Edgar Allan Poe is a literary giant, famous for his poems and short stories which are known for their gruesome imagery, themes of loss and melancholy, and chilling horror. Poe may be most known for tales such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat, or poems like The Raven and Annabel Lee, but what many people don’t realize is that Edgar Allan Poe is also considered to be the inventor of the modern detective story. The Murders in the Rue Morgue features an exceptionally intelligent and eccentric man who solves mysteries using his keen sense of observation and reason. This character, Auguste Dupin, would serve as one of the key inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. (1)
It is a matter of glaring irony, if not a bit of poeticism, then, that Edgar Allan Poe’s own mysterious death continues to be the subject of speculation.
A Tortured Artist
Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849 at the age of forty. Poe’s life was riddled with tragedy and with vices. He struggled with gambling and alcohol, perhaps due to the many tragic losses he suffered. Poe’s mother died while he was quite young, his foster mother when he was a teenager, and his wife just a few years before his own untimely death. Poe’s various torments are evidenced in his writing, but may have also had a hand in his own death. (2)
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Congestion of the Brain
The official cause of Edgar Allan Poe’s death has been reported as “congestion of the brain,” which is suggested to be a euphemism for excessive consumption of alcohol. This seems like a reasonable explanation at first blush. Poe was found delirious and disheveled, slumped over in a gutter outside of an Irish pub in Baltimore on the third of October, 1849. He was found wearing unusually ill-fitting clothing that did not match his usual manner of dress, including a straw hat. Poe’s friend, J.E. Snodgrass, who delivered him to the hospital, assumed that Poe had been robbed or cheated out of his own clothes as the ones he wore seemed so out of place. (3)
While Poe could have certainly been suffering from a drunken stupor, modern doctors and sleuths are not convinced. According to the doctors who had treated Poe, over the course of his stay at the hospital he refused alcohol and only drank small quantities of water with significant coaxing. Poe had also recently joined a temperance society. In addition, Poe is known to have been extremely sensitive to alcohol, to the point that he would grow ill after consuming a modest amount. Poe even visited a doctor for help with this issue. This does not preclude theories of drunken misadventure, however it does lend context to Poe’s state at the time of his death, as well as his general habits. (4)
Edgar Allan Poe’s modern reputation as a drunkard stems in part from a scathing obituary and subsequent biography written by a rival whom Poe had sharply criticized. Rufus Griswold seized upon Poe’s death as a chance to slander the man whose literary criticisms had been quite unforgiving towards Griswold’s own work. While it is possible that the tremendous losses of Poe’s life had driven him to addiction, it is now widely accepted that Griswold embellished and exaggerated this aspect of Poe’s character to some degree.(5)
A Cooping Conspiracy?
An alternate theory of the great writer’s death that has become popular in recent years suggests that Poe was a victim of “cooping.” This shady practice entailed politicians or parties paying groups of thugs to abduct men, mostly homeless or down and out men, and force them to vote repeatedly for a particular candidate. To accomplish this, bands of thugs would kidnap a target, force them to consume copious amounts of alcohol or drugs, assault or physically intimidate them, and dress them in a variety of costumes so that they could vote several times. After this ordeal, cooping victims would be turned loose, and often left to die of exposure, injury, or alcohol poisoning. The pub outside of which Poe was found was a polling site. The date that Poe was found, ragged and barely conscious, was an election day. Furthermore, the Irish pub and polling station was reportedly a known location for cooping gangs. This theory first emerged within a few decades of Poe’s death and has only grown in popularity since. (6)
This theory would explain the advanced state of drunkenness or confusion which onlookers observed in Poe. It would also explain the fact that he seemed to be dressed in clothing that did not belong to him, or in fact, fit his body at all. If Poe did indeed suffer from some degree of intolerance or sensitivity to alcohol, then it is not far-fetched to imagine that being kidnapped and forced to consume copious amounts of alcohol could contribute to his death.
The Rabies Theory
Edgar Allan Poe was in the hospital for four days before succumbing to whatever mysterious circumstance brought about his demise. During this time, Poe was said to lapse in and out of consciousness. At times, he would seem to hallucinate wildly. Then, he would experience a period of lucidity and calm. During these moments he would struggle to remember what had happened or why he was in the hospital. After falling unconscious for a time, Poe is reported to have awoken for the final time in a state of confused aggression and belligerence.
In 1996, a doctor examined Poe’s case without being told the identity of the patient for an exercise at a medical conference. His conclusion, which was subsequently published in the Maryland Medical Journal, determined that the patient’s symptoms were highly suggestive of encephalitic rabies. Rabies victims survive an average of four days after the onset of symptoms; by this stage, rabies is almost universally fatal. Rabies sufferers exhibit lethargy and confusion. Following this, patients grow agitated, anxious, and aggressive. In many cases, rabies victims develop hydrophobia, a symptom which causes them to refuse water out of fear or disgust. Poe is reported to have only accepted small amounts of water after significant persuasion by the physicians treating him. (7)
In his final moments, Poe’s belligerence and combativeness could possibly reflect the characteristic aggression which rabies is widely known to cause. Poe was not found to have any animal bites, however rabies can take more than a year to develop. Victims of rabies are often unable to identify the incident which caused the infection. (8)
Animals play an interesting role in a number of Poe’s stories. A rabies infection stemming from an animal bite is reminiscent of the narrative of his short story, The Black Cat. In this story, the narrator and his beloved black cat, Pluto, are inseparable companions. One day, however, in an increasingly common instance of drunken rage, the narrator grabs at Pluto. Frightened, Pluto bites the narrator. This incites the narrator to lash out and wound Pluto. After this, the narrator descends further into madness, eventually killing Pluto, his own wife, and destroying everything dear to him. (9)
Although the narrative does not otherwise mirror Poe’s own life, one has to wonder whether a cat might have been the culprit of the bite that caused Poe’s death, if he indeed succumbed to the rabies virus. If so, then The Black Cat seems grimly prophetic.
The Mystery Endures
These three theories are not the only theories that have been presented in the case of the horror writer’s death. A supposed mass found inside Poe’s skull some thirty years after his death has led some to believe that he suffered from a brain tumor. Little evidence of this exists and it is not often cited as a major theory, but forensic pathologists have acknowledged that it is at least possible. Tuberculosis, which claimed the lives of Poe’s mother, foster mother, and wife, has also been discussed as a potential cause. Some theorize that Poe suffered from a severe bout of influenza, providing a rather pedestrian explanation for his delirium and subsequent death. Still others have suggested that Poe had himself become a victim of a murder most foul. Unfortunately, the death of Edgar Allan Poe is a cold case that is unlikely to ever reheat. Whether Poe’s restless spirit still yearns for vindication, we may never know. The inventor of the detective story has left us with a mystery that Auguste Dupin alone could solve, if only his author were here to compose the solution.