The Edgar Allan Poe Murder Conspiracy
As the original goth boi, it’s only fitting that Edgar Allan Poe’s death was as mysterious and haunting as one of his stories. Just before he died at age 40, he seemed to drop off the face of the Earth for a week, and his death has been attributed to everything from low blood sugar to murder. He even made sure to leave a trail of unsettling but confounding clues, because that’s just how Eddie P. do.
On September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia, where he’d been busy talking his childhood sweetheart into marrying him, for Philadelphia for a job editing a poetry collection (it needed more symbolism or something), after which he intended to head back to New York, where he lived. His itinerary couldn’t have been clearer, but he apparently never made it to Philadelphia, let alone New York. In fact, no one saw him again for almost a week.
October 3, 1849
Four days before his death, Poe resurfaced in Baltimore, if you can call the gutter a surface. A passerby somehow recognized him lying there despite his disoriented, disheveled state. He was actually wearing someone else’s clothes -- cheap, ill-fitting, and completely different from what he usually wore -- so he was literally in disguise.
Poe was taken to a hospital ward usually reserved for the excessively blitzed, but according to the only doctor who treated him, he showed no sign of being drunk. He was definitely delirious, though, babbling incoherently and appearing to experience hallucinations. According to the most likely account, he never got it together long enough to explain how a business trip turned into a disoriented game of dress-up before he died on October 7.
Poe’s Cause of Death
The cause of Poe’s death was officially phrenitis, or “congestion of the brain,” but that doesn’t actually tell us much about what caused his skull meats to get all sniffly. It was a diagnosis often given to those who died of drug overdoses or alcohol poisoning, but not always. As a result, a number of different theories have been devised, including, in no particular order:
The most obvious explanation is that Poe drank himself to death, as it’s hard to end up passed out in the gutter by leading a sober life, but Poe’s reputation as a drinker came mostly from an unauthorized biography by some dick who had it out for him. Poe liked a glass of wine, but he was actually such a lightweight that that’s about all he could handle, so he simply wasn’t capable of dangerous levels of drinking. Modern forensic tests have also revealed it was unlikely Poe was drinking in his final days, though he probably did stop in Baltimore to hang out with friends.
Some accounts of unclear veracity insist that Poe left his friends after his customary single drink and went wandering around Baltimore, at which point he insulted a woman for some reason and her companions beat him nearly to death and robbed him for good measure. There’s no real reason this couldn’t be true, but nobody seems to have noted any bruises or other indications of an ass-whooping, and it’s an awfully kind mugger who redresses his victim after stealing his clothes.
One author claims that it was actually his new fiancee’s brothers who first threatened him in Philadelphia, forcing him to disguise himself on his way back to Richmond, where they found him anyway because there’s no mistaking that mustache, and they were the ones who beat him. This is only more plausible in that it explains why he was wearing those silly clothes, but historians consider it even less likely than the robbery.
Was it all a big voter fraud scheme? Stay with us: Poe was found on election day near a tavern that was also serving as a polling location because 19th-century election officials really knew how to score a turnout -- sort of. It was also a time of rampant “cooping,” the practice of local gangsters to kidnap randos, beat and/or drug them into submission, and force them to vote for their guy over and over in different disguises. Poe may very well have been a victim of cooping, although again, he didn’t seem to be beaten or drugged.
So what could account for Poe’s state, if not booze or blows to the head? According to doctors who were presented with a hypothetical patient displaying Poe’s symptoms at a conference in 1996, rabies. The only box on the checklist not ticked was an animal bite, which seems pretty important to a rabies diagnosis, but it can take up to a year for symptoms to develop, so Poe could have been bitten by an offended black cat and just gone about his life.
Poe could never be called a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and the year before his death, he attempted suicide by overdose of laudanum, so it’s possible he gave it another go. Analysis of his writing around the time of his death does suggest he was in a dark place, but the same could probably be said of all of our middle-school diaries.
The most important break in the case came 26 years after Poe’s death, when his grave was moved and everybody decided to take the opportunity to do some poking around. Three years later, one worker commented offhand that Poe’s brain “rattled around inside just like a lump of mud.” That’s not possible because brains rot fast (the more you know!), but it could have been a brain tumor. Poe was told by a doctor once that lesion on his brain was what made him such a lightweight, but that’s all we’ve got outside of the word of some guy.
Some believe it came down to some thoroughly unmysterious disease like diabetes, epilepsy, tuberculosis, or cholera. After all, the 19th century was lousy with ‘em, and low blood sugar does make you act pretty weird, but at this point, we’re just grasping at straws. It’s all made harder by…
The only person who saw Poe alive after he was brought to the hospital was Dr. John Moran, who kept changing his story. In some retellings, Poe never usefully regained consciousness; in others, he was lucid enough to recite poetry at times. Moran might have been trying to rehab Poe’s image, but he only muddied things further, casting doubt, for example, on the doctor’s claim that Poe wasn’t drunk. He also made sure he was the only witness by forbidding visitors due to Poe’s “excitable” state, so if it wasn’t sheer coincidence that brought Poe to that hospital, we’d say he killed him.
The “Reynolds” Mystery
One of the weirdest aspects of Poe’s death was Moran’s recollection of him repeatedly calling for a person named Reynolds, because nobody has a clue who this Reynolds is. Poe wasn’t close to anyone named Reynolds; our best guesses are Jeremiah Reynolds, an explorer who inspired one of Poe’s characters but who he may or may not have ever even met, or Henry Reynolds, an election judge in the district where Poe was found. Both possibilities only raise more questions, but the biggest one is “Did this even happen, considering the source?”
There’s No Records
You know what would be really helpful here? An autopsy. A death certificate. Any records of any kind. None have survived, if they ever existed, and no autopsy was ever performed on a famous writer who died a bizarrely mysterious death. We don’t know, guys. Our money’s on the hospital administration.
Top image: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons