On October 3, 1849, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun named Joseph W. Walker decided to head to Gunner Hall’s, which had been set up at polling station for the day’s election. Thinking he’d gauge the vibe or catch a whiff of public sentiment, he knew the public house would be a great place to find a lead for his next story.
And he was right. But not in the way he imagined.
Instead, upon arrived at Gunner’s Hall, he found a man lying in a gutter delirious, semi-conscious, and unable to move. As Walker bent to assist him, he was startled to discover the identity of the man was none other than Edgar Allan Poe. The famed poet was wearing clothes that didn’t seem to belong to him; they were shabby, cheap, and ill-fitting, a sharp departure from Poe’s usual well-tailored wool suits. In addition, he wore a straw hat atop his head, something the acclaimed writer would never have chosen for himself. Poe arose from his stupor long enough to pass along the name of a person he believed could help him–Joseph E. Snodgrass–before falling back into the depths of oblivion.
A letter was sent to Snodgrass, who was a magazine editor with some medical training, and Poe was taken to a local hospital. For four days, he drifted in and out of semi-consciousness, speaking incoherent sentences and experiencing visual hallucinations. However, he never regained enough of himself to tell doctors exactly what had happened. On the night of October 6, he uttered one more nonsensical word–“Reynolds”–before passing away the next day at the age of 40. A Baltimore newspaper reported he had died of “congestion of the brain.”
But what does that even mean? And how did it happen?
What is known for sure is that Poe left Richmond, Virginia on September 27 (a full week earlier) bound for Philadelphia. Once there, he was to edit a collection of poems for Mrs. St. Leon Loud. However, Poe never made it Philadelphia. From his departure on the 27 to the discovery of his dilapidated, barely conscious body outside Gunner’s Hall on October 4, no one saw Poe. No one spoke to him.
The world’s best horror novelist seemingly took a page out of his own book: missing for a week, discovered, then dead without cause.
Or was there?
Many believe Poe’s death was a result of complications from alcoholism. Snodgrass himself, who was the first medical professional to attend Poe at Gunner’s Hall, believed that Poe’s condition was a result of drunkenness and his subsequent illness alcohol withdrawal. Other witnesses came forward, saying they’d seen Poe around Baltimore in the days before his collapse going on a “drinking bender.” It’s entirely plausible, as he had been notorious in his inability to handle alcohol and had thus suffered from bouts of alcoholism throughout his life. However, in the months leading up to his death, Poe had joined a temperance movement, which sought to promote the consumption of alcohol. In addition, John Moran, the attending physician at the hospital, refuted Snodgrass’s claims, saying he did not believe Poe was drunk nor had he been drinking in the days leading up to his illness. He cited the length of his ailment as well as his slight improvement before ultimately dying as inconsistent with “death by drink.” Science lended weight to Moran’s opinion; low levels of lead were found in Poe’s hair after his death, indicating at least partial sobriety. This didn’t stop Snodgrass from using Poe’s death to further the temperance movement, of which he was also an active part. For several years afterwards, he gave lectures across the country, blaming Poe’s death on binge drinking and furthering the unsubstantiated theory of his demise.
But, if it wasn’t alcohol, what else could it have been?
Some believe Poe was beaten to death by ruffians, either during a robbery attempt or during a case of mistaken identity at the behest of an injured woman. Still others believe it may have been carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the coal gas used for indoor lighting at the time. Others cite high levels of mercury in Poe’s system in the months leading up to his death and believe it was heavy metal poisoning. Still other, more common causes–diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy, tuberculosis, the flu, even rabies–have been put forth. All of these theories, though perhaps plausible, fail to account for all of the symptoms or circumstances surrounding Poe’s surmise.
More sinister speculation has also arisen. Some believe Poe was a victim of “cooping,” a method of voter fraud carried out by gangs in the late 19th century. During a coop, thugs would force an unsuspecting victim under threat of violence to vote for a particular candidate multiple times wearing various disguises. Proponents of this theory believe it was no coincidence Poe was discovered in his beleaguered state on Election Day outside a polling place known to be a hot spot for cooping. His ragged clothes and delirious state could have been a result of costume changes as well as the celebratory glass of alcohol given to voters upon casting; if Poe had been committed to temperance, months of abstaining (coupled with his natural inability to handle liquor) could explain his stupor.
There has also been conjecture that Poe may have been murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancee, Elmira Shelton. They believe his “disappearance” was actually a week of hiding after receiving threats during his time in Philadelphia. His second-hand clothes were an attempt at disguise before returning to marry his sweetheart–a marriage that was not to be as, supposedly, the brothers found him anyway and ended the engagement–and Poe’s life.
Each theory surrounding Poe’s death carries answers–and more questions. Although some are more believable than others, none of have sufficient weight to definitively close the case on just what transpired in the final days of Edgar Allan Poe. But perhaps it’s only fitting for the world’s most famous author of the macabre’s death to be shrouded in lurid uncertainty.