Edgar Allan Poe Week: Death

Death Theories

Poe's death was mysterious. Congestion of the brain was the official write-up, which typically means alcohol poisoning. Some say Poe's drunkenness was greatly exaggerated from Griswold's smear campaign against the man. Poe was heading toward Richmond, but turned up suddenly near a Baltimore bar, incoherent and raving. His clothes were loose and in disarray. He also was saying the name, "Reynolds", which no one could figure out.

We will never know for certain, but there are three extremely likely scenarios which remain the most probable:

 1. Alcholism/Congestion and swelling of the brain: While many of Poe's scholars consider Griswold to have exaggerated, there is enough evidence to show he did indulge heavily in drink from an early age, especially concerning his fighting with Allan.

J.P. Kennedy wrote in his diary on October 10, 1849, the following to help support this:

 “On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch. . . . He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe! . . . A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched.” (Charles H. Bonner, John Pendleton Kennedy; Gentleman from Baltimore, Baltimore)

2. Rabies:  A Medical Maryland Center came up with this theory nearly 147 years after the writer's death. They state that since no autopsy was done, there's no way to be sure, but the symptoms match the final stage of rabies immediately before death. Hallucinations, shaking, delusions, ranting and raving.

These symptoms match a lot of conditions, sure, but the timing of the conditions helps bring it more into focus. When taken into the hospital Poe was experiencing tremors and hallucinations. His body became ill and slipped into a coma. He ended up waking and was calm and lucid for awhile, before becoming delirious again, this time combative and requiring restraints.  He died after spending four days in the hospital, and it was written on the report that it was "congestion of the brain." Four days from severe onset to death is the typical pattern of rabies before death occurs.

Several of these symptoms also fit in with Alcohol consumption, such as the tremors and delirium, but the doctors state that Poe had reportedly quit alcohol up to six months before this event, and that the hospital found no signs of alcohol usage.  The bigger kick though was it's unusual for an alcoholic patient to become that sick, recover for a bit, and then become sick again and die so shortly following. This is more of a traditional rabies timetable.

An even bigger sign again was that hospital records reported Poe refused any alcohol offered, and only drank water when he had to, but with great difficulty, which may indicate hydrophobia, one of the biggest diagnosis of rabies. There have been evidence, however, to state that Poe did not have difficulty drinking water, but instead did not wish to suck on an ice cube. If hydrophobia really is disputed, then rabies loses much of its validity as a cause of death.

Poe had a great number of pets over the years, including cats, and without vaccinations for animals in those days, rabies was more rampant. No bites were reported on Poe, but this was common for rabies patients and victims in those days - in fact it was reported most people who died from rabies, only 27% displayed signs of bites. The rabies incubation period can last up to a year in the human body, so if it was a result of a bite, it could have been long healed.

3. Cooping: In the days of Edgar Allan Poe there existed political gangs who would kidnap homeless and weak men and hold them hostage days before a major election. Poe had been traveling when he disappeared to show up ranting, and then found unconscious.

He was found on the day of a major election, which would explain the timing if cooping was the cause. The bar he was found ranting at was near a major election booth, Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls.

A big support of this theory was the unusual accounts of his clothing. How loose and ill-fitting they were. Several Cooping victims were changed into clothing not their own in order to be forced to return to do more votes. The clothing Poe was found in was not his usual business suit, but instead cheap, stained clothing with a palm leaf hat. The pants and shirts were ripped, badly soiled, and made of rough material.

There are reports from the train that Poe left that two men were reportedly following him according to conductor.

The victims were either beaten or drugged prior to being forced by the gangs on the voting, and then released. Many times they were repeatedly forced to consume large amounts of alcohol to distort them.

Poe was reputed to be carrying a large amount of money on his travels for his business trip, subscriptions gathered for the magazine, in the sum of up to $1500.00. No money was found on his person when he was discovered, however, leading either to a mugging theory or aligning with Cooping and being held captive. Even though the amount of 1500 was refuted, it would have been quite surprising for Poe to have obtained that much money and to be traveling with it.

According to Vylla Poe Wilson and Elizabeth Ellicott, they have been reported as saying: “The conclusion to be drawn, in view of all the factors and probabilities, is that he was shanghaied shortly after his arrival in Baltimore, given liquor and opium to which he was peculiarly susceptible, and while in that irresponsible condition held until election day. A certain Passano, associated with that ‘coop,’ is said to have confessed to relatives in after years that this is what happened to the poet, but no formal record was made of his testimony to this effect” (E. E. Poe and V. P. Wilson, Edgar Allan Poe: A High Priest of the Beautiful, Washington: The Stylus Publishing Company, 1930, p. 79).

Some have said this is unlikely as Poe was easily recognized in Baltimore, having been famous by that time. Also, there was little said about the highly illegal practice. This may in actuality support the theory though, as police and the press focused on any cooping charges with little limelight, as they didn't want to draw attention to it.

Also, Reynolds was a name of a voting judge well-known at the time, Henry R. Reynold, who presided over the Fourth Street polls.