s movements during that final week, but with no success: ‘Where he has spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain.’ However, within a few weeks, Neilson had written to Poe’s first biographer suggesting he had acquired some information about Poe’s death, which was ‘known only unto me’.
This curious remark needs investigating. Because if Poe died at the hands of another, as the evidence tends to suggest, then how could Neilson be the only one who knew anything about it, unless he himself was involved? At the time, Neilson promised to write it all down in a ‘deliberate communication’, but nothing was ever sent to Poe’s biographer and Neilson is not known to have ever written anything about the death of his famous cousin.
It is interesting to note that this was the same cousin who raced to the bedside of Poe when he was taken ill, only to be refused entrance by Dr Moran, claiming Poe was too delirious to receive visitors; and yet Neilson claimed only a week later to Maria Clemm that he had no knowledge of Edgar’s presence in Baltimore. The question is, was he lying and was it Neilson whom Edgar had planned to meet over that weekend in Baltimore? Moreover, did Dr Moran suspect Neilson had something to do with Poe’s condition and that is why he refused him access
Election day, the day Poe was discovered, was a dangerous time during the mid nineteenth century as a practice known as ‘cooping’ was widely adopted by unscrupulous politicians and their supporters in many American cities. William Baird explained such goings on in a paper published in Baltimore during the mid 1870s:
At that time, and for years before and after, there was an infamous custom in this and other cities, at election time, of ‘cooping’ voters. That is, gangs of men picked up, or even carried off by force, men whom they found in the streets and transported them to cellars in various slums of the city, where they were kept under guard, threatened, maltreated if they attempted to escape, often robbed, and always compelled to drink whiskey, sometimes mixed with other drugs, until they were stupefied and helpless.’
At the election these miserable wretches were brought up to the polls in carts or omnibuses, under guard, and made to vote the tickets in their hands, repeatedly at different voting places. Death from the ill treatment was not uncommon. The general belief here is that Poe was seized by one of these gangs then ‘cooped,’ stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted again and again, then turned adrift to die.
The cooping theory is one suggested by most Edgar Allan Poe biographies and accounts of his death. In those days Baltimore elections were notorious for corruption and violence, with political parties willing to resort to extreme measures to ensure the success of their favourite candidates. Poe was discovered on election day after he had been missing for five days and he was found lying in an apparently drunken stupor in a bar where the votes were actually being cast.
But, as with all the other theories about Poe’s death, the cooping hypothesis has an obvious flaw. Edgar was well known in Baltimore and therefore likely to be recognized by many people. Cooping being a dangerous and highly illegal activity, it is unlikely ‘coopers’ would risk holding Edgar Allen Poe with others who would later be able to identify him. The Whigs were the major political party, headed by Zachary Taylor, who had been elected President in 1848, and it turns out that a delegate of the eighteenth ward had been none other that Poe’s cousin, Neilson Poe.
Could Neilson have been involved in cooping his famous cousin? This would certainly explain why Poe had checked into the hotel for the weekend on the assumption that he would be spending an exciting few days with his politically active cousin in the run-up to an important election. Could Poe have been drugged by Neilson, who had then stolen his money? This would account for his incoherent state at the time he was found. But perhaps Neilson had no intention of killing Edgar. Maybe he assumed instead that Poe would regain normal consciousness in the bar, unaware of what had happened to him. Which would explain Neilson’s panicked dash to the hospital when he found out that Poe had been admitted, despite claiming later he could find no trace of Edgar in Baltimore all week. Or perhaps it had been more slightly more innocent and Neilson might have rescued Poe from the coopers for his own political party but, wishing to keep the matter a secret from the electoral authorities, simply left him to recover and be found by somebody else. He might have slipped the trunk key into Edgar’s pocket knowing he had a change of clothes stored somewhere in the town and could tidy himself up when he had recovered.
In a letter of 27 November 1874, N. H. Morrison claimed to J. H. Ingram (another of Poe’s biographers): ‘The story of Poe’s death has never been told. Neilson Poe has all the facts but I am afraid may not be willing to share them. I do not see why. The actual facts are less discreditable than the common reports published. Poe came to the city in the midst of an election and that election was the cause of his death.’ What Neilson really knew about the death of his cousin has never been fully established, but it is clear that he knew something.
Poe’s remains are interred next to those of his grandfather General David Poe Sr, the American Civil War hero, in Baltimore cemetery, and every year, on the anniversary of Poe’s birthday on 19 January, fans still assemble for a silent vigil. Every year since 1949 a smartly dressed hooded man leaning on a silver cane has approached Poe’s grave, knelt in respect, toasted the writer with a glass of cognac and left the bottle, along with three red roses, at the graveside. Poe enthusiasts have watched this ritual without ever attempting to identify the stranger. In 1993 a note was also left, stating that ‘the torch will now be passed’, and since then a younger, similarly dressed man has carried out the ritual.
Over time the debate about Poe’s death has served only to make his mystery seem more mysterious and his intrigue even greater. But the tragic event remains one of the most mysterious deaths in literary history, and one cannot help concluding that the great man might have been secretly pleased about that. He may also have had a few questions to ask of his cousin Neilson.
Extract from Mysterious World.
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