Edgar Allan Poe Discovered Delirious in Baltimore, 1849

The man who found Edgar Allan Poe on October 3rd, 1849, said that he was wandering the streets, delirious, “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance.” The man was Joseph A. Walker, a Baltimore printer, and he found him outside Ryan’s Tavern and immediately sent a note to Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, a friend of Poe’s. When Snodgrass went to him, he discovered him in a terrible state, with an unwashed face and disheveled hair. His shirt was dirty and his clothing did not fit him well. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, still delirious and incoherent. He would be dead four days later.

Poe had left Richmond, Virginia on September 27th. He planned to travel to Baltimore and from there to catch a train to Philadelphia, where he had a business appointment, and then on to New York, where he was meeting his aunt, Maria Clemm. Maria was not only his aunt, but the mother of Poe’s deceased wife, his beloved cousin Virginia. Virginia had died two and half years previously, and Poe was ready to move on. He had rekindled a romance with his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, and an October wedding was planned. Poe was going to New York to bring his aunt back to Richmond for the ceremony.

We know that Poe arrived at Baltimore on September 28th. The next five days are a mystery.

After admission to the hospital, Poe remained incoherent until his death. He was kept in a prison-like room normally reserved for drunks. He was said to have called out the name “Reynolds” on several occasions, but no one knows for certain who this Reynolds was. He was unable to tell what had happened to him, or what had happened to his trunk of clothes and manuscripts. Before he died, his doctor said, he cried out, “Lord, help my poor soul.”

Poe’s doctor, Dr. John Joseph Moran, was the only one to see Poe during his final days, and his story is a little bit questionable. He also claimed that Poe exclaimed (just before his last words, one assumes) “The arched heavens encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair.” It seems quite a mouthful for a delirious man.

Moran also, in the years after Poe’s death, wrote and lectured frequently on the subject. His story changed a bit over time. On various occasions, he claimed that Poe had been admitted to the hospital on October 3 at 5 pm, on October 6 at 9 am, and on October 7 at “10 o’clock in the afternoon.” In each case, he claimed to have verified the information with the official hospital records. It’s impossible to say just what the hospital had recorded — the records disappeared long ago.

Also missing today is any death certificate on Edgar Allan Poe. The local newspapers reported his death as due to “cerebral Inflammation” or “congestion of the brain,” both popular euphemisms of the day for alcoholism. Joseph Snodgrass, Poe’s friend who took him to the hospital, also did a great deal to support the “death by alcoholism” theory. Snodgrass was a temperance man, and found Poe to make a lively illustration to his lectures on the evils of alcohol.

It was true that Poe had had difficulties with alcohol throughout his life. This happened particularly in times of great difficulty and depression, such as the days immediately following the death of Virginia. His life, immediately before the last days of September at any rate, seemed to have reached a particularly high point. His career was going well and he was soon to be married. The previous August he had even joined the Sons of Temperance and renounced all use of alcohol, quite probably at his sweetheart’s urging.

Alcohol and drug abuse are certainly two causes popularly thought to have led to Poe’s death. Other suggested causes are diabetes, epilepsy, syphilis, cholera, or lead or mercury poisoning. One of the most intriguing suggestions, however, is that Poe may have been a victim of cooping.

Cooping was a type of election fraud that was practiced in 19th century America. Election gangs, in the hire of a particular candidate, would snatch victims off the street, forcing them to vote, again and again. Sometimes they were taken to different polling stations. Sometimes they were forced to change clothes and appearance and vote again at the same location. In between, they were kept in a small room and plied with drugs and/or alcohol to keep them acquiescent. If they refused, they were likely to be beaten or abused.

Any alcohol at all would have been likely to have caused Edgar Allan Poe a problem. Many of friends and associates claimed that, although he did not drink heavily, he seemed to have a metabolic problem with alcohol — the first drink would sometimes render him a maniac. The clothes he appeared in, too, tend to substantiate the cooping theory. They were not his own — or, at any rate, they were not the ones he left Richmond in, or any that he was known to own. Poe, usually neatly dressed and somewhat of a dandy, would be unlikely to dress himself in such items: an old bombazine coat and pants, a dirty shirt, no vest, run-down shoes and a straw hat. Moreover, the clothes did not fit him.

If Poe has come to be remembered as a brilliant but mad individual, frequently drunk or drugged and always depraved, a lot of the credit can be laid at the feet of a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Griswold, like Poe, was a poet, editor, and critic, and the two men had frequently attacked each other verbally, both on the lecture circuit and in print. To make matters worse, Griswold was smitten with a woman poet named Frances Sargent Osgood. Poe and Osgood were, at one time, the best of friends, and their harmless flirtations (both were married — and faithful — at the time) had provoked quite a bit of gossip in literary circles.

Griswold may have had nothing but bad to say about Poe when he was alive, but that was nothing to what he said once he was dead. One of the best-known Poe obituaries was written by Griswold under the pseudonym “Ludwig.” “This announcement [of Poe’s death],” he said, “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” He went on to paint a portrait of the man as a mad genius, prowling the streets of the city, locked into ghastly fantasies and malevolent suspicion.

Griswold also gained permission from Poe’s aunt — whether by guile or simple error on her part, we’ll never know — to become Poe’s literary executioner. He published a volume of Poe’s work which included a biography written by Griswold, showing Poe in the blackest light. It appears that many of the incidents of the work were fully fabricated by Griswold, who even went to the extent of forging letters to support his allegations. The biography was discredited by those who knew Poe best, but, since it was the only full biography published about Poe for many years it nevertheless received wide attention. Even today, many of the facts that we think we know about Poe — his habitual drunkeness, his use of drugs, his general insanity — originated with Griswold’s biography.

Poe was buried quietly in the back corner of the Old Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore. His cousin, Nielson Poe, ordered a white Italian marble headstone, but the stone was destroyed when a runaway train entered the monument yard and ran over it, so Poe’s grave was unmarked. Only nine people attended the funeral. The Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, Virginia’s cousin, officiated, but there were so few people in attendance that he didn’t bother with a sermon. The ceremony lasted three minutes.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/October 3; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Edgar_Allan_Poe; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooping; http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/celebrity/edgar_allan_poe/index.html; http://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poedeath.htm; http://www.eapoe.org/papers/psbbooks/pb19871d.htm; http://www.online-literature.com/poe/.

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