The Mysterious Demise of Edgar Allan Poe
By Z. J. Czupor
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was a genius in poetry and prose and only lived to the age of forty. While living and in death, he has had a profound impact on literature as an editor, poet, short story writer, lecturer, and critic.
His life is as much a mystery as the stories he wrote. He was a man of contradictions as he struggled with poverty and alcoholism. He mourned the death of his wife Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822-1847), and was about to be engaged, a second time, to his adolescent sweetheart when he died under mysterious circumstances. Like his writings, his death remains mired in mystery.
Contemporaries described him as having a slight build, large hands and feet, dark hair, on top of a large forehead with deep-set gray eyes over a bushy moustache. He was considered handsome and intelligent but with an eccentric personality. He dressed like a gentlemen and was considered a good conversationalist who had excellent manners and was willing to sit with either members of civilized society or local bar flies. He was equally well known in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Richmond.
As a poet he’s most remembered for “The Raven” (1845) which was an instant success, and “Annabel Lee” (1849).
In prose, he’s best known for his short stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” (Graham’s Magazine, 1841); “The Purloined Letter,” (The Gift: A Christmas, New Year, and Birthday Present, 1845); “The Tell-Tale Heart,” (The Pioneer, Boston magazine, 1843); “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, 1839); and “The Gold Bug” (Philadelphia Dollar, 1843).
Most mystery writers acknowledge that Poe is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and primarily with his short story “Murder at the Rue Morgue,” but he also contributed to the emerging genre of science fiction and was one of America’s first well-known writers to earn a living through writing alone. However, he was forever in financial straits due to the lack of international copyright law, and with the sudden growth of periodicals, many which lasted only a few issues, publishers chose either to not pay their contributing writers or paid them later than promised. As a result, Poe was constantly asking for money or scheming for ways to make more.
His parents were actors, but his father abandoned the family when Poe was a baby. The following year he was orphaned with his brother and sister when his mother died at the age of 24. He was taken in by a Richmond, Virginia, family but they never formally adopted him. He lived with them into young adulthood and enjoyed an upper class lifestyle.
At 17, he entered the University of Virginia but left after a year because tuition was three times more than the $110 he had. So, he gambled his money to raise the rest. Instead, he ran up more than $2,000 in debt. While at university, Poe was secretly engaged to 15-year-old Elmira Royster, who promised to wait until after graduation to marry. But her father intercepted Poe’s letters and destroyed them thinking Elmira could do better. She eventually married a successful businessman.
A year later, Poe moved to Boston and published his first book of verse Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) under the pseudonym “A Bostonian,” which was a financial failure. Because he needed money, he enlisted in the U.S. Army under the name “Edgar A. Perry” where he thrived. He was transferred to Fort Moultrie, outside Charleston, S.C., and then to Fort Monroe at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. Later, he was promoted to Sergeant Major for Artillery. At the age of 21, he abruptly quit the Army and entered West Point, where he did well academically but was court marshalled for dereliction of duty. He said he found “the discipline exceedingly rigid.”
He moved to Baltimore where he lived with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia, for four years. He began writing short stories instead of poetry. One publication, the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia published a couple of his horror stories and offered him a staff writing job.
He invited his aunt and cousin, Maria and Virginia, to live with him in Richmond. A year later, he married Virginia who was his 13-year-old cousin. He was 27. There is much debate as to whether the marriage was consummated. When she died eleven years later from tuberculosis, he was understandably distraught. Many critics believe her death may have inspired some of his writing, but her death also encouraged his drinking.
After Virginia’s death, Poe’s biographers and his contemporaries claim his behavior became unstable, exhibited by drinking and erratic behavior.
As staff writer and critic for the Southern Literary Messenger magazine (Richmond, VA pub. 1834-1864) he excoriated writers of the day, and his reviews earned him enemies among the literati. Nonetheless, he successfully played a role in increasing circulation from 700 subscribers to 3,500. For a time, he served as the magazine’s assistant editor.
While he admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), in his criticisms he called out bad novels and overrated writers. He wrote the attacks under his own name, but also anonymously, and through the pseudonym of ‘Outis.”
Poe was straightforward on what a criticism entailed. In 1843, he wrote, “Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art novel, nor a dialogue. In fact, it can be nothing in the world but—a criticism.”
By 1849, a couple of years after Virginia died, Poe was known prominently in many cities and considered a “star author.” While he only earned $15 from the publication of “The Raven,” he commanded large audiences for his readings of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” and his lectures on the principles of poetry. One night, while lecturing in Richmond, his adolescent lover, Sarah Elmira Royster sat in the front row.
Royster, now 39, was widowed and a mother of two children. After her husband’s death, she and her children inherited $100,000 which she could keep unless she remarried.
Poe and Royster rekindled their relationship, and he pressed her to marry but her children disapproved. Historians believe she was hesitant to marry Poe because of rumors of his drinking and she may have inspired him to join the Sons of Temperance. Eventually, she agreed, and they were re-engaged.
Before he left her house to continue his lecture tour, he complained of being sick. She discouraged him from traveling. But he left Richmond and boarded a ship for Baltimore. From Sept. 27 until Oct. 3, there is no record of his whereabouts.
On Oct. 3, 1849, Poe was found lying semiconscious in a Baltimore street. He appeared drunk, was wearing clothes that were not his own, and repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds.” He was taken to Washington University Hospital, where for the next four days he slid in and out of consciousness. He died on Oct. 7, 1849.
So, how did Poe die? That is the unsolved mystery.
Here are the facts we know:
- On Sept. 27, 1849, Poe had $1,500 in his pockets when he left Sarah Royster’s home in Richmond. He was on his way to Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for Mrs. Marguerite St. Leon Loud, a minor figure in American poetry. She had agreed to pay him $100. After Philadelphia, Poe was scheduled to travel to New York City and escort his aunt back to Richmond for his impending wedding to Royster.
- On Oct. 3, 1849, the day he was found in the street in Baltimore, it was raining. He was semiconscious and not wearing his own clothes.
- Poe was found outside Ryan’s Tavern, sometimes known as Gunner’s Hall, 44 East Lombard Street, which served as a polling place for the next day’s election for members of Congress and House of Delegates.
- He was transported in a hack to Washington Medical College, where he regained partial consciousness but could not explain how he’d come to the condition he’d been found.
- He was under the care of resident physician Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was only twenty-five, or twenty-seven at the time.
- Poe died four days later.
- His last words were “Lord, help my poor soul.”
There are several theories as to how Poe died:
- A beating by ruffians after a drunken state
- The flu (he complained of being sick before leaving Richmond)
- Drunkenness which might explain his fever, delirium, and madness
- Mercury poisoning the result of a cholera epidemic he’d been exposed to earlier that year in Philadelphia. At that time, Poe’s doctor gave him mercury chloride which could explain his hallucinations and delirium before death
- Rabies, a common virus in the 19th century, and a theory proposed in 1996 by a Univ. of Maryland professor of medicine who looked at Poe’s symptoms without knowing his identity and without preconceived notions
- A brain tumor because a hardened clump of mass was found in Poe’s skull when his remains were exhumed from his grave; and while he was still alive, a New York physician told Poe he had a lesion on his brain that caused his adverse reactions to alcohol.
But none of these explain his change of clothes, which brings us to the last two plausible theories:
The Murder Theory
In the 2000 novel Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe by John Evangelist Walsh (1927-2015), he claims that Royster’s brothers did not want their sister to marry Poe. They ambushed him in Philadelphia and warned him. This frightened Poe, who would have changed clothes and hidden for a week before heading back to Richmond to marry Royster. It’s assumed the brothers caught him in Baltimore, beat him, and forced him to drink whiskey, knowing it would kill him.
The Cooping Theory
The other, more plausible, theory is that Poe died because of “cooping” a ballot box stuffing scam.
In the 19th century, gangs would kidnap victims off the street and imprison them in small rooms called “coops.” The victims were disguised and taken from polling place to polling place and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under multiple disguises. Gunner’s Hall, where Poe was found, was known to practice “cooping.” If Poe had been forced to vote multiple times and forced to drink, that would explain his strange clothes and his semiconscious ragged state.
While Poe was delirious at the hospital, he kept calling for “Reynolds.” It’s assumed he was referring to election judge Henry R. Reynolds who served at the Fourth Ward Polls at the Gunner House. If Reynolds was involved in the “cooping” scams and wronged Poe, it could explain his crying out his name.
However, there was also a Reynolds family that lived near the hospital, who visited the hospital with Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe.
Adding further to the confusion about Poe’s death, Dr. Moran, who, later in his sixties, gave varying accounts of Poe’s death in which he changed the time of admittance and death on several occasions, gave flowery utterances by Poe that were never in accordance with how Poe spoke, and may have concocted the “Reynolds” myth. Dr. Moran earned fame as a lecturer speaking about the death of Poe.
Unfortunately, none of the theories are conclusive. In any event, America lost one of its literary stars far too soon. Fortunately, however, his work lives on in print, and adaptations in film, television, cartoons, theatrical plays, music, and museums. The Mystery Writers of America names its annual awards program, “The Edgars” after Poe.
Interestingly, John Evangelist Walsh’s 2000 novel Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, was an Edgar Award nominee in the Best Critical/Biographical Work category (1999). His other work on Poe, Poe the Detective, was an Edgar Award nominee for Best Fact Crime in 1969.
Poe popularized the word “tintinnabulation” in his poem “Bells,” but he did not coin it. The word derives from Latin for tintinnabulum. Writers who study Poe believe the bells he writes about were heard from New York City’s Fordham University’s bell tower, since he resided in the same Bronx neighborhood and where he often strolled across campus to converse with students and Jesuits. He submitted the poem three times to Sartain’s Union Magazine in May 1848 after which it was finally accepted. He was paid $15 for the poem but it wasn’t published until after his death in the Nov. 1849 issue. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), founder and editor of the New York Daily Tribune, also published the poem on the front page of Oct. 17, 1849, as “Poe’s Last Poem.”
Historians believe that Sarah Royster is the “lost Lenore” in Poe’s poem “The Raven” and the title character in “Annabel Lee.” She claimed that Poe had assured her the poems were representative of her.
Poe originally sold his short story “The Gold Bug” to Graham’s Magazine for $52 but asked for it back when he heard about a writing contest sponsored by Philadelphia’s Dollar Newspaper. Poe did not return the money to Graham but instead offered to write reviews for the magazine. Poe won the grand prize of $100 and that may have been the most he was ever paid for a single work. The story was published in two installments: June 21 and June 28, 1843.
As of 2008, more than 300 hundred comic book adaptations of Poe’s works have been created, a figure that is possibly more than that of any other American writer. (Inge, M. Thomas (2008). The Incredible Mr. Poe: Comic Book Adaptations of the Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1943-2007. Richmond, VA: The Edgar Allan Poe Museum. p. 14.)
The Sons of Temperance, founded in 1842 in New York City, is a brotherhood of men who promote temperance and mutual support. The “temperance movement” took place in the United States from about 1800 to 1933 and promoted abstinence from the consumption of alcohol.
Other publications Poe was involved with include:
The American Review: A Whig Journal (pub. 1844-1852) a New York City monthly where in 1844, Poe was recommended as an editorial assistant but not hired. Two years later, he reviewed the editor George H. Colton’s poem “Tecumseh” and called it “insufferably tedious.”
In reviewing a collection of poems by William W. Lord in 1845, Poe said “the only remarkable things about Mr. Lord’s compositions are their remarkable conceit, ignorance, impudence, platitude, stupidity, and bombast.”
Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (pub. 1837-1840), Poe served as assistant editor from June 1839-May 1840.
Graham’s Magazine (pub. 1841-1858), Poe was co-editor and wrote tales, essays, and poems.
The New York Evening Mirror, Poe was a sub-editor from Sept. 1844 – Feb. 1845. His poem “The Raven” appeared Jan. 29, 1845.
Broadway Journal, Edgar Allan Poe was editor and later its owner.
Z.J. Czupor is president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and past Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (RMMWA). In addition to writing monthly columns for Rogue Women Writers and RMMWA, he is the author of THE BIG WEIRD: Haikus in Times of Pandemic and Chaos, available at Amazon.