Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe

Murder

The day Poe was found by Joseph Walker was an election day, and many have since theorized that an illegal process known as "cooping" was the cause of Poe's death. Basically a method for tilting an election toward a particular candidate, cooping was described by William Baird in the mid-1870s:

"At that time, and for years before and after, there was an infamous custom in this and other cities, at election time, of "cooping" voters. That is, gangs of men picked up, or even carried off by force, men whom they found in the streets — and transported them to cellars in various slums of the city, where they were kept under guard, threatened, maltreated if they attempted to escape, often robbed, and always compelled to drink whiskey [sometimes mixed with other drugs] — until they were stupefied and helpless.

At the election these miserable wretches were brought up to the polls in carts or omnibuses, under guard, and made to vote the tickets in their hands [repeatedly at different voting places]. Death from the ill-treatment was not very uncommon. The general belief here is that Poe was seized by one of these gangs — 'cooped,' stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted [again and again], then turned adrift to die."

Some proponents of the "cooping" theory state that the gang members may have changed Poe's clothes so that he wouldn't be recognized by those running the elections, in case he was brought to a specific voting place more than once — or possibly Poe's fine clothing was taken and sold by the thugs.

While death may have been a possible side effect of "cooping," death was not the primary intent, and those involved in such practices may have been guilty of unintentional homicide.

Author John Walsh refutes the "cooping" theory, however, by citing articles in a contemporary Baltimore newspaper which described the October 3rd election as "passed off quite harmoniously, and we heard of no disturbances at the polls or elsewhere — the police docket has indicated a dull business."

Walsh, on the other hand, believes that Poe was murdered, and he believes he knows why and by whom. His claim is  based on documents written by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a 19th century poet Poe knew. Smith wrote:

"Not long before his death he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries.

That Edgar Poe may have subjected himself to the imputation or inebriety may perhaps be conceded, for a glass of wine would act fearfully upon his delicate organization; but that he was a debauched man in any way is utterly false. He was not a diseased man from his cups at the time of his death, nor did he die from delirium tremens, as has been asserted.

The whole sad story will probably never be known, but he had corresponded freely with a woman whose name I withhold, and they having subsequently quarreled, he refused to return her letters, nor did she receive them until after Poe's death. This retention not only alarmed but exasperated the woman, and she sent an emissary of her own to enforce the delivery, and who, failing of success, beat the unhappy man in a most ruffianly manner.

A brain fever supervened and a few friends went with him to Baltimore, his native city, which he barely reached when he died.

The hand should be palsied, and the name blighted, of the man who, under any provocation, could inflict a blow upon a slender, helpless, intellectual being, however misguided, like Edgar A. Poe."

Smith's account presents a new, and far more sinister possibility, but also leaves questions unanswered. She places the violence against Poe before he journeys from Richmond to Baltimore, but there are no other statements from those who encountered Poe on the day before he left Richmond that say he was in anything other than good spirits and health. Also, far from "barely reaching" Baltimore before dying, he reached that city, vanished entirely for several days, and died more than a week after his arrival.

Dr. Snodgrass denied Mrs. Smith's statements in an 1867 article that proclaimed:

"I am positive that there was no evidence whatever of any such violence having been used upon his person, when I went to his rescue at the tavern. Nor was there any given at the hospital, where its detection would have been certain, if external violence had really been the cause of his insanity, for there would have been some physical traces of it on the patient's person. In this view of the question I respectfully submit that it is high time that the hypothesis of a beating were dropped."

Walsh builds his theory primarily on Smith's statements, but adds other information that causes him to conclude that Poe arrived in Baltimore, boarded the train for Philadelphia, but  encountered Elmira Shelton's brothers there who did not want their sister to marry a man with a dark reputation for drinking and other assorted offenses. They threatened Poe, who quickly turned around and tried to get back to Richmond and Elmira. The brothers caught up with him in Baltimore, however, and beat Poe to dissuade him from ever marrying their sister. This violence ultimately led to Poe's death.

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