Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most famous 19th century writers, had a fascinating life, but his death remains shrouded in mystery. How did he die? Was it through alcoholism or one of several other possible causes? Stephen Bitsoli explains.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Edgar Allan Poe's literary executor made sure Poe was talked about, but he probably wouldn't have enjoyed the way people talked about him or what they said, which was something like: Edgar Allan Poe was a creepy guy, probably mentally ill, a sexual deviant, a drunkard and a dope fiend.
That’s what his executor, the infamous Rufus W. Griswold, said about Poe in a pseudonymous obituary – partially plagiarized from the description of a villain in a novel – and in the introduction to a posthumous collection of his works. Surely the individual entrusted with a writer's legacy would be expected to put the best possible spin on the subject. If that’s what he said, the truth must be much worse!
Poe certainly seemed to display many of the physical signs of alcohol abuse and general debauchery: pale, dishevelled, seedy and in poor health. And it must be said that a reputation for depravity may have enhanced his fame and kept at least the more horrific of his Tales of Mystery and Imagination alive more than 130 years after his death.
Alas, that reputation is not true, at least probably not. By all accounts, Poe only looked like the guy in those photos in his last year of life. Griswold, however, had nursed a grudge against Poe for many years. By hook or by crook he arranged to oversee Poe’s literary estate seemingly out of pure malice (and maybe avarice; by all reports, he didn’t give any of the proceeds to Poe’s heirs). Griswold even forged or altered Poe’s correspondence to make him look worse. He created the caricature of Poe the madman, Poe the sot, Poe the sexual deviant that persists to this day.
As a young man, Poe was much more handsome than his popular image, as pointed out by Lynn Cullen, author of the novel Mrs. Poe. He never had much money, but he had a notorious affair with a married woman (Frances Osgood, who also flirted with Griswold, another source of enmity). Even the day he died, the year he looked like that, he was engaged to be married. If Poe was that guy, why would so many women be attracted to him?
Poe’s Drinking Problem
So if Poe was better looking than his popular depiction, what about alcoholism? The mental and psychological as well as the physical signs of alcohol abuse could explain his death: dementia, ill-health, sudden death. In his paper “Leading E. A. Poe through a Standard Test for Alcoholism,” Todd Richardson attempts to use the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test to determine whether or not Poe was addicted to drink: “A tally of Poe’s answers produces a MAST score of thirty-seven points,” Richardson decides, “more than seven times greater than the score needed to produce a diagnosis of alcoholism.”
The bulk of the available evidence however suggests Poe’s “drinking problem” was that he couldn’t safely drink even one glass of wine or ale. He had no tolerance for alcohol at all. Alcoholics develop an enormous capacity for drinking. The physical signs of alcohol abuse overtook Poe too quickly for him to be a heavy or even regular drinker. As a Southern-raised gentleman in the early nineteenth century, expected to drink socially, that was a severe handicap. Even laudanum, a popular panacea at the time (a mix of a tincture of opium and alcohol), made him ill, so it’s unlikely he was frequenting an opium den.
Well, didn’t he marry his 13-year-old cousin? Wasn’t his writing full of men obsessed with dead or dying women? Doesn’t “Annabel Lee” end with the narrator confessing that he sleeps beside his dead childhood love in her “In her tomb by the sounding sea”?
Yes, he did marry Virginia Clemm, 13, his mother’s sister’s daughter, and yes she was far too young by modern standards. Neither circumstance was so unusual at the time. Besides, it seems to have been more of a brotherly marriage than a romantic one, a way to stay close with his remaining family (his father ran off, his mother and his foster mother both died, and his foster father disowned him).
And, yes, a literal interpretation of the poem does support that reading. But it’s a mistake to take much of Poe’s fiction too literally, and it’s a bigger mistake to assume Poe is like his famously unreliable narrators. Poe famously wrote that “the death … of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” and he returned to it again and again.
How Poe Died
How he died and what he died of is a mystery. He was found passed out in the street, and was wearing a different set of clothing than he had brought with him or was wearing when last seen. He died four days later, though what was the cause (more than a dozen have been suggested) is unclear.
Aside from drugs or drink, the most popular theory has been that he was the victim of cooping, a practice in which people were press-ganged into voting for a candidate many, many times, and forcibly intoxicated to make them more malleable. Sometimes they were made to change their clothing or wear disguises to seem like different men (an election had just taken place). He then died from drink and/or exposure afterward.
Matthew Pearl, who devoted a novel to his own speculations, The Poe Shadow, thinks it might have been a brain tumor, based on a report that something was rattling around in Poe’s skull when his grave was exhumed to move it to its present resting place. At least Pearl thinks it likely that Poe had a brain tumor; something else might have killed him first.
(Pearl also suggests a solution to the ill-fitting clothing mystery: In his novel, the protagonist discovers that it is a common practice for gentleman caught out in the rain without an umbrella to exchange their rain-sodden clothing for that of a previous gentleman’s that have already dried.)
Other theories abound, more than a dozen by some counts, falling into two broad categories:
Natural causes. Flu, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, diabetes, heart disease, the skin or nervous disorder porphyria.
Misadventure. Physical assault, accidental or intentional poisoning, rabies, murder.
Rabies was a popular theory for a while (a 1997 CD compilation of renditions of Poe stories and poems was titled Closed on Account of Rabies), since that’s how one doctor diagnosed Poe’s symptoms without knowing his identity. Lately it’s fallen into disfavor since Poe had no reported hydrophobia (fear of water), which is almost like having measles without a red rash.
Given the facts of his death, the testimony of his contemporaries (friend and foe) and Griswold’s animus, the only conclusions are that Poe was not an addict, or at least deserves the benefit of the doubt. In pace requiestat!
Stephen Bitsoli writes about history, literature, and related matters. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen enjoys learning and sharing what he’s learned. He has asked us to link to a rehabilitation center here.
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