Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe

Natural Causes

Poe's home
Poe's home

Poe drank himself to death. All who knew him knew that he had a serious problem with alcohol. He had once been jailed for public drunkenness. Although he could go for long stretches without touching a drop, he also, as the Baltimore Poe Society states, "engaged in bouts of drinking, particularly during Virginia's long illness."

Author Charles Bonner found an entry from the diary of one of Poe's contemporaries that stated:

"...Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch. Some companion here seduced him to the bottle — [and] the consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital."

Dr. Moran, the doctor who attended Poe at his deathbed, wrote a letter to Maria Clemm that obviously presumed that Maria would already know that Poe had drank himself to death:

"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 5:00 in the afternoon — the hour of his admission — until 3:00 [the] next morning. This was on 3 October.

To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy, but not violent or active delirium — constantly 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.

Having left orders with the nurses to that effect, I was summoned to his bedside as soon as consciousness supervened, and questioned him in reference to his family, place of residence, relatives, etc. But his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory. He told me, however, he had a wife in Richmond [a reference, most probably, to Elmira Shelton, and not Virginia Poe], 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 or clothing."

Dr. Moran didn't mention to Maria Clemm Poe's cryptically calling out for "Reynolds" on his death-bed. Nobody has ever determined who "Reynolds" was.

Regarding the trunk mentioned in Dr. Moran's letter, John Evangelist Walsh, in his book Midnight Dreary — The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allen Poe, reports that the trunk was later recovered from a local hotel. But it revealed nothing about Poe's activities during his last days.

The fact that Poe had apparently checked the trunk at a Baltimore hotel deepens the mystery: if Baltimore was merely the place Poe was going to catch a train, why and when did he leave his luggage at a local hotel?

Edgar Allan Poe, portrait
Edgar Allan Poe, portrait

Dr. Moran's reference to Poe's clothes brings up yet another puzzle: the clothes he was wearing when found by Joseph Walker were later described by Dr. Snodgrass as:

"His hat — or, rather, the hat of somebody else, for he had evidently been robbed of his clothing, or cheated in an exchange — was a cheap palm-leaf one, without a band, and soiled.

His coat, [was] of commonest alpaca, and evidently second-hand, and his pants of gray, mixed, cassimere [was] dingy and badly fitting. His shirt was sadly crumpled and soiled."

These were not the clothes that Poe had worn from Richmond. Most people presumed that while on a final drinking binge Poe had either sold his own clothes for more liquor, exchanged his own clothes for somebody else's for some reason, or, as Snodgrass theorizes, he had been "robbed of his clothing."

The Baltimore Poe Society also cites a variety of references that indicate Poe may have died from complications of some illness. During the summer of 1849 Poe had written to Maria Clemm that he was:

" ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad, and can now barely hold the pen. It is no use to reason with me now — I must die.  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."

Additionally, a nurse who attended Virginia Poe in her final illness stated that she believed Poe had some kind of brain disease. John Miller in his book Building Poe Biography published a letter from the same nurse saying "I have seen the scar of the wound in the left shoulder — I asked [Poe] if he had been hurt — in the region of the heart and he told me yes — [and] his head was also hurt... ."

Later scholars and Poe enthusiasts would point to these illnesses (in 1996, a physician even claimed some of Poe's recorded symptoms at his death indicated rabies) as the cause of Poe's death, or have theorized that a weakened state of health from these diseases, in combination with drinking, could have easily caused death in someone as fragile as Poe was in the autumn of 1849.

The change in Poe's clothing, however, soon led to the formation of a more sinister theory that Poe had not died accidentally, but had been killed.

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