He’s the father of detective stories and master of horror and suspense, and he died just as he wrote: under the veil of mystery.
On October 3rd, 1849, a printer by the name of Joseph W. Walker arrived at Gunner’s Hall in Baltimore to partake in the official activities for that Wednesday. It was election day, and it probably wasn’t uncommon to find drunks and otherwise befuddled fellows all around town, but this one was different. There and then, Walker found a strange and semi-conscious man in major distress. Incoherent, disoriented, and seemingly intoxicated, the man appeared in urgent need of medical attention. As Walker soon realized, the stranger had a familiar, if rather jagged, appearance. It was Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe had been staying in Richmond, Virginia, where he had just proposed to his childhood sweetheart Elmira Shelton. He planned on traveling to Philadelphia for an editing job, and then to his home in New York to escort his aunt back to Richmond for the wedding. So, on September 27th, he took a boat and arrived in Baltimore, which was on the way, one day later. What happened from then until that fateful morning when he was found in Gunner’s Hall remains a complete mystery.
The famous author seemed to have been changed into someone else’s old and dirty clothes by the time Joseph Walker found him. Dressed in an unfitted gabardine of cheap fabric, an old straw hat and worn shoes, he was never coherent for long enough to explain how he came to be in that situation. In his confused state, Poe managed to utter the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, to whom Walker promptly wrote the following note:
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.
Poe was never to leave Baltimore. Dr. Snodgrass and Henry Herring (Poe’s uncle) agreed the writer should be sent to Washington College Hospital, where he was attended by John Moran until his death on that Sunday morning. Over the course of four days, Poe lapsed in and out of consciousness, always in a state of delirium and utter confusion. As much as Moran tried to question him about the cause of his condition, Poe could never give a satisfying answer.
On one of the few occasions during which Poe was semi-awake, in an attempt to cheer him up, Moran told his patient he would soon enjoy the company of friends, to which Poe replied: “the best thing my friend could do would be to blow out my brains with a pistol.” Another time he spoke of a wife in Richmond, but it’s not clear whether he was talking about his fiancée, or if he thought his long-dead wife was still alive. He also had no memory of what happened to the trunk with his belongings. Finally, during the night of his death, Poe reportedly called out the name “Reynolds” on several occasions, but no one knows who he was referring to. On the morning of October 7th, 1849, Poe died of unknown causes with the words “Lord, help my poor soul.”
The funeral ceremony lasted for only three minutes, as the reverend didn’t bother with a sermon due to the small size of the crowd. He was originally buried in a cheap coffin and without a headstone. John Moran, who was the only person to witness Poe’s final days, gave conflicting accounts of his death to the public for years after the event.
The cause of death was originally listed as “cerebral inflammation” or “congestion of the brain,” common euphemisms at the time for disreputable causes such as alcohol ingestion. However, no official documents from the time related to Poe’s death were ever found, including medical reports or a death certificate. What is clear is that any plausible intoxication would not explain Poe’s symptoms, nor account for his demise, since his delirious and semi-conscious state lasted for way more than the acute effects of common substances would allow. Furthermore, Moran explicitly noted that the writer was not under the effect of any intoxicant, and he did not have the smell of alcohol neither on his breath nor on his person.
Several theories have been advanced over the course of the years as to what happened. Some say Poe died from cooping, an illegal practice during elections in which victims were drugged and forced to vote several times under different guises. Others claim he died of rabies. Yet others think he had syphilis, but we must accept the fact that Poe’s death will likely be shrouded in mystery forever. And it’s just as well, that’s probably how he would have liked it.
As we well know, before we had Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot there was C. Auguste Dupin. Both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, respectively, based their famous investigators on the mold of Poe’s original great detective —the first of his kind. Poe was the master of suspense, horror, and mystery. He captivated our minds with bizarre settings and groundbreaking storytelling. So, it’s only appropriate that, as the father of detective stories, Edgar Allan Poe left this world by giving us a final story of suspense: a real-life mystery.
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