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Morbid Mystery - Edgar Allan Poe's Disappearance & Death

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Edgar Allan Poe by ActuaLitté
Call me Goth-Daddy

Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7th, 1849. He was found delirious in a Baltimore gutter by a local journalist on October 3rd. The journalist, Joseph W. Walker, thought the man to be drunk at first. He soon recognized the man as Edgar Allan Poe. The author was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he spent the next 4 days in a hallucinatory fugue. Shortly before his death, Poe was heard to cry out the name Reynolds. Although Poe was a notorious alcoholic, his delirium does not seem to have been caused by spirits.

The Poet's Final Journey

Edgar Allan Poe is considered by many as the father of the detective novel. His tales of mystery and suspense have inspired countless writers over the decades since he published, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. The circumstances of his death hold the same gothic flavor. Death imitating art.

Poe's journey started in June 1849. He left New York on a speaking tour to raise funds for a literary magazine that he wanted to publish. Following the tour, he would take a ferry from Richmond, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland on September 27 before returning to New York. Poe had developed a fever and visited a doctor in Richmond. The world was caught in a cholera pandemic in those years, leading some scholars to speculate that the author had caught the deadly virus.

Very little is known about what transpired between September 28th, when he arrived in Baltimore, and October 3rd when he was found outside a tavern. The doctor that tended to him stated that although he appeared drunk, Poe didn't smell of alcohol. His feverish state didn't relent until his death, and he was unable to provide any clues about what befell him.

Tragically, he was set to return to Richmond to be married to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster.

Discordant Details

Joseph Walker hadn't recognized the addled author at first. Edgar Allan Poe was characteristically dressed in his all-black wool suit, this wasn't the case when he was found. He was found wearing an ill-fitting brown suit and a straw hat, clearly someone else's clothes. Onlookers reportedly thought he was just drunk, a fact supported by him lying outside a tavern. The attending doctor at Washington Medical College, in Baltimore, thought that he had been drugged. No evidence exists for Poe being drunk when he was found.

Edgar Allan Poe died of “congestion of the brain” as noted by Dr. J.F.C Hadel, the then Baltimore Health Commissioner. While he languished in the hospital, Poe is said to have been rambling incoherently. His last coherent words were calling out the name “Reynolds”.

I would like to thank one of John Frederick Charles Hadel's relatives who pointed out that his surname was misspelled in an early article, and the error stuck. The Baltimore Health Commissioner was Dr. J.F.C Hadel, not Handel.

The Fear-Father's Fate

Several theories have been presented about how Poe died. The mysterious circumstances of his disappearance and delirium leave a lot of room for speculation. Due to his alleged alcoholism, many of his critics are quick to dismiss his death as alcohol poisoning or even withdrawal. His doctor at the time believed that he had been drugged. Others have suggested that Poe died after being severely beaten, the trauma causing swelling of his brain.

  • Death by Booze:

Edgar Allan Poe was often seen with a drink in his hand. The macabre writer seems to have suffered from social anxiety, and he used alcohol as a crutch to facilitate social fluidity. Thomas Mayne Reid, Poe's drinking buddy, disputes the claims that the author was a habitual drinker. He claims that Poe only partook occasionally, and, “never went beyond the innocent mirth in which we all indulge.” Some who knew him reported that Poe had a very low tolerance for alcohol, becoming drunk after a single glass of wine.

  • Drug Overdose

Others have suggested that Poe was an opium-fiend. The idea that Poe had killed himself by indulging in the heroin-predecessor is challenged by one of his admitted enemies. Thomas Dunn English a politician and medical doctor had this to say, “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him (before 1846) I should, both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it during his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits at his house, and our meetings elsewhere – I saw no signs of it and believe the charge to be a baseless slander.” Some think that Poe was drugged against his will.

  • Violent Crime

Poe had just come off of a speaking tour to raise funds for his magazine. Could it be that he was simply the victim of a mugging? His attackers could have seen him handling the money and decided to beat it out of him like a goth piñata. Author John Evangelist Walsh proposed the theory that Poe's soon to be brothers-in-law were opposed to his engagement with their sister. He proposed that her three brothers followed Poe onto the ferry to intimidate him into breaking off the engagement. Could they have taken things too far and added a beating when he refused?

  • Death by Electoral Fraud

Cooping is a form of electoral fraud where gangs would kidnap men and ply them with copious amounts of alcohol. These inebriated victims would then be taken from polling station to polling station and be forced to vote repeatedly for the candidate that hired the gang. Cooping gangs would change their victims' clothing after every vote to throw off suspicion. Resistance would be rewarded with a severe beating. Gunner's Hall, the tavern where Poe was found, was known as a hotspot for cooping gangs. Poe's low alcohol tolerance could have made him susceptible to alcohol poisoning from the cheap spirits the Coopers forced down their victims' throats. His cries of “Reynolds” might be in reference to Henry R. Reynolds, one of the judges overseeing polling at Ryan's Tavern.

  • Disease

Poe's erratic behavior has also been explained to be a symptom of either rabies or a brain tumor. In The September 1996 issue of the Maryland Medical Journal, Dr. R. Michael Benitez proposed the diagnosis of rabies. This disease was a common ailment during the time when Poe lived. Dr. Benitez made the diagnosis after being presented with the case of a hypothetical patient simply called E.P. The writer's diagnosis was clear to Benitez, a patient admitted due to lethargy and confusion whose condition rapidly deteriorated into delirium, visual hallucinations, rapid shallow breathing, and widely varied pulse-rates. The only flaw in the diagnosis is that Poe never showed any signs of hydrophobia, a common rabies symptom.

Whatever caused the death of Edgar Allan Poe, the world lost a literary gem on October 7th, 1849. The father of the modern mystery novel left his greatest conundrum with the circumstances of his death. Was he simply the victim of organized crime, or murdered by his fiancé's brothers? We will never know the truth of his death, but we can celebrate his life's work.

What do you think happened to Edgar Allan Poe?