October 7, 1849
Edgar Allen Poe, the patron-saint of Gothic prose, dies.
A far-cry from the talented, eloquent writer we all all know him to be – Poe dies a haggard, frail shell of a man.
Four days before, he had been seen at Ryan’s Tavern in Balitmore, crashing into furniture in an apparently-drunken stupor – one observer noted his ”beastly state of intoxication.”
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. WalkerPrinter Joseph W. Walker
Poe’s condition was shocking – one observer noted his ”lusterless and vacant eyes” whilst making note of his ”haggard, unwashed face”. It seemed baffling how he ended up in this condition, and Poe himself was in no shape to answer any questions about his plight. With the rain in Baltimore cascading down in a blitz, Poe stumbled its streets mumbling incoherent gibberish.
But Edgar had not always been like this. Just days before, he had left Richmond, Virginia, bound for Philadelphia to undertake some editing work for an up-and-coming writer. Still only forty, Poe was robust, energised, and working regularly. Although hampered by an alchol problem, his career showed no signs of slowing down.
From embarrassing pleas for money to nationwide recognition following The Raven, Poe’s life echoed the archetypal American Dream native of his homeland – somewhat. Despite the immediate success of The Raven, Poe was only paid $9 (around $300 in 2020) for its publication. Although no longer a pauper, Poe’s life was hardly that of luxury.
It had been turbulent since the death of his wife, Virginia Clemm, in 1847 from tuberculosis. Thirteen years his junior, Clemm was also Poe’s first cousin. A bizarre arragement, no doubt, but her death only worsened the poet’s already burgeoning alchohol problem.
He seemed completely out of it at Ryan’s Tavern. Rambling and incoherent, the mystery of Poe’s condition only deepened – nobody was sure why he was even in Baltimore in the first place, or how he ended up so far off-route from Philadelphia. Even the clothes on his back didn’t belong to him. Overpowered by delusions and hallucinations, Poe’s dreadful showing seemed like the kind of gritty mystery found in his own works.
A large figure in the Poe mystery of the identity of the person simply known as ‘Reynolds’. As Poe meandered through the streets, he was heard repeatedly shouting this name – albeit in a slurred fashion. Nobody could verify who ‘Reynolds’ was, or if this person was responsible for Poe’s sudden steep decline. Poe was not conscious enough to answer questions, so the identity of this person has been cast in a dark shadow for over a hundred years. Was ‘Reynolds’ Jeremiah N. Reynolds? The newspaper editor whose presence may have inspired a Poe novel? Only Poe knew the answer to this – and the person’s identity rests with him.
As his condition worsened, Poe was taken to a windowless, cell-like room at the Washington College Hospital. It was here that the severity of Poe’s hallucinations began to accelerate as he repeatedly mentioned wife in Virginia. He could have been delusional enough to think that his original wife, Virginia Clemm, was still alive – or he could have been talking about his fiance – Sarah Elmira Royster – to whom he had offered his hand in marriage. Once again, the name ”Reynolds” was shouted by Poe who was now close to death.
Confused, delirious, and without any of the possessions he took with him, Edgar Allen Poe succumbed on October 7, 1849. Less than a week had passed since his appearance at Ryan’s Tavern, and the relatively young poet died a shell of his former self. A humiliating end for a man of his talents, Poe’s death certificate, if listed, has never been found.
Edgar Allen Poe was buried in an unmarked grave with nothing but a cheap casket for his body to lay in. Few people attended his service, so few that a sermon was not even conducted. Although moved to a nicer gravesite in 1875, Poe’s death did little to gain headlines, and he was quickly forgotten by the contemporary American public.
Only Edgar Allen Poe could have made death such a mystery. Rumours continue to surface regarding the cause of his demise – from alcoholism, to a brain tumour, to rabies, to even a murder plot known as ”cooping”, where a person is abducted by a political party, poisoned, forced to vote, and then thrown out in to the streets. His demise continues to echo the kind of detective mystery so often found in his works, and the curious death of Edgar Allen Poe continues to haunt, intrigue, and fascinate us.
The death of Edgar Allen Poe will remain a mystery – forevermore.