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Conspiracy Theories:

How Did Edgar Allan Poe Really Die?

©2015 - Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved
Edgar Allan Poe

On October 24, 1844, the Boston Daily Atlas reported on a scandal occurring during the recent election in Baltimore. A member of the Loco Foco party (a splinter group of Democrats) abducted, cooped and bribed voters to coerce their vote.

Cooping was nothing new in 1844. Years before its American debut, the practice was rampant in England. Vagabonds and gentlemen alike were abducted and "cooped up" in a room or shack. In some instances, the kidnapped men were persuaded by gifts of food or money. In other cases, they were subdued and controlled with laudanum-laced liquor. The end result was always the same: eventually these detainees voted - often more than once - for their captors' candidate. Thanks to the eventual nationwide adoption of voter registration requirements, cooping faded into the recesses of history. But did this practice, in 1849, figure in the death of one of the world's most preeminent literary figures?

Edgar Poe was born in January 1809. His family originated from Ireland, but came to Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. In 1776, Poe's grandfather, David, took up permanent residence in Baltimore. Poe's father, David Jr., intended to pursue a career in the law, but he never completed his studies. While in school he discovered the theater. As one biographer said, David became far more passionate about "the green-room than the court-room."

David met and married actress Elizabeth Arnold who was, by all accounts, the talented one of the pair. The two joined the same theater company and travelled from city to city, all three of their young children in tow. On December 26, 1811, the Poes were performing at the Richmond Theatre when a fire broke out. David escaped but learned that Elizabeth was still trapped inside the inferno. He ran back into the theater to save his wife and was caught under falling timbers. Both Poes perished leaving two-year-old Edgar, and his brother and sister, to be cared for by adoptive families. Edgar was taken in by Richmond's wealthy Allan family, and in homage, took their surname as his middle name.

This tragic start was but the first loss that Edgar would face. His older brother died at age twenty-six. His adopted mother succumbed to consumption before Poe reached the age of twenty-one. His wife, Virginia, also died of consumption just when Poe had finally reached the apex of New York literati. Poe himself battled illness and alcohol dependency. Yet for all this past heartache, in September 1849, he felt a new lightness. He was professionally secure and getting remarried. As he boarded his train in Richmond, Poe had every intention of returning. What instead happened remains a mystery.

No one knows where Poe was from the time he left Richmond on September 27th until October 3rd when he was discovered, dirty, dishevelled and incoherent in Baltimore. It was election day in the city and a man, on his way to a tavern to vote, found the gravely ill Poe. Recognizing his dire condition, the samaritan asked the poet whom he could call to offer aid. Poe requested that a note be sent to Joseph E. Snodgrass. Snodgrass arranged Poe's transport to the Washington University Hospital where he died on October 7, 1849. A persistent haze of delirium prevented Poe from ever shedding light on his circumstances.

In the absence of Poe's own testimony or statements from witnesses, the poet's death was assumed by his doctor (and some friends) to have been precipitated by an overindulgence of alcohol. This story persisted, and tarnished Poe's reputation for decades. More recent theories, however, suggest a different cause of death.

According to the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, many believe it was some form of untreated illness that killed Poe. Both brain and heart disease have been proposed, as have diabetes, toxic exposure to heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, and even rabies. None of these conjectures seem to withstand scrutiny.

The theory that, at least on its face, does fit the circumstances is cooping. Poe was found near a polling place, wearing clothes obviously not his own. He was insensible - the same condition other cooping victims described. Had his captors unwittingly overdosed Poe, he would have been too cumbersome to carry from one voting location to the next. It seems reasonable he might simply have been left where last he served their purpose. Still, this was a theory that took years to come to light.

In March 1875 a newspaper article appeared in Chicago's InterOcean and elsewhere. Entitled "Edgar Allan Poe: The true story of his life, as told by John A. Ingram, of London," it states that the most trustworthy theory regarding Poe's death is that he was "cooped" by a gang of ruffians, drugged with liquor, and left to die.

In 1889 an unidentified source offered his own eyewitness account of Poe's cooping. Described as a "former resident of Baltimore now living in San Francisco," the man told reporters he had known Poe for years and was, along with several other acquaintances, drinking in a bar with Poe the night of his arrival in Baltimore. As they left the bar, he and Poe were nabbed by a gang of men who cooped them up in the rear of an engine house on Calvert Street. "The next day we voted at thirty-one different places," the man asserted. "After two or three stops, Poe was too drugged to drag so they put him in a cab to the hospital."

Clearly there are problems with this account, not the least of which is the fact that - rather than being taken to a hospital - Poe was found outside a 4th Ward polling place. Also, considering Poe's celebrity status at the time, wouldn't at least one person at the 30-odd polling places have recognized him...? Yet, while the story may have been a stranger's attempt at fifteen minutes of fame, one fact that can't be contested is Poe's change of clothing. If not provided by coopers trying to change his look for the purposes of casting more than one vote, where had these clothes come from? Surely a common thief would not drug a man simply to steal his suit.

Whatever his cause of death, Poe's passing was shocking and reported from coast-to-coast and shore-to-shore. He was buried the following day in Baltimore's Westminster Church (today called Westminster Hall and Burying Ground) where his grandfather, David Poe, Sr., and other family members are also laid to rest. For decades there was no marker over Poe's grave. That changed in 1875 when a 7 1/2' tall monument was erected at his grave site. Ten years later, the remains of his beloved wife Virginia were relocated from Fordham, New York and re-interred beside him.

In 1885, the Museum of Modern Art in New York unveiled a Poe memorial sculpted by Richard Henry Park. This monument was placed by the actors of New York to commemorate both his parents' and Poe's contributions to the dramatic arts. In one of those interesting twists of history, much of the funding for this sculpture came from the efforts of Edwin Thomas Booth, no stranger to conspiracist speculation. It was, after all, his brother, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln.

Whatever the true cause of Edgar Allan Poe's death, perhaps it's best we don't know. The mystery seems a fitting legacy for a writer who was a master of the genre. PnC

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