Friday, November 20, 2009

The Mystery of the Death of Edgar Allan Poe

The jury remains out on what exactly killed writer Edgar Allan Poe in early October 1849. He had been lecturing in Richmond and was on his way back to his home in Fordham, New York, where he lived with his aunt and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, his wife Virginia having died of consumption two years previously. It is thought that Poe had aspirations to remarry and that was one reason he was in Richmond, to renew his acquaintanceship with certain ladies. . . In any case a week after leaving Richmond he was found in bad straits on a Baltimore sidewalk. What had happened to him in the intervening week is a mystery.

His body was probably weakened from years of drinking and exhaustion although it's not clear whether alcoholism killed him. The local story that he was taken round the voting polls and voted as a repeater is probably not true. He was found by Baltimore Sun compositor Joseph W. Walker in a dying condition in a drumming rain on the afternoon of 3 October 1849 on the sidewalk outside of Ryan's Tavern on East Lombard Street, where the 4th Ward polls were located. This location is a block east of the existing Carroll Mansion near the corner President Street and Lombard. The fact that Poe was wearing poor and bedraggled clothes that were not his own is suspicious and might lead us to believe he was robbed. And yet his missing trunk was later recovered and is now in the Poe Museum in Richmond. Mystery upon mystery.

Poe murmured the name of a friend, Joseph E. Snodgrass, M.D., who lived a few streets away, and Snodgrass was duly sent for. A bit of a mystery pertains here as well, because the writer's cousin Henry Herring and his family lived closer to the location of the tavern, in a house opposite to the Carroll Mansion. The fact that Herring was not sent for might indicate that Poe had been drinking and he didn't want his cousin to see him in that condition. In 1833, Dr. Snodgrass had been editor of the Saturday Evening Visiter. The newspaper sponsored a literary competition in which Poe won first prize of $50.00 -- no small sum back then! -- for his story "Ms. Found in a Bottle." It was his first literary success. No doubt fond memories of his big break remained in Poe's memory bank, as well as the thought that perhaps Dr. Snodgrass might be more sympathetic to him than his relatives.

Unfortunately for Poe, Snodgrass later became a rampant teetotaler and lecturer on the evils of drink. In his firebrand talks he cited the example of Poe as an inebriate. He described the writer as disgusting looking when he found him slumped in a seat in Ryan's tavern. He bundled the writer into a carriage bound for Washington College Hospital on Broadway, some seven blocks to the east. The fact that Snodgrass, a physician, did not attend to the ailing writer himself might be significant. In any case, four days later on 7 October, Poe died in the hospital. He apparently spent much of his last four days delirious.

In regard to Poe's final hours, more controversy exists. Poe's attending physician Dr. John J. Moran later published A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe (Washington, D.C.: W. F. Boogher, 1885) in which he claimed that the writer did not die of alcholism. However, in his a letter to Poe's mother-in-law, Mrs. Maria Clemm, on 15 November 1849, five weeks after the writer's death, Moran hints darkly that Mrs. Clemm would know of what ailment he died ("Presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died. . . .") -- which most scholars take to mean the writer had taken to drink while in the city and alcoholism played a part in his demise.

According to Moran, if he is to believed, Poe called out the name "Reynolds!" several times. There was an explorer named Jeremiah N. Reynolds whose accounts Poe used as source material for his sea novella The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Could a delirious Poe on his deathbed have thought he was on the high seas with Reynolds?

In my research, I found a more mundane and Poe-like reason why the dying writer might have called out the name. According to Baltimore City street directories, around the time of Poe's death, a "Washington Reynolds" was a gravedigger living on Greene Street. On 9 October, Poe was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in the Presbyterian graveyard at the corner of Fayette and Greene Streets. His cousins Henry Herring and Neilson Poe were among the smattering of mourners in attendance.

Follow the link through the title for a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's life and death. The writer has a few things wrong and might overly emphasize Poe's drinking. . . but he or she covers a lot of aspects aboout Poe quite well and succinctly, and the accompanying cartoons are interesting as well. Check it out.


Anonymous said...

hmmmmmmm, thanks

Undine said...

I've done some blogging about the baffling mystery of Poe's death myself, and the main roadblock is the good Dr. Moran. He is our main source on the topic, and the guy was, most unfortunately, a liar. He seems to have told everyone he met a different story about what killed Poe, which leads me to suspect that he never had the slightest idea what really happened.

For what it's worth, a late 19th-century Poe biographer named Eugene Didier claimed he talked to the doctor who really attended Poe's deathbed (I forget offhand the physician's name) and he said Moran never so much as laid eyes on Poe.

nia said...

Thank you Chris, it was an interesting reading.