A new musical play with Edgar A. Poe as its subject was recently reviewed by Charles Isherwood for The New York Times. Summing up the play Isherwood wrote:
“With just a few dollars to his name culled from lectures given at literary societies, Poe was en route from Virginia to New York when [he] had a mental breakdown, possibly brought on by his addiction to laudanum and alcohol. . . .
“With great invention, affection and wit, ‘Red-Eye to Havre de Grace’ adds new dimensions to our understanding of an American writer more famed than honored these days, creating a moving portrait of a gifted but haunted man struggling against psychological demons and the dark tide that draws us all toward extinction.”
In another current article about Poe, relating to his time spent in the Bronx, New York Times writer Sarah Harrison Smith claimed that “Poe, whose temperament was already melancholic, died in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1849, probably of some combination of alcoholism and rabies.”
Here we have two more items of misinformation to add to the ever growing pile of suppositions about Poe’s death. Perhaps more egregious is that these are from just the last month and from one of the most respected dailies in the country. The New York Times is where a reader is supposed to find “All the News That’s Fit to Print”—and apparently some that’s not.
It is unfair to continue to suggest 165 years after the event that Poe died as a result of haunting demons. Readers will find almost as many rumors about what killed Poe as they will untruths in a political ad on healthcare. Why pick on alcoholism, laudanum, or rabies? Maybe Poe died from brain fever, cholera, epilepsy, a rare enzyme disorder, tuberculosis, or brain lesions. Take your pick. All have been suggested.
All that is known for certain is that Edgar A. Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the age of 40. The only contemporary public reference to a specific cause of death was from the Baltimore Clipper, a somewhat cryptic “congestion of the brain” (The Poe Log, p. 851). Death certificates were apparently not required at the time and none is known to have been filed for Poe
The events prior to his death began on June 29, 1849, when Poe began a lecture tour to raise money for his projected magazine the Stylus. He went first to Philadelphia, then to Richmond and Norfolk.
His definite movements can be traced up until September 28, 1849, when Poe arrived in Baltimore. Nothing from then is certain until he is found incoherent on October 3. The Edgar Allan Poe Society has an excellent page compiling the facts of Poe’s death which includes the letter below.
On October 3, Joseph W. Walker sent the following note to Dr. J. E. Snodgrass:
“Dear Sir, — 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, Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.”
At the hospital, Poe was admitted and lapsed in and out of consciousness. He did not recover and died on October 7.
One hundred and sixty-five year later, we know now what we knew then: Edgar A. Poe, age 40, died we know not how.
In further commenting on how or why Poe died, I will follow the lead of the narrator of one of Poe’s early tales “The Assignation” (1834). The narrator of that story having witnessed the death of the protagonist writes that he will not “dishonour the memory of the great dead whose life was so little understood, and the received account of whose melancholy end is a tissue of malevolent blasphemies.”
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.
Read all posts by Susan Amper for Criminal Element.