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Solve the Mystery of Poe’s Death

Can you be the one to finally solve the mystery of Poe’s death? Poe died under mysterious circumstances at the age of forty, and the exact cause of his death remains unknown. So far there are nearly thirty published theories. Read the clues below and submit your idea to the Poe Museum by October 4, 2008. We will award a prize for the best theory at the Poe Memorial Service to be held at the Poe Museum on October 5.

Death Clues

Poe had a pre-existing condition, possibly a brain tumor. His heartbeat was irregular, and he could not consume alcohol without “producing insanity.”

I made my diagnosis and went to Dr. Mott with it. I told him that at best when he was well Mr. Poe’s heart beat only ten regular beats after which it suspended or intermitted (as Doctors say). I decided that in his best health, he had leasion [sic] on one side of the brain, and as he could not bear stimulants or tonics, without producing insanity, I did not feel much hope, that he could be raised up from a brain fever, brought on by extreme suffering of mind and body…sedatives even had to be administered with caution.
– Marie Louise Shew (Poe’s friend and nurse), Letter to John Henry Ingram (Poe’s biographer), January 23, 1875


Poe expected to die before he returned from his trip to Richmond.

Mr. Poe left his home, in Westchester County, in this state, early in the summer on a visit to the South, and we were told at the time that his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm, who was his sole companion, had no expectations of ever seeing him return. He arranged all his papers so that they could be used without difficulty in case of his death, and told her that if he never came back she would find everything left in order. But there was no cause to apprehend that the termination of his career was close at hand. He went to Richmond where he delivered a series of lectures and was well received by his old friends; he renewed his attachment to a wealthy widow in that city, which he had known before his or her marriage, and was on his way home to make arrangements for his marriage to her, when he had a relapse of his besetting infirmities in Baltimore, and died miserably.
– Holden’s Dollar Magazine, December 1849


Poe contracted cholera weeks before arriving in Richmond and had a manic episode. Once again, Poe expected to die before the conclusion of his trip.

I have been so ill--have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen. . . The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die. I have no desire to live since I have done "Eureka." I could accomplish nothing more. For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together. You have been all in all to me, darling, ever beloved mother, and dearest, truest friend…I was never really insane, except on occasions where my heart was touched. . . I have been taken to prison once since I came here for spreeing drunk; but then I was not. It was about Virginia.
– Edgar Allan Poe, Letter to his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, June 7, 1849


Poe experienced hallucinations and was “totally deranged” for ten days shortly before his arrival in Richmond.

You will see at once, by the handwriting of this letter, that I am better--much better in health and spirits. Oh, if you only knew how your dear letter comforted me! It acted like magic. Most of my suffering arose from that terrible idea which I could not get rid of--the idea that you were dead. For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval I imagined the most horrible calamities.... All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced--an attack of mania-a-potu. May Heaven grant that it prove a warning to me for the rest of my days. If so, I shall not regret even the horrible unspeakable torments I have endured.
– Edgar Allan Poe, Letter to Maria Clemm, July 19, 1849


Poe was pale and trembling. His condition was serious enough that two doctors thought he was in “imminent danger” and that another “attack” would kill him.

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' 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. 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.
– Susan Archer Talley (a friend of Poe’s sister), “The Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe,” Scribner's Monthly, XV, March 1878


On his last night in Richmond he was pale and had a fever.

He came to my house on the evening of the 26th Sept. to take leave of me — He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated — I felt so wretched about him all of that night, that I went up early the next morning to enquire after him, when, much to my regret, he had left in the boat for Baltimore.
– Elmira Royster Shelton (Poe’s fiancée), Letter to Maria Clemm, October 11,1849


When Poe left Richmond, he took the wrong walking stick and forgot his luggage.

On this evening he sat for some time talking, while playing with a handsome Malacca sword-cane recently presented to me by a friend, and then, abruptly rising, said, ‘I think I will step over to Saddler’s (a popular restaurant in the neighborhood) for a few moments,’ and so left without any further word, having my cane still in his hand. From this manner of departure I inferred that he expected to return shortly, but did not see him again, and was surprised to learn next day that he had left for Baltimore by the early morning boat. I then called on Saddler, who informed me that Poe had left his house at exactly twelve that night, starting for the Baltimore boat in company with several companions whom he had met at Saddler’s, and giving as a reason therefore the lateness of the hour and the fact that the boat was to leave at four o’clock. According to Saddler he was in good spirits and sober, though it is certain that he had been drinking and that he seemed oblivious of his baggage, which had been left in his room at the Swan Tavern. These effects were after his death forwarded by one of Mrs. Mackenzie’s sons to Mrs. Clemm in New York, and through the same source I received my cane, which Poe in his absent-mindedness had taken away with him.
– Dr. John Carter (Poe’s friend), “Edgar Poe’s Last Night in Richmond.” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, November 1902


Poe’s whereabouts and activities after leaving Richmond are unknown—even by his family.

At what time he arrived in this city, where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain. It appears that, on Wednesday, he was seen and recognized at one of the places of election in old town, and that his condition was such as to render it necessary to send him to the college, where he was tenderly nursed until the time of his death. As soon as I heard that he was at the college, I went over, but his physicians did not think it advisable that I should see him, as he was very excitable—The next day I called and sent him changes of linen &c. And was gratified to learn that he was much better, & I was never so much shocked, in my life, as when, on Sunday morning, notice was sent to me that he was dead…Mr. Herring and myself have sought, in vain, for the trunk and clothes of Edgar. There is reason to believe that he was robbed of them, whilst in such a condition as to render him insensible of his loss…
– Neilson Poe (Edgar Poe’s cousin), Letter to Maria Clemm, October 10, 1849


Poe appears “in great distress” in a Baltimore polling place.

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes by the cognomen 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.
– Joseph W. Walker to Joseph Snodgrass, October 3, 1849


Poe is found in the bar-room of the public house, dressed in clothes so unlike his own that a friend barely recognized him. Poe is unable to speak but mutters incoherently. Unable to walk, he is carried out of the building.

When I entered the bar-room of the house, I instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder…But perhaps I would not have so readily recognized him had I not been notified of his apparel. His hat — or rather the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in exchange — was a cheap palm leaf one, without a band, and soiled; his coat, of commonest alpaca, and evidently “second hand”; and his pants of gray-mixed cassimere, dingy and badly fitting. He wore neither vest nor neckcloth, if I remember aright, while his shirt was badly crumpled and soiled. He was so utterly stupefied with liquor that I thought it best not to seek recognition or conversation…So insensible was he, that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.
– Joseph Snodgrass, "The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial,” Beadle's Monthly, March 1867


Poe arrives at the hospital unconscious and remains in that condition from 5:00 pm until 3:00 am. When he awakens, he trembles and sweats profusely until the following day. This is followed by “constant talking” with “imaginary objects.” He is unable to remember what has happened to him, where he has been, or what has become of his luggage. He thinks his wife is waiting for him in Richmond, but he was not married at the time. During another period of violent delirium, he calls the name “Reynolds” repeatedly before he calms down and dies.

Presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died, I need only state concisely the particulars of his circumstances from his entrance until his decease —

When brought to the Hospital he was unconscious of his condition — who brought him or with whom he had been associating. He remained in this condition from 5 Ock in the afternoon — the hour of his admission — until 3 next morning…

To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy, but not violent or active delirium — constant talking — and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration — We were unable to induce tranquility before the second day after his admission…I was summoned to his bedside so soon as consciousness supervenes, and questioned him in reference to his family — place of residence — relatives &c. But his answers were incoherent & unsatisfactory. He told me, however, he had a wife in Richmond (which, I have since learned was not the fact) that he did not know when he left that city or what had become of his trunk of clothing. Wishing to rally and sustain his now fast sinking hopes I told him I hoped, that in a few days he would be able to enjoy the society of his friends here, and I would be most happy to contribute in every possible way to his ease & comfort. At this he broke out with much energy, and said the best thing his best friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol — that when he beheld his degradation he was ready to “sink in the earth &c.” Shortly after giving expression to these words Mr. Poe seemed to dose & I left him for a short time. When I returned I found him in a violent delirium, resisting the efforts of two nurses to keep him in bed. This state continued until Saturday evening (he was admitted on Wednesday) when he commenced calling for one “Reynolds,” which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning. At this time a very decided change began to affect him. Having become enfeebled from exertion he became quiet and seemed to rest for a short time, then quietly moving his head he said “Lord help my poor Soul” and expired!
– John Moran (Poe’s attending physician), Letter to Maria Clemm (Poe’s mother-in-law), November 15, 1849


Two days after Poe’s deah, a Baltimore newspaper reports that Poe was suffering from “an attack of mania a potu” or drug- or alcohol-induced hallucinations.

Our Baltimore Correspondence, Baltimore, Oct. 8, 1849. Our city was yesterday shocked with the announcement of the death of Edgar A. Poe, Esq., who arrived in this city about a week since after a successful tour through Virginia, where he delivered a series of able lectures. On last Wednesday, election day, he was found near the Fourth ward polls laboring under an attack of mania a potu, and in a most shocking condition. Being recognized by some of our citizens he was placed in a carriage and conveyed to the Washington Hospital, where every attention has been bestowed on him. He lingered, however, until yesterday morning, when death put a period to his existence. He was a most eccentric genius, with many friends and many foes, but all, I feel satisfied, will view with regret the sad fate of the poet and critic.
– The New York Herald, October 9, 1849


Eight years after Poe’s death, the rumor has spread that Poe was beaten and died as a result of the resultant head trauma.

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. . . .
– Elizabeth Oakes Smith, "Autobiographic Notes: Edgar Allan Poe," Beadle's Monthly, February 3, 1857


The rumor spreads that Poe died after having been drugged and taken from one polling place to another to be used as a repeat voter.

The story of Poe's death has never been told. Nelson 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.
– N.H. Morrison, Letter to Poe’s biographer John Henry Ingram, November 27, 1874

The general belief here is, that Poe was seized by one of these gangs, (his death happening just at election-time; an election for sheriff took place on Oct. 4th), 'cooped,' stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted, and then turned adrift to die.
– William Hand Browne, Letter to John Henry Ingram, August 24, 1874



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