Edgar Allan Poe's Death Is Shrouded in Mystery

Edgar Allan Poe is known for his dark, macabre writing. We're not sure if this is a case of life imitating art or vice versa, but Poe's personal life was similarly tragic. The famed poet died at the young age of 40 on October 7, 1849, and how it happened sounds like a page from one of his tales: It remains a mystery.

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The Tell-Tale Heartbreak

The timeline of Poe's life can be described by the deaths of people around him. His mother passed away when he was two, at which point the three Poe children were separated. Poe's first love died when he was 15, and his foster mother passed when he was 20. Later in life, his first wife (who was also — oh no — his first cousin) died at the age of 24 (Poe was 37).

The tragedy unfortunately extended to his academic endeavors too (because of course it did). After dropping out of high school, Poe was expelled from West Point Military Academy on charges of gross neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. This instance led his foster father to kick him out of the house, and other family members and friends to avoid Poe on his return. It didn't help that Poe's sweetheart, Elmira Royster, got engaged while Poe was away. With only a year of higher education, Poe was close to unemployable.

Poe pursued writing, though early efforts to publish a book drained his funds. Poe took a job as an editor at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia, and was fired twice in the process. (The first time, it was because he was drunk at work. His controversial fiction and harsh book reviews sold papers, however, so he was invited back as long as he promised good behavior.) He took a few more editorial jobs while supplementing his income with lectures and public readings. At long last, he hit the big time when "The Raven" brought him international fame. Still, it allegedly earned the poet just 15 lonely bucks. Cue yet another sad violin.

Quoth the Reynolds

On October 7, 1849, Poe died while passing through Baltimore. The circumstances around his death were puzzling and worrying, casting a mysterious shadow on his cause of death.

Here's what we do know: Poe was traveling to Philadelphia for an editing job. On October 3, Joseph W. Walker, a compositor for the Baltimore Sun, found Poe lying in a gutter outside Gunner's Hall in Baltimore. Poe was found wearing ill-fitting secondhand clothes, acting delirious and barely conscious.

Between the time he was found and the moment he died, Poe never regained enough consciousness to explain what had happened to him. His final days were riddled with delirium and hallucinations. The night before he died, according to his attending physician Dr. John J. Moran, Poe repeated the name "Reynolds" — a figure who remains a mystery. (To add insult to injury, Poe died just ten days before he was set to marry his childhood sweetheart, Royster, who was now a wealthy widow.)

The official cause of death was listed as "congestion of the brain," which is supposedly a euphemism for alcohol poisoning. But there are plenty of strange pieces to the puzzle that point to foul play. Weird clothes? Reynolds?! Drinking himself to death just days before he was going to marry Royster?

One popular theory explaining what happened to Poe is a horrifying thing called "cooping." This is a method of voter fraud carried out by gangs in the 19th century where a victim — usually a homeless person or someone who appeared down on their luck — was kidnapped, drugged, disguised, and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under different identities. No one knows for sure, but this theory would explain the costume change, as well as the fact that Poe was found just outside a polling place ... on a day citywide elections were held in Baltimore.

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For more about Poe's mysterious life, check out "Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance" by Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Kenneth Silverman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto January 9, 2018

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