You are on page 1of 19

Viktoria Akopova

The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe



Designer: V. Akopova
Translator: V. Akopova

Tbilisi
2014

Note
Just as mysterious as Poe was in life, his death was more so. The cause of Poe‘s death still
remains inconclusive. Historians agree that he was found unconscious on a street in Baltimore,
though the exact street differs, as does the bar he was supposedly found in front of, but Lombard
Street is a favored location. It is known that upon being discovered he was taken to Washington
College Hospital where he died five days later on October 7, 1849. Possible causes of death
include delirium, epilepsy, alcoholism, syphilis and rabies. Though COD may never be known
one thing will be – Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most talented and memorable writers of
all time.
Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most influental writers and 2009 marked the 200
th

anniversary of his birth. He was the inventor of the Detective Novel and the Father of Science
Fiction.
Sherlock Holmes was based on a character Poe wrote 60 years before Conan Doyle and
he is universally acknowledged as the inspiration of writers such as H.G.Wells ( War of the
Words ), Jules Verne ( 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ) and as George Bernard show said: ― We
others simply take off our hats and let Mr. Poe go first‖.
Mystery lovers and horror story enthusiasts will find this inexpensive collection, by one
of the great masters of the form, an exciting edition to their personal libraries.






Contents

1. An Inquiry into the Death of Edgar Allan Poe …………………………… 4
2. The Election Theory ………………………………………………………... 9
3. The Alcohol Theory ………………………………………………………. 11
4. Disease and other Medical Problems ……………………………………. 14
5. The Cooping Theory ……………………………………………………… 16
6. The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial …………………………………….. 18













An Inquiry into the Death of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. Best known
for his poetry and short stories, Poe became a literary master of horror, mystery, and the modern
day crime novel. Poe‘s life played out on the streets of Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York.
He made a meager living as an editor and critic traveling between cities working on a variety of
projects. After a short stint in the Army, Poe tried to support himself and his family through
writing, an oddity for the time. His primary goal was to create and publish his own magazine,
however; this dream never came to fruition. While on a fund raising trip for his proposed
magazine, Poe was found semiconscious outside of a bar in Baltimore. Here is where Poe‘s
biggest mystery begins. Poe was taken to Washington University Hospital where he died four
days later at the age of forty; the date was October 7, 1849. Many theories exist about what
caused Poe‘s death, some more believable than others. This essay will explore alcoholism,
epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, and cooping as potential reasons for Poe‘s death,
before culminating with the most viable option that Poe died of a brain tumor.
The circumstances leading up to the discovery of Poe in an incoherent state outside of
Ryan‘s Saloon is Baltimore is sketchy. This lack of information lends credence to one or more of
the theories about Poe‘s death. Could he have been held captive in a Baltimore basement in
preparation for the upcoming election? Was he walking the streets unnoticed out of confusion
caused by disease or alcohol consumption? These questions go unanswered yet there are a few
facts that are known for sure. Poe left Richmond, Virginia on September 27, 1849, by boat. He
was to board a train the following day in Baltimore and travel to Philadelphia for a business
meeting. For reasons unknown and still in dispute, Poe never made the train and instead ended
up in the hospital days later where he would die. The only documentation of Poe‘s physical and
mental state when he was found is contained in a note written by Joseph W. Walker to Dr. J.E.
Snodgrass on October 3, 1849. The note states, ―Dear Sir, There is a gentleman, rather worse for
wear, at Ryan‘s 4
th
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.‖ Snodgrass arrived at Ryan‘s 4
th
ward
polls quickly after he received the note and assisted Poe to the hospital. Poe‘s condition was
touch and go and he was only lucid for brief moments prior to his death. Poe was never able to
explain where he had been for the preceding five days or what may have caused his illness. To
add to the mystery, Poe‘s attending physician never filed a death certificate.
Most people today would say that Poe died as a result of years of alcohol abuse. There
are few facts, however, to support this claim. In an article written by Carl W. Bazil, titled Edgar
Allan Poe: Substance Abuse Versus Epilepsy, it is suggested that, ―Alcoholism may have begun
at a young age for Edgar and his siblings, as their Irish nursemaid regularly gave them bread
soaked in gin, and sometimes laudanum, in order to quiet them.‖ This is weak evidence to
support a claim of alcoholism. Later, at the age of eighteen Poe attended the University of
Virginia. He was forced to leave the university after he amassed a debt to a tavern keeper that he
could not pay. Poe asked his family to help him pay this debt but was turned down and left with
no option but to leave school. The debt to the tavern keeper was never itemized therefore it is
unknown what services rendered to Poe were left unpaid. It is proposed that Poe‘s tavern debt is
for alcohol yet never clearly stated. After all, many services were offered besides drink in the
taverns of the 1800s. Additionally, ingesting gin soaked bread as a child does not alone cause
alcoholism at a later age.
There is no dispute that Poe enjoyed drinking, and may have found trouble publicly in the
bottom of a glass from time to time. The conflict arises from Poe‘s reported sobriety for as much
as six months prior to his death. On the day that Poe was found at Ryan‘s Saloon, ―witnesses
described him as incapacitated and possibly intoxicated.‖ If Poe was drunk there would have
been firm evidence to support the theory. The possibility of his intoxication would have been
erased by the bartender who served him, or the friend that sat and drank with him for the day, or
the smell of alcohol about his person. Not one of these circumstances is noted that would so
easily lend support to the theory that Poe died as a result of alcohol abuse. Perhaps the most
outspoken proponent to this death by alcohol claim was J. E. Snodgrass. He ―…felt certain that
alcohol was the cause of Poe‘s death and repeated the claim in his temperance lectures [in the]
early 1850s.‖ It was later determined that Snodgrass embellished the truth for his own
advancement, however; once discovered it might have been too late to stop this theory from
spreading.
If alcoholism was not the answer to Poe‘s problems could epilepsy have played a role?
Carl Bazil of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center in New York believes it may have, and offers
supportive information to this theory. Certain forms of epilepsy create the same symptoms and
behaviors observed in an alcoholic. It is known that some of Poe‘s odd behaviors occurred
without the consumption of alcohol. Poe has been described as having, ―… spells, including
staring, compressed lips, personality changes, mutism or speech changes, and amnesia.‖ Such
behaviors are consistent with the loss of self-control common among people with epilepsy.
During Poe‘s lifetime it was thought that epilepsy had two distinct characteristics: the complete
loss of consciousness and grand mal seizures. Poe never experienced these two conditions and
could have been repeatedly misdiagnosed. ―It is now well known that complex partial seizures
are quite common, and many … patients never have grand mal seizures.‖ The characteristics of
complex partial seizures and ―twilight states‖ are known to have been experienced by Poe. These
characteristics are described by several friends and family members and include his confusion,
mood changes, and lost time, in addition to the symptoms previously stated. It is possible that
Poe died as a result of a life time of untreated epilepsy or a condition known as sudden
unexplained death in epilepsy. With no factual information gathered from hospital records to
support this claim, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge of epilepsy in the 1800s, and no
autopsy, the questions surrounding Poe‘s death prevail.
Another theory applied to Poe‘s death is chronic low-level carbon monoxide poisoning.
Director Albert Donnay of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Referral and Resources suggests that
Poe experienced as many as thirty chronic carbon monoxide symptoms throughout his life.
Donnay also suggests that Poe wrote about his poisoning in his 1839 classic tale, The Fall of the
House of Usher. Donnay states that, ―The most common symptoms of chronic CO poisoning are
actually the same as those of acute poisoning, except that they may vary considerably over time
as they wax and wane.‖ This could explain Poe‘s irregular bouts of symptomatic behavior. Some
of the more common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are headache, fatigue, confusion,
dizziness, and nausea. All of these symptoms can also be applied to a person under the influence
of alcohol or suffering from epilepsy. Donnay goes on to explain that, ―Poe most likely suffered
CO poisoning from his exposure to the coal gas that was used in the 1800s for indoor lighting.‖
This reason for Poe‘s death is one of the most difficult to believe. Since coal was commonly used
to light and heat homes and businesses in the 1800s it would be likely that doctors and even lay
people would be aware of the signs and symptoms of the illness and it would have been easily
diagnosed and treated. There is no documentation in Poe‘s medical records to support the claim
that carbon monoxide poisoning caused his death.
In 1996 Dr. R. Michael Benitez analyzed Poe‘s case at a pathology workshop at the
University of Maryland Medical Center. Dr. Benitez performed his analysis without knowing
that Poe was the man behind the symptoms he was studying. Dr. Benitez studied the few hospital
records that were on file and based on his findings made the diagnosis that Poe possibly died
from rabies. ―A patient with rabies suffers from bouts of confusion as well as wild swings in
pulse rate… Hydrophobia is another symptom of rabies, and Poe reportedly could barely
swallow the water that was given to him.‖ To Dr. Benitez, Poe‘s behavior while in the hospital
was consistent with a person infected with rabies. From coma to heavy perspiration,
hallucinations and confusion to quiet rest, Poe experienced a great amount of discomfort in his
final days. However, there is one missing element to the rabies theory and that is evidence of a
bite or scratch that would have transmitted the disease. Poe was known to be an animal lover but
nothing more than that fact supports the case for rabies outside of the symptoms he presented at
the hospital. Rabies can take up to a year to show itself so a bite does not necessarily have to be
present at the time of onset. There is no record of Poe ever complaining of an animal bite.
Because Dr. Benitez made is diagnosis without the benefit of knowing the patient‘s background
information and life style, his theory leaves many questions. Without the benefit of further
testing of Poe‘s tissue, or the use of today‘s medical technology, the theory that Poe died from
rabies can never be proven.
Cooping is one of the more popular theories associated with Poe‘s death. The day that
Poe was discovered at Ryan‘s Saloon was an election day in Baltimore. Ryan‘s Saloon was also
the Fourth Ward Polls and a gathering place for active Whigs. Corruption was common during
voting sessions in Baltimore and Poe could have unknowingly found himself in the midst of a
scheme to elect a particular candidate. Cooping was a practice used to trap innocent people into a
cycle of voting repeatedly for one candidate. ―Some gangs were known to kidnap innocent
bystanders, holding them in a room called the ‗coop.‘ These poor souls were then forced to go in
and out of poll after poll, voting over and over again.‖ The subjects caught in this cooping
scheme were often coerced with drugs and alcohol. Some were beaten until they submitted to the
scheme. These two facts could possibly explain Poe‘s confusion and appearance when he was
found outside of the saloon. However, there was no report of obvious physical injury about Poe‘s
body or face. Additionally, to hide the true identities of the cooped voter‘s gang members would
have them change their clothes hoping that this altercation in their appearance would throw off
election officials. It has been reported that when Poe was found at Ryan‘s Saloon he was not
wearing his own clothes. His clothing could have been sold by his captures because of their fine
quality, or discarded to hide his identity. Whatever the case, Poe‘s appearance was disheveled
and dirty and he was wearing clothing out of the ordinary for his style and tradition. This fact
was puzzling to the people that knew him and observed his appearance that day.
The cooping theory supports Poe‘s disappearance in Baltimore for the days leading up to
the election, his appearance, and his altered state of consciousness. Cooping was an illegal
activity carried out in secret; sometimes the people caught up in the scheme died as a result of
the abuse. There are still a number of aspects of the cooping theory that do not add up. First, Poe
was very well known in Baltimore so even with a change of clothing it is unlikely that he would
gone unrecognized at the polls, especially if he were to vote repeatedly around the city, surely
someone would have recognized him. Next, there is no firm evidence to support the theory that
Poe was intoxicated. Could Poe‘s intoxication only be assumed because he was found outside of
a saloon? Poe‘s alleged intoxication seems to be more rumor and innuendo than fact. Lastly,
Poe‘s medical records do not point to a bout of intoxication that would normally subside in a
matter of hours. The illness that Poe suffered put his body in turmoil unlike anything alcohol
would do to a person. In the end, the cooping theory leaves too many questions to satisfy the
requirements of his mysterious death.
The most viable theory that explains Poe‘s death was uncovered by the writer Matthew
Pearl as he was investigating Poe‘s death for a book he was writing. Pearl learned that when
Poe‘s body was exhumed and moved to a different grave site 26 years after his death there were
observations made about the condition of his exposed brain. One medical person noted that Poe‘s
brain, ―was in an almost perfect state of preservation,‖ and that, ―the cerebral mass, as seen
through the base of the skull, evidenced no signs of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it
was somewhat diminished in size.‖ Another report from that day in 1875 describes Poe‘s brain
as, ―dried and hardened in the skull.‖ This is evidence that Poe possibly had a brain tumor at the
time of his death. Pearl discovered in his research that the brain is usually the first part of the
body to decompose and liquefy. The fact that Poe‘s brain was intact and appeared to have
transformed into a hardened ball leads one to believe his brain calcified because of a tumor. A
brain tumor could also cause the behaviors described in all other accounts of Poe‘s final days.
Certainly Poe‘s confusion, altered speech, mood changes, brief disappearance, and amnesia
could all be contributed to the theory that he had a brain tumor. Poe experienced bouts of
abnormal behavior for most of his life. This could be evidence of the progression of his disease
and the slow growth of the tumor in his brain.
In conclusion, there are many opinions and theories about what killed Edgar Allan Poe.
The abuse of alcohol, epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, and cooping may all have
played a role in Poe‘s life at one time or another, however; no theory is as believable as Poe
suffering from a brain tumor when one seriously considers his death. Each theory points toward a
deeper problem and potentially a serious illness such as a brain tumor. Fitting to the mystery, the
answer to what killed Poe will never be revealed. Poe‘s remains rest beneath a popular tourist
location that undoubtedly brings revenue to the city of Baltimore. It is a historic site that should
never be altered for reasons more than money. Read a tale and stand by his grave on a cold
winter‘s night, feel the chill of the mystery that is Poe. Every year on the anniversary of Poe‘s
birth, a cloaked person leaves three roses and a half-full bottle of cognac on his grave. A tribute
to the man, his family and is life‘s work. This historic site will never be destroyed to obtain the
answers to the multitude of questions surrounding Poe‘s death. Perhaps it is appropriate to keep
the mystery of Poe‘s death alive. It is agreed, in death Poe has reached a level of fame he never
enjoyed in life.

The Election Theory
The next certain information about Poe is October 3, 1849, when Joseph W. Walker sent
the following note to Dr. J. E. Snodgrass: ―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.‖ Ryan‘s 4th Ward Polls, also known as
Gunner‘s Hall, was a tavern (such places were often used as election places, and voters were
regularly rewarded with drinks). There appears to be no foundation for the tradition that Poe was
found in a gutter, although it is at least possible that Walker came across Poe on the street
outside, and helped Poe into the nearby public house to wait for the arrival of his friend. Dr.
Snodgrass and Henry Herring (Poe‘s uncle) came and found Poe in what they presumed was a
drunken state. They agreed that he should be sent to the Washington College Hospital, and
arranged for a carriage.
At the hospital, Poe was admitted and made as comfortable as the circumstances
permitted. Over the next few days, Poe seems to have lapsed in and out of consciousness. Moran
tried to question him as to the cause of his condition, but Poe‘s ―answers were incoherent and
unsatisfactory‖ (Moran to Maria Clemm, November 15, 1849). Neilson Poe tried to visit him, but
was told that Edgar was too excitable for visitors. Depending on which account one accepts, Poe
died at about 3:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. on October 7, 1849. Moran gives his last words as ―Lord
help my poor soul‖, or, even more improbably, ―He who arched the heavens and upholds the
universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being and upon
demaons incarnate‖. Moran also claims that on the evening prior to his death, Poe repeatedly
called out the name of ―Reynolds.‖ Substantial efforts have been made to identify who Reynolds
may have been, with unimpressive results. At least one scholar felt that Poe may have instead
been calling the name of ―Herring‖ (Poe‘s uncle was Henry Herring)
Poe‘s clothing had been changed. In place of his own suit of black wool was one of cheap
gabardine, with a palm leaf hat. Moran describes his 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‖ (Moran, Defense of Poe, p. 59.) J. E. Snodgrass offers a more detailed description: ―a
rusty, almost brimless, tattered and ribbonless palmleaf hat. His clothing consisted of a sack-coat
of thin and sleazy black alpaca, ripped more or less at several of its seams, and faded and soiled,
and pants of a steel-mixed pattern of caseinate, half-worn and badly-fitting, if they could be said
to fit at all. He wore neither vest nor neck-cloth, while the bosom of his shirt was both crumpled
and badly soiled. On his feet were boots of coarse material, and giving no sign of having been
blackened for a long time, if at all‖ (Snodgrass, ―The Facts of Poe‘s Death and Burial,‖ p. 284).
Moran also quotes Capt. George W. Rollins, supposedly the conductor of the train, as noting two
men who appeared to be following Poe (Moran, Defense of Poe, pp. 60-61.) Most modern
biographies take care to note that in spite of the change of clothing, Poe still had Dr. Carter‘s
cane. According to Susan A. Weiss, this cane was sent by Moran to Mrs. Clemm, who returned it
to Dr. Carter (Weiss, Home Life of Poe, p. 205), but this seems to be a misinterpretation of Dr.
Carter‘s own testimony. It has also been suggested that the key to his trunk was still in his
pocket, although this statement seems based on little more than speculation. The key itself is on
display in the Poe Museum in Richmond, as is Poe‘s trunk. It is equally reasonable that Mrs.
Clemm may simply have had a second key.
The only contemporary public reference to a specific cause of death was from the
Baltimore Clipper, a somewhat cryptic ―congestion of the brain‖ (The Poe Log, p. 851). Death
certificates were apparently not required at the time and none is known to have been filed for
Poe. Dr. Moran‘s November 15, 1849 letter to Maria Clemm unhelpfully avoids the simple
information we would have liked by saying ―Presuming you are already aware of the malady of
which Mr. Poe died . . .‖ In the late 1960s, Birgit Bramsback made an ardent search for a death
certificate or any official hospital records, but found nothing.

The Alcohol Theory
This is the theory most people think of when they are asked about Poe‘s death. That Poe
engaged in bouts of drinking, particularly during Virginia‘s long illness (1842-1847) is well
established, but how exactly he may have died of alcoholism has never really been explained.
Clearly, Poe did not have an accident and his drinking seems to have been neither so consistent
nor so intense as to cause sclerosis of the liver. It has been suggested that poor nutrition and a
weakened condition brought on by other illnesses could have allowed delirium tremens to occur
with fewer and less intense episodes of drinking than would normally be required, but none of
these offerings completely explain his condition and the change of clothing.
J. E. Snodgrass felt certain that alcohol was the cause of Poe‘s death and repeated the claim in
his temperance lectures from the early 1850s. In 1856, his account was published in the Women’s
Temperance Paper. It was revised and published again in 1867 in Beadle’s Monthly (―The Facts
of Poe‘s Death and Burial‖). The fervor of Snodgrass‘s commitment to the temperance
movement clearly colored his statements and apparently led him to exaggerate the story. He was
even willing to manipulate the evidence in a way that discredits him as a reliable source. These
manipulations were established, after Snodgrass‘s death in 1880, by Edward Spencer in the New
York Herald for March 27, 1881.
In 1878, Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss related what she recalled as a prophetic incident during
Poe‘s last days in Richmond in 1849. If true, the story may be extremely significant: ―. . . on the
day following he made his appearance among us, but so pale, so tremulous and apparently
subdued as to convince me that he had been seriously ill. On this occasion he had been at his
rooms at the ‗Old Swan [Tavern]‘ where he was carefully tended by Mrs. Mackenzie‘s family,
but on a second and more serious relapse he was taken by Dr. Mackenzie and Dr. [William]
Gibbon Carter to Duncan‘s Lodge, where during some days his life was in imminent danger.
Assiduous attention saved him, but it was the opinion of the physicians that another such attack
would prove fatal. This they told him, warning him seriously of the danger. His reply was that if
people would not tempt him, he would not fall‖.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for an alcohol-related death is J. P. Kennedy‘s October 10,
1849 note in his diary: ―On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the
effects of a debauch. . . . He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle,
which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and
madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe! . . . A bright
but unsteady light has been awfully quenched.‖
R. H. Stoddard‘s memoir of Poe states ―It was believed at the time by his relatives in
Baltimore that he drank with a friend while waiting between trains, in consequence of which he
took a wrong train, and proceeded as far as Havre de Grace, whence he was brought back to
Baltimore by the conductor of the Philadelphia train in a state bordering on delirium‖.
John Ruben Thompson wrote to E. H. N. Patterson on November 9, 1849 ―no confidence could
be placed in him [Poe] in any relation of life, least of all in antagonism to his fatal weakness. He
died, indeed, in delirium from drunkenness; the shadow of infamy beclouded his last moments‖.
At some point, Thompson changed his opinion. About 1860, Thompson began to lecture about
Poe‘s life and at some point began to attribute his death to the ―cooping‖ theory detailed below.
After Thompson‘s death in 1874, Dr. Moran presented his own series of lectures, eventually
published as A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe (1885). In this book, Moran noted ―I have stated to
you the fact that Edgar Allan Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant, nor was the smell
of liquor upon his breath or person‖


Disease and Other Medical Problems
In March of 1847, Dr. Valentine Mott, a famous New York doctor in his day, agreed with
the diagnosis of Mrs. Shew, a trained nurse who had helped to care for Virginia during her long
illness, that Poe had some sort of lesions on the brain and suffered from brain fever T. O.
Mabbott noted, ―A modern medical man who saw a photograph of Poe told my friend Robert
Hunter Paterson that a twist in the poet‘s face suggested to him a brain lesion. . .‖ In May of
1848, another doctor, Dr. John W. Francis, diagnosed that Poe suffered from heart disease, a
diagnosis which Poe denied. That Poe was not completely well is obvious from his letters to
Maria Clemm, July 7, 1849: ―I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad,
and can now hardly hold the pen . . .‖ and July 14, ―I am so ill while I write . . .‖ By July 19, he
wrote under more favorable circumstances, ―You will see at once, by the handwriting of this
letter, that I am better — much better in health and spirits‖. It is possible that Poe had suffered
some early incident which had later implications for his health. Mrs. Shew recalled a scar: ―I
have seen the scar of the wound in the left shoulder, when helping Mrs. Clemm change his dress
or clothes while ill. She said only Virginia knew about it. She [Mrs. Clemm] did not. I asked him
if he had been hurt —, in the region of the heart and he told me yes, and the rest as I wrote to
you. His head was also hurt. . . ―. Moran states that his colleague, Dr. John C. S. Monkur, ―gave
it as his opinion that Poe would die from excessive nervous prostration and loss of nerve power,
resulting from exposure, affecting the encephalon, a sensitive and delicate membrane of the
brain‖. Arno Karlen theorizes that Poe may have suffered from a rare enzyme disorder. He
believes that a combination of alcohol dehydrogenase deficiency syndrome and brain disease
explain Poe‘s problems with alcohol, his fits of ―madness‖ and his sudden death.
Tuberculosis, epilepsy, diabetes and even rabies have also been suggested. There are
interesting elements — and difficulties — in all of these theories. The idea that Poe died from
rabies, for example, was presented in 1996.
The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe rather confused presentation includes a
comment that Poe ―was given a drink of water to determine if he could swallow freely, but he
did this with difficulty‖. As evidence of hydrophobia, a fear of water that is crucial to his
argument of rabies.
Notes on the results of test for heavy metals performed in 2002 on hair samples from
Virgina and Edgar Allan Poe.












The Cooping Theory
This is the theory given in the vast majority of Poe biographies, although it cannot be
proven true. Coincidence or not, the day Poe was found on the street was election day in
Baltimore and the place near where he was found, Ryan‘s Fourth Ward Polls, was both a bar and
a place for voting. In those days, Baltimore elections were notorious for corruption and violence.
Political gangs were willing to go to great extremes to ensure the success of their candidates.
Election ballots were stolen, judges were bribed and potential voters for the opposition
intimidated. Some gangs were known to kidnap innocent bystanders, holding them in a room,
called the ―coop.‖ These poor souls were then forced to go in and out of poll after poll, voting
over and over again. Their clothing might even be changed to allow for another round. To ensure
compliance, their victims were plied with liquor and beaten. Poe‘s weak heart would never have
withstood such abuse. This theory appears to have been first offered publicly by John R.
Thompson in the early 1870s to explain Poe‘s condition and the fact that he was wearing
someone else‘s clothing. A possible flaw in the theory is that Poe was reasonably well-known in
Baltimore and likely to be recognized.
Although not in keeping with the political aspects of this theory, there is an earlier
suggestion that Poe was physically abused in his final days: ―At the instigation of a woman, who
considered herself injured by him, he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who
knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. It is well known that a brain fever
followed. . . .‖
N. H. Morrison‘s letter to J. H. Ingram, November 27, 1874, includes these comments
―The story of Poe‘s death has never been told. Nelson [Neilson] Poe has all the facts, but I am
afraid may not be willing to tell them. I do not see why. The actual facts are less discreditable
than the common reports published. Poe came to the city in the midst of an election, and that
election was the cause of his death‖. Neilson, Poe‘s cousin, spoke briefly at the dedication of
Poe‘s memorial grave in 1875, but made no statement concerning the circumstances of Edgar‘s
death. If Neilson Poe had specific information about Poe‘s final days, he apparently took it with
him to the grave.
A legitimate question is why there seems to have been very little attention to the
―cooping‖ theory of Poe‘s death until J. R. Thompson began his lecture tour. A reasonable
answer is the fact that ―cooping‖ was, under the best of circumstances, highly illegal, and being
connected to an actual death would certainly make the spotlight of attention even less attractive.
Only someone closely associated with the operation would have known the details of what
occurred, and such a person would hardly be likely to publicize the information.
Neither of these warnings, of course, prove that Poe was the victim of a political gang,
but they do establish that ―cooping‖ was a recognized political trick in Baltimore in 1849, and
that the term could be used without requiring additional explanation. There seems to have been
particular concern about voting in the Fourth Ward, precisely where Poe was found on that
fateful Election Day.







The Facts Of Poe’s Death and Burial
I now proceed to give the true version of the place and manner of Mr. Poe‘s burial.
Among the false statements I have met with was one to the effect that he had been ―buried in the
Potter‘s Field of his native city.‖ As one of only three, or perhaps four, persona — not counting
the undertaker and the drivers of the hearse and a single carriage, which made up the entire
funeral train of the author of ―The Raven‖ — who followed the body to the grave, I am happy to
be able to testify that the truth, bad enough as it is, does not sustain this story. The burying-place
of Poe was an old one belonging to the ―Westminster Presbyterian Church,‖ which had ceased to
be used much, in 1849, because of its location in a populous portion of Baltimore — in Green
Street. A grave had been dug among the crumbling mementos of mortality. Into this the plainly-
coffined body was speedily lowered, and then the earth was shoveled directly upon the coffin-lid.
This was so unusual even in the burials of the poor.

Notes:
Dr. Snodgrass was a temperance advocate and saw in Poe‘s death an opportunity to
spread the faith. Among other errors, Poe was not found on the street on November 1, but
October 3, dying on October 7, 1849. Walker‘s note states that Poe is ―rather the worse for wear‖
and ―in need of immediate assistance.‖ It does not describe Poe‘s condition as one of ―beastly
intoxication.‖



No aspect of his life has so fascinated Poe’s fans and detractors as his death.
Unfortunately, there is also no greater example of how badly Poe’s biography
has been handled. Shrouded in opinion and contradiction, the essential details
of Poe’s final days leave us with more questions than answers. In the end we
must accept that the few tantalizing facts we have lead to no certain conclusion.
Poe’s death must, probably, remain a mystery — but the puzzle still teases and
entices us. It is easy to find ourselves reviewing the stories again in hopes of
finding something new, to settle the question once and for all.