How Did Edgar Allan Poe Die?

Edgar Allan Poe is recognized as not only the master of the macabre (for his dark and grisly stories), but also as a masterful short story writer and the inventor of the detective genre. The story of Poe’s death is truly puzzling — as if lifted right out of one of his short stories. More than 160 years later, Poe’s death remains one of the most mysterious deaths in literary history.

The story of the famous author’s death begins on October 3, 1849. Poe, then 40 years old, was found delirious lying in the gutter of a Baltimore, Maryland street, outside of Ryan’s Tavern, and near an election polling location. Joseph Walker, a local printer, found Poe and sent a letter to one of Poe’s acquaintances, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass: “There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.” Snodgrass came to Poe’s aid and was shocked by the author’s appearance — tousled hair, unwashed face, vacant eyes, and worn-out, ill-fitting clothers (most likely not Poe’s clothes since he was a dapper dresser). Dr. John Moran, Poe’s attending physician at Washington College Hospital (later renamed Church Hospital), elaborated on writer’s attire: “[Poe was wearing] a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.”

Poe spent his final four days in a spartan hospital room, with barred windows, in a section of the hospital reserved for drunks. Poe was never lucid enough to provide any details as to what happened to him prior to his hospitalization. Not allowed visitors, Moran was the only witness to Poe’s final intermittent mumblings. At one point, told of his imminent death, Poe told Moran that the best thing he could do was to blow out his brains with a pistol. In the final days, Poe was very delusional. Poe died on October 7; his final words were “Lord, help my poor soul.” Poe’s final resting place (he has been reburied a few times) is a cemetery next to Westminister Hall, one block away of what is now the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Although biographers have provided many explanations for his death — intoxication, drugs, rabies, cholera, syphilis, influenza, tuberculosis, or heart disease. Even though Poe was an alcoholical and drug addict, intoxication as a cause of death has been ruled out by many biographers and medical experts. There are two widely held explanations for Poe’s death: that he died as a result of cooping or rabies. Cooping was practiced by aggressive “election gang” members who would essentially kidnap an innocent bystander, drug them (with alcohol or narcotics), and coerce them into voting for a particular candidate in several different polling places (thus the need for disguises). Victims who refused to cooperate were beaten violently or even killed.

In an article published in the Maryland Medical Journal in September 1996, cardiologist R. Michael Benitez, MD from the University of Maryland Medical Center (he reviewed the historical medical records, not knowing that they belonged to Poe) and concluded that Poe died of rabies, perhaps having been bitten by one of his cats or other pets (perhaps a raven?). Although this diagnosis explains Poe’s symptoms extremely well, it doesn’t necessarily explain the writer’s uncharacteristic ensemble that day  — unless, of course, the cat that bit him also managed to do a quick wardrobe change.

For further reading: Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd, Nan Talese (2008).

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