The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe

Vector portrait drawing of writer Edgar Allan Poe

On October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was found delirious in the streets of Baltimore and died four days later. The cause of his death remains unexplained.
(Image credit: Bigstock/Reno Martin)

A Man of Mystery

Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps one of the most famous poets and writers of 19th century, has left an indelible mark on the world of literature. The author of famous poems and stories such as, "The Telltale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe is most remembered for his ability to weave his mournful and haunting personality into literary gold, complete with his own dark sense of humor and irony. Edgar Allan Poe is considered to be a master of the mystery genre, and similar to his own life and work, his death is equally dark and shrouded in mystery.

Almost everyone knows that Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year old cousin, Virginia Clemm. Virginia suffered for five years with tuberculosis, eventually succumbing to the illness at age 24. Some believe this ordeal in Poe's life inspired his poem, "The Raven." After Virginia died, a family friend noted that Poe was losing his will to live. During his wife's sickness, he again turned to alcohol, after abstaining from it for quite some time. Watching his wife suffer, he compared the emotional effects on him--the never-ending oscillation between hope and despair--to be an illness under which he also suffered.

Delirious and "in Need of Immediate Assistance"

Less than three years after the death of Virginia, on October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was inexplicably found in the streets of Baltimore near Ryan's Tavern, delirious, in great distress and in immediate need of assistance. He died four days later, and was never able to explain how he ended up in this state. Perhaps even more mysterious was fact that Poe was wearing clothes that didn't belong to him at the time he was found in the streets. What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe? Apparently, all of Poe's medical records have been lost, including his death certificate!

The image that we have of Edgar Allen Poe as a drug addict and alcoholic was actually formed by a man named Rufus Griswold. Most people have never heard of this man because he was a rival of Poe's who never reached the heights of fame quite like Poe did. He is the person who wrote Poe's obituary, and he also wrote Poe's first biography. If there was any doubt that Griswold and Poe were rivals, Griswold actually wrote in Poe's obituary, "this (death) announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." Because Griswold's biography was the only full account ever written on Poe's life, the book eventually formed the basis for the popular belief that Poe was the incorrigible drunkard who could not come out of his manic and depressive episodes. While it is true that Poe was depressed and may have had a problem with alcohol, he was definitely not an drug addict and Griswold's assertion that Poe was a depraved madman was probably a bit overstated.

As mentioned previously, there are no extant medical records, which leaves the door wide open for speculation. Numerous theories about what may have happened to Poe in his final days range from alcohol withdrawal to rabies. Interestingly, Griswold somehow became Poe's literary executor after Poe's death, and he attempted to destroy Poe's reputation posthumously. It was reported that Poe was found wearing shabby clothes that didn't fit him at the time he was discovered on the streets of Baltimore, yet this was out of character for him. Poe reportedly called out the name "Reynolds" the night before he died, which led some to think he may have been the victim of cooping, since a man named Reynolds was involved with polling at Ryan's Tavern during a recent election. Could Poe have been kidnapped by election gangs, drugged, and then forced to vote for some corrupt political candidate?

Closeup of Edgar Allan Poe's portrait on his memorial tombstone in Baltimore

Edgar Allan Poe is buried beneath this monument in Baltimore, Maryland. Only a few people attended the funeral and the ceremony was cut short.
(Image credit: Bigstock/MizC)

During one of the few times that Poe was actually awake and somewhat coherent, Dr. John Moran, the attending physician, told Poe that a friend was coming to visit him. Poe reportedly replied that the best thing that his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol. If this account is true, then Poe was not only disoriented and delirious, but also in a highly depressed state. Was he still in mourning over the death of his wife? Did something horrible happen to him just prior to his discovery in that unfortunate state on the streets of Baltimore? Was it a combination of both?

Because only a few people attended Poe's funeral, Reverend W.T.D. Clemm cut the ceremony short, and the entire affair lasted only about three minutes. The day of the funeral was described as being dark and gloomy. It wasn't raining, but the air was raw and damp. Perhaps Poe's death and funeral could have been seen as a sad conclusion to a sad life. For as depressed as Poe was, he did have a sense of humor, writing satire in addition to horror. He enjoyed the humorous use of irony, and while the story of Poe's end is unpleasant, perhaps Poe would have been pleased with the circumstances of his end--an end that was as mysterious and macabre as his literary genius.