The Mysterious Disappearance & Death of Edgar Allan Poe
What befell the literary genius — was it murder, robbery, political manipulation, addiction, or illness that killed Poe?
In late 1849, literary genius Edgar Allan Poe disappeared for five days. Discovered in the street wearing strange clothes, babbling incoherently, and on the verge of death — he never recovered enough to tell his final tale.
The mystery surrounding the death of one of America’s best-known authors remains unsolved to this day. Over the years several prominent theories have emerged — was it murder, robbery, political manipulation, addiction, or illness that killed Poe?
Let’s explore the theories and the facts of the case.
Who was Edgar Allan Poe?
Edgar Allan Poe was born on 19th January 1809. Poe was an American writer, poet, editor, and critic who is best known for his macabre poetry and short stories. Poe’s most notable works include The Raven (poem) and short stories: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat (the best short-story ever in my opinion) and, The Tell-Tale Heart.
Poe is often considered as the early inventor of the detective fiction genre. Poe was the first popular American writer to make a living exclusively from his writing — inspiring future generations of writing genius.
Mysterious Disappearance and Death
On 27th September 1849, Poe was due to travel home from Richmond, Virginia, to New York City via Philadelphia. No evidence of his journey or whereabouts is known from the 27th of September until the 3rd of October (the exact dates remain disputed by various accounts) when he was found in Baltimore.
Poe was discovered outside of Ryan’s Tavern, which was very busy that day as it was being used as a polling station in the election. A man named Joseph Walker wrote immediately to Poe’s friend, Dr. Snodgrass, saying:
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 (Source)
Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, Baltimore.
Due to his delirium being interpreted as drunkenness, he was confined to a cell-like sick-room reserved for alcoholics.
Poe’s physician was a man named Dr. John Moran who described the author’s clothing as, ‘a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat.’ It’s believed that these were not Poe’s own clothes as he always wore a smart woolen suit and never a straw hat.
Poe remained delirious, occasionally aggressive, and babbled a lot during his hospital stay. Although he seemed to be improving after a couple of days, Poe was never able to coherently describe what had happened to him since he left Richmond.
Allegedly, Poe called out words and phrases including, Reynolds! (possibly Herring), and asked for his wife — Poe’s first wife was deceased and his fiancee was waiting for him.
Finally succumbing to his condition, Poe died on or around the 7th of October, 1849.
Edgar Allan Poe’s final words were:
“Lord, help my poor soul”
Following his death, Poe was buried unceremoniously in Baltimore, with seven people attending the funeral. No autopsy records nor death certificate have ever been found.
Prominent theories around Poe’s death
More than a dozen theories exist as to the cause of Poe’s death. These include:
- Murder / Manslaughter
- Brain Tumor
- Mercury or lead poisoning
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
To name only ten. All are circumstantial and grounded in the notion that some of Poe’s symptoms and his situation support them.
I’ll explore the most likely causes of Poe’s death — the Top 5 — based upon my own opinion, research into first-hand and secondary accounts, and the theories put forth by leading biographers.
Many believe that alcohol killed the author.
Poe had struggled with his drinking in the past. Both Poe and his sister had a very low tolerance for alcohol and reportedly became very drunk from one glass of wine. Eyewitnesses in Baltimore described Poe in a way that seems consistent with drunkenness and he could have gone on a binge, somehow losing the very clothes off his back — perhaps as part of a drinking game.
However, Poe had quit alcohol for quite some time before his death, even going so far as to join the temperance movement.
Poe’s long-time drinking buddy attested to this. Additionally, Dr. John Moran claimed that Poe was sober and did not smell of liquor when he arrived in Washington College Hospital.
Before Poe had left Richmond, his personal physician had warned Poe that any alcohol intake would kill him.
It is possible that Poe had ‘fallen from the wagon’ for the last time.
Cooping was a primitive form of electoral fraud that took place during elections in the 1800s. Gangs of men would abduct citizens (especially out of towners), beat, drug, and intoxicate them, and then force them to vote multiple times. Frequently, the gangs would put their victims through multiple costume changes. Additionally, victims were often dumped outside the polling stations once no longer useful — Poe was found in the gutter outside of such a venue.
However, Poe was a famous author at the time and may have been recognized through a disguise. Additionally, this theory accounts for Poe’s disappearance but what had actually killed him?
Perhaps the drugs or beating component of cooping, but cooping alone can’t be written on a death certificate.
3. Murder / Manslaughter
Not long before his death, Poe had proposed to Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton — not for the first time. The daughter of a wealthy man, Sarah (aged 15) had been loved by Poe, but her father had prevented the union. Having gone on to ‘marry well,’ Sarah was left a wealthy widow. Although seemingly free to remarry, Sarah would forfeit part of her wealth should she do so; her children and brothers all disapproved of Poe.
How does Sarah link to Poe’s death? Leading biographer John Evangelist’s theory is that it was Sarah’s brothers who murdered Poe. Perhaps a warning-off-beating gone too far. Perhaps intentional murder. Perhaps they hired someone else to do their dirty work. As they stood to lose out considerably should their sister remarry, Evangelist claimed that they were motivated by greed.
Given what these brothers stood to lose financially, and their view of Poe as an alcoholic waster, it’s not a far-out theory that they ‘had him done in.’
4. Brain Tumor
Following Poe’s death, he was buried with little ceremony. 26 years later, however, the author was moved to a more deserving location that could be visited by those who loved him and his work. It was during the exhumation that the original coffin collapsed and Poe’s skeleton was exposed.
However, it was the exposure of Poe’s bones that lead to the discovery that the author’s brains remained intact. One onlooker described them for a local newspaper as:
‘The cerebral mass… evidenced no sign of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished.’
Another person described the brain as dried and hardened. Biographer Matthew Pearl spoke to scientists about this account and was assured that this was entirely impossible — it could not be the brain that these people saw as brain mass roots quickly. Pearl suggested that a large, calcified tumor would resemble a brain to the untrained eye.
This evidence, along with the symptoms that Poe exhibited (confusion, hallucinations, aggression) could support the argument that a tumor killed Edgar Allan Poe.
5. Rabies — it was the cat what done it!
During a blind analysis of the ‘cold case — EP,’ Doctors from the University of Maryland School of Medicine were asked for their opinion on the most likely cause of death.
Dr. Robert Benitez identified rabies as the most likely CoD.
Dr. Benitez argued that rabies was a common cause of death in Poe’s time. Poe had always loved cats (high-risk carriers of rabies) and lived very closely with them. The author’s symptoms matched those of a rabies death — bouts of confusion, high pulse rate, and temperature — and the average timescale for death was 4–5 days, which matches Poe’s sad demise.
Hydrophobia (fear of water) is also a tell-tale sign of rabies. While hospital records from the time show that Poe drank some water, it was with great difficulty. There was no recorded bite mark on Poe’s body although that is only present in around a quarter of all cases as people can be infected up to a year before they experienced symptoms.
This theory, like all others, has its critics and its flaws. However, the fact that this was a blind study does give it some credence.
Finally at rest
Whatever killed Edgar Allan Poe, the world lost a genius on that doomed Baltimore afternoon.
Throughout his life, Poe battled to earn a good living from his writing — he was one of the first authors to ever do so.
As well as his great poems, such as the Raven, Poe wrote an enormous number of mystery stories…perhaps it’s fitting then, that Poe himself left us with the great mystery of his own death.
Other stories from Jessie London in Chameleon:
All sources are linked.