Top Ten Theories of Edgar Allan Poe’s Death
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most respected and influential writers in the history of people wearing out of date clothes and talking about how dreadful life is. He is also one of the most world famous cases of ‘no-one-knows-what-the-heck-happened-to-him’ in history. While having written countless works that would be treasured for their literary influence, Poe himself died broke and after having a raving mad few days in a hospital after a good friend found him passed out in a Baltimore gutter. So what killed the shockingly young forty year old master of macabre? Here are ten possibilities that have kept people guessing over the years.
10. Delirium Tremens
Anybody familiar with Poe knows that he had more than a passing fondness with alcohol. Just read one of his tales and you will notice this particular trend weaving its way through his writing. One theory as to how the great writer spoke his “Nevermore” to the world is by not getting enough of the hard stuff. Delirium Tremens—also known as the shakes—is withdrawal symptoms related to the physical dependence on alcohol. It’s not just a hankering for a shot of whiskey or wanting to tip back a cold beer when taking in a good Shakespearean morality play. Mr. Poe could have been whisked away from this world by his body shutting down after not getting the alcohol that it has come to need in order to function. This also goes far in explaining the strange behavior that Poe reportedly exhibited in the days leading up to being found so un-poetically in the ditch. DT is known to cause hallucinations and psychotic behavior.
9. Heart Disease
Though it may seem that the favorite dark son of literature had a heart of ice, but it seems that even the chilliest of telltale hearts may be subject to failing. Edgar Allan may have had his heart broken by the loss of his beloved wife (who also happened to be his first cousin and thirteen at the time that they married), but he probably didn’t mourn himself to death—though that would definitely have been appropriate. Some believe that Poe had long suffered from heart disease that led to a massive heart attack and his ultimate demise.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” might have described a tremendous shaking before the collapse of the home, but where are the records of tremendous shaking before the collapse of Poe? Some medical experts believe that if anybody had been watching when Poe was wandering along that road they would have seen him suddenly begin convulsing, eventually pitching himself into the ditch. The theory of death by epileptic seizure is not among the most popular of theories because there is little to no evidence that the master of horror suffered from this chronic condition, but it does lend credence to his seemingly unexpected death having to be the result of some kind of sudden medical concern.
Quick! What did Edgar Allan Poe look like? Most likely if you are thinking about Mr. Poe you are envisioning a drawn and somber-looking man cloaked in black. Indeed, this is what many people saw of the man as he preferred a black wool suit and, when the weather necessitated it, cloak. When he was discovered, however, Poe was not in his usual Prince of Darkness garb. Rather, he was in a cheap suit made of soiled gabardine and a badly damaged shirt. To top it off he had apparently donned a straw hat. If this sounds like it is totally outside of Poe’s character, you may want to go along with the theory of cooping. “Cooping” was a practice that was perpetrated during Poe’s time on election day. People were kidnapped, shoved into small rooms and forced to drink huge amounts of liquor. They were then funneled into various polling places and compelled to vote for a particular candidate over and over again. To make sure they complied, the kidnappers would often beat the “cooped” people—and change their clothes to make the repeat vote less conspicuous. Talk about a midnight dreary.
Despite the somewhat romanticized ideas of Poe wasting away for days before finally succumbing to that sweet death he seemed so fond of, those that spent time with Mr. Poe in the days leading up to his death actually report a very sudden onset of his symptoms. Several days before his tour of Baltimore had a particularly distasteful ending friends remarked on Poe’s cheerful demeanor, hearing him discuss his much-anticipated return to Richmond, the city he loved dearly. This indicates a very sudden disease, lending credence to the idea that he may have fallen victim to the fast-acting and wholly unpleasant disease cholera. This disease develops and kills within days if not treated, and causes dehydration that often results in delirium.
5. Alcohol Poisoning
Perhaps Poe died because he had suddenly denied his body the alcohol that it had come to depend on, but perhaps it was quite the opposite. Despite compelling evidence to the contrary—including accounts that Edgar Allan had actually stopped drinking voluntarily and was feeling sober and healthy in his last weeks—a popular idea of what took him away from this world is overindulgence, or alcohol poisoning. This would account for his apparent stumbling through the streets and soiled appearance, though it does not explain why it took several hours after his discovery for him to actually die.
4. TB (Tuberculosis)
In a day when the number of ways to die made it seem like you were born into a gauntlet, some ways struck particular fear into the hearts of the public. One of these was disease, suggesting that Poe may have followed in the footsteps of his mother and wife and died of consumption. More popularly known today as tuberculosis, consumption is a particularly virulent disease that is characterized by coughing up blood as the body is eventually “consumed” by the disease.
3. Brain Tumor
Poe’s brain may have been one of the most brilliant ever created, but it may also have been the source of his demise. Nearly three decades after the death of the creator of the modern detective tale Poe’s body was exhumed so that it could be transferred to a more prominent location within the cemetery. During this exhumation one of the attendants remarked that the writer’s brain was almost perfect, with its somewhat diminished size the only indication of decay. This struck some medical experts as quite odd considering the brain is the first part of the body to completely liquefy after death unless the body has been embalmed—something that wasn’t commonly done in Poe’s day. So what was going on? Some believe that the fact that Poe’s brain could be heard rattling around in his skull was a clear indication of a brain tumor. Such a growth will calcify upon death, meaning that years later it would still be around. A brain tumor could also explain the writer’s fantastical work as tumors have been linked to creativity and genius.
It seems that the ultimate misanthrope may have actually been a bit more popular than some may think. One of the prevailing theories of his death is that he contracted syphilis, the king of all venereal diseases at the time. Syphilis can be devoid of symptoms or cause a variety of unsightly and unpleasant signs including open sores, deformation and nodules all over the body. Since so many of his tales depicted the death of a beautiful woman it may just be that the death of Virginia did not end Mr. Poe’s pursuit of a favorite companion.
Finally, a death mysterious and crazy enough to warrant being suffered by Edgar Allan Poe. In a world that had a bit of trouble keeping its animal life away from its human life it wasn’t unheard of for people to contract rabies. Perhaps Poe was researching werewolves or maybe he was just wandering the alleys and got mugged by a gang of those famous Baltimore rats, regardless of the source, some experts cite his frantic, disoriented behavior and disheveled appearance as perfect indicators that it was actually rabies that claimed the writer. Maybe “The Black Cat” was foreshadowing?