American Literature History | The Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe
The father of the detective story left everyone with the greatest mystery of all. What was behind his untimely demise? Edgar Allan Poe is known as being a literary master. His ability to intrigue, awe, and entertain readers leaves inspiration for new writers.
Poe wrote magnificent poems and short stories that will forever be remembered. He had a talent and a knack for spinning dark tales into words. Poe was a pioneer of the mysterious and bleak aspect of human nature. He was an American writer and editor who began the trend of detective stories that have evolved throughout literary history. The young writer was putting these conundrums into literature before the first Sherlock Holmes story was ever published! Unfortunately, the man’s life was as every bit as troubling as his twisted poems and stories are. He faced a lot of personal demons, tragedy, and obstacles throughout his short forty years of life.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19th, 1809 in Boston as the second child of David Poe Jr. and Eliza Poe. Edgar would from the very beginning have a difficult life starting with David Poe’s abandonment of the family about a year after Edgar’s birth. The Poe’s were professional actors but not bringing in a bunch of money to support their two young children Henry and Edgar. David’s alcoholism issues and financial stress would prove to be a bit more than the man could handle. He would leave the stage and family forever. Edgar’s mother gave birth to a third child in 1811. A little girl named Rosalie.
There is much speculation on who fathered Edgar’s younger sibling. Guesses do include David because he left his wife and family right around the time of conception but that is unlikely. Popular belief was that a fellow stage actor performing with Eliza Poe was the father. There are some theories circulating that imply David knew Eliza was pregnant with a child not belonging to him and jealousy over this played a huge momentous role in him leaving. Edgar Allan Poe’s beginning of life would further be marred by the death of his mother December 8th, 1811. She died of tuberculosis and likely met her end while surrounded by her three children. David Poe Jr. is said to have died just three days after his estranged wife on December 11th, 1811 in Virginia. There is not much said on David once he left the family. His life and death remain a huge mystery but one thing is for certain Edgar was an orphan by the age of two. Edgar Allan Poe and his two siblings would be separated and raised by different people. They weren’t very close.
According to the Library of Congress the famous writer was “orphaned at age two, Poe grew up in the Richmond, Virginia home of a childless couple, merchant John Allan and his wife Frances. His foster parents treated him well, though Frances was Poe’s primary source of affection. Allan paid for Poe’s education at schools in England and in Virginia. Poe showed an early gift for language and Allan enrolled him in the University of Virginia in February 1826.” The relationship he had with his adopted father John Allan wasn’t one that could be described as easy-going. There was a lot of animosity. “Before the year was out, Poe, maintaining the lifestyle of a Virginia gentleman of substance, had accumulated a debt of $2,000. Poe angered his foster father—accusing him of providing inadequate financial support for his university expenses. Allan paid Poe’s charges to Charlottesville merchants, but refused to pay his gambling debts…When Poe returned to Richmond for Christmas, Allan refused to send him back to the university. For two months the pair argued at home, culminating in a huge fight in March 1827 that prompted Poe to move to Boston.”
After the fallout with his adoptive father Allan, Edgar decided to enlist in the U.S Army in 1827. It was during this time that Poe began his work on Tamerlane and Other Poems. Once Poe had enlisted he would reach the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Artillery Regiment. After he was discharged in 1829 and enrolled in the West Point military Academy in New York, Allan decided to resume his financial support of his foster son; however, Poe had problems at the academy leading to ties being permanently severed between Allan and Edgar Poe. Author Michael Howard in article titled Seeds of a Soldier: The True Story of Edgar Allan Poe – The Sergeant Major discusses in great detail about Poe’s experiences and struggled at West Point while also shedding a light on his capabilities during his short military career.
“Edgar Allan Poe wore U.S. Army sergeant major stripes. Using the name Edgar A. Perry, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army on May 26, 1827. Poe climbed from private to regimental sergeant major of the 1st Artillery Regiment, promoted on Jan. 1, 1829. He served nearly two years of a five-year enlistment before the Army discharged Poe April 15, 1829, so that he could begin a yearlong effort to attend the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He began his studies at the Military Academy on July 1, 1830. The Academy dismissed him March 6, 1831, after a court martial for neglecting duties and disobeying orders. But is this failure to ultimately succeed at the Academy an accurate portrayal of Poe’s military performance? His later notoriety as a writer makes him a revealing example of an early-day sergeant major and soldier. While many people may disregard Poe’s Army experience, letters from his officers he worked for and from Poe himself imply something very different. Even circumstances leading to his dismissal from the Academy indicate deep personal conflict with his foster father – circumstances which had led him to enlisting in the first place – more as the root of his problems than with discipline, academics or military life. In fact, there are indicators that Poe?s performance as an enlisted man contains similar traits to those expected of modern day NCOs and Soldiers.”
Edgar Allan Poe would find himself finally getting some of his writing out into the world with published stories in the Philadelphia Courier and other publications. Life would take him to Richmond where he found work as an editor and contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe wrote hundreds of reviews and editorials during his time; moreover, his personal life began to take some changes. Poe would marry his thirteen-year-old cousin named Virginia Clemm. She was young but not unusual for the time and from all account the couple had a marriage filled with love. The Library of congress states that “Poe lived with his wife and mother-in-law in Philadelphia. During these productive years, he served as editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, which became Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, publishing incisive literary criticism and some of his finest fiction,In the spring of 1846, Poe and his wife, who had long been seriously ill, moved to a cottage in Fordham, New York. Virginia Clemm Poe died there the following January. During the next two years, Poe pursued a number of erratic romantic attachments with unavailable women, drank heavily, and made himself ill.”
The tragic loss of his wife really did a number on Poe and below are some letters and account during these tragic moments of fear during her illness.The letters were retrieved from the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site found on the National Park Service website.
My Little Darling Wife
Edgar Allan Poe to Virginia Clemm Poe, New York City, June 12, 1846.
My Dear Heart, My dear Virginia! Our Mother will explain to you why I stay away from you
this night. I trust the interview I am promised, will result in some substantial good for me, for your dear sake, and hers—Keep up your heart in all hopefulness, and trust yet a little longer—In my last great disappointment, I should have lost my courage but for you—my little darling wife you are my greatest and only stimulus now. To battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life—I shall be with you tomorrow P.M. and be assured until I see you, I will keep in loving remembrance your last words and your fervent prayer!
Sleep well and may God grant you a peaceful summer, with your devoted
My Poor Virginia Still Lives
Edgar Allan Poe to Marie L. Shew, Fordham, New York, January 29, 1847.
Kindest—dearest friend—My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering
much pain. May God grant her life until she sees you and thanks you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing—like my own—with a boundless—inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more—she bids me say that she sends her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you. But come—oh come to-morrow! Yes, I will be calm—everything you so nobly wish to see me. My mother sends you, also, her “warmest love and thanks.” She begs me to ask you, if possible, to make arrangements at home so that you may stay with us tomorrow night. I enclose the order to the Postmaster.
Heaven bless you and farewell
Edgar A Poe
Her Life Was Despaired Of
Excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s letter to George W. Eveleth, Fordham, New York ,January 4, 1848.
Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel insinging. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again—I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterward. Then again—again—again & even once again at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death—and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive—nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can & do endure as becomes a man—it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair which I could no longer have endured without the total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new but—oh God! How melancholy an existence.”
At the end of September 1849 Edgar Allan Poe had left his home in Richmond to travel to Philadelphia from some writing editorial business but would never arrive. Poe would die in a hospital located in Baltimore on October 7th, 1849 less than a week later. The Smithsonian magazine says that “It was raining in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, but that didn’t stop Joseph W. Walker, a compositor for the Baltimore Sun, from heading out to Gunner’s Hall, a public house bustling with activity. It was Election Day, and Gunner’s Hall served as a pop-up polling location for the 4th Ward polls. When Walker arrived at Gunner’s Hall, he found a man, delirious and dressed in shabby second-hand clothes, lying in the gutter. The man was semi-conscious, and unable to move, but as Walker approached the him, he discovered something unexpected: the man was Edgar Allan Poe. Worried about the health of the addled poet, Walker stopped and asked Poe if he had any acquaintances in Baltimore that might be able to help him. Poe gave Walker the name of Joseph E. Snodgrass, a magazine editor with some medical training.”
Here is a letter written to Joseph E. Snodgrass
Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849
There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.
Yours, in haste,
JOS. W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.
Edgar Allan Poe died at the young age of forty on October 7th, 1849 in Maryland. He was found nearly unconsciousness and highly delirious in what has been reported as “in great distress … and in need of … immediate assistance”. Washington College Hospital pronounced his death a little past 5pm. The world lost a literary genius.
The cause remaining a mystery. Below are the most likely theories that historians believe have any merit as being the possible truth behind what happened.
#1 POE DRANK HIMSELF TO DEATH:
Edgar Poe was a know alcoholic that struggled with many demons that often hindered his sobriety. Friends closest to the author all believed that the man drank himself to death during a relapse in which he over did it. There are many historians who do not quite buy this theory and it does not answer a lot of questions everyone has. The biggest one being where had Poe been that week? There is an unexplained five day disappearance that has never been clarified.
#2 THE COOPING THEORY:
This is a common theory about the author’s death. Poe was found on election day in a haggard state, many historians think this is from cooping. The elections had tons of corruption and violence at the time. Cooping is a practice in which the “election mafia” kidnapped, beat, and forced people to vote a certain way in order to control the elections’s outcome. It sadly was a common occurrence.
#3 THE FLU KILLED POE
This is probably the least sinister of theories. The newspaper reports that the weather had been less the ideal. There was cold winds and rain during Poe’s travels and it has been suggested that Poe caught the flu. He was not treated and developed phenomena. High fever and being severely ill would account for the delirium Poe is said to have suffered upon being found.
#4 POE WAS MURDERED
This is the more tantalizing theories that fits like a tale from author’s own work. It has captured the imagination of his fan for years. Poe was recently engaged to Elmira Shelton and had been warned that he would never be allowed to marry her by Shelton’s three brothers. They supposedly caught up to Poe, and the author disguised him self and hid out in Philadelphia for several days before training to make his way to a train station. The couple was expected to marry in Richmond. The theories surmises that Shelton’s brothers found him out and beat him to death.
SOURCES & REFERENCES USED:
“Today in History – January 19 – Edgar Allan Poe.” The Library of Congress, n.d. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/january-19/.
Howard, and Michael L. “Seeds of a Soldier: The True Story of Edgar Allan Poe – The Sergeant Major.” apps.dtic.mil. https://apps.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA525759.
“Virginia Clemm Poe (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. https://www.nps.gov/people/poe-virginiapoe.htm.
Geiling, Natasha. “The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, October 7, 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/still-mysterious-death-edgar-allan-poe-180952936/.