“Quoth the Raven, Nevermore”

January 19, 1809, a son was born to actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe Jr. The child had an older brother named William Henry Leonard Poe and eventually a younger sister Rosalie Poe. This child would be known as Edgar.

Edgar’s father abandoned his family a year later and his mother would pass away from consumption a year after that. Eventually John Allan and his family took young Edgar into their home, and even though never adopting him, did provide him with his middle name, Allan. Edgar Allan Poe would be known the world over for his macabre writings, but also for his mysterious death.

Enlisting in the United States Army in 1827, to support himself, Edgar used the name Edgar A. Perry. He was paid $5 a month, and this same year he released his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems.

Serving for 2 years, he attained the rank of Sergeant Major and attempted to end his five year enlistment early. His commanding officer would only allow him to be discharged if he reconciled with his foster father. They had drifted apart when Edgar was in school and dropped out. John Allan eventually agreed to help Edgar get discharged after his wife had died on one condition, Edgar would have to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In 1829, Edgar went to Baltimore before entering West Point, and stayed with a widowed aunt, Maria Clemm and her daughter, Virginia Eliza Clemm. Also in the home was his brother Henry and his grandmother Elizabeth Cairnes Poe. Edgar also released a second book of poems before his arrival in West Point.

Edgar went to West Point, married Louisa Patterson, and had numerous affairs that produced illegitimate children. In 1831, he decided to leave West Point, and left during a court martial that would have found him guilty. Eventually he would publish a third book of poems, but it contained only six new poems not published before.

Virginia Clemm Poe

Edgar eventually returned to his Aunt’s home in Baltimore where his brother Henry was in ill health due to his alcoholism. He would pass away on August 1, 1831. Surviving by writing alone, Edgar would marry his cousin (First Cousin) Virginia in 1835 after obtaining a special license to do so. She was 13, he was 26.

In 1842, Virginia began to show signs of consumption. She would recover partially, and Edgar began to drink heavily due to the stress of her illness. It would be three years later that his poem The Raven was published and having him become a household name instantly. Virginia would finally lose her battle with consumption, and die on January 30, 1847 in a cottage in Fordham (now the Bronx) New York.

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance”, according to Joseph W. Walker, who found him. He would die four days later and was not coherent long enough to explain his dire condition.

It is reported that he was calling out the name “Reynolds” on the night before he died and it was unclear who Reynolds was. Some claim his final words were “Lord help my poor soul.” All the medical records are lost as well as his death certificate.

So how did Edgar Allan Poe come to be disheveled, in clothes that were not his own, and completely incoherent days before he died? That is the mystery, here are a few suggestions:

  • Beating
    • Biographer E. Oakes Smith suggest in 1867 that Edgar was beaten to death over a woman. The mysterious woman who considered herself injured by him and he was cruelly beaten by a ruffian. And then brain fever followed.
  • Cooping
    • A practice of voter fraud practiced by gangs in the 19th century. The victim would be kidnapped, disguised, and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under different names. The location where Edgar was found was a polling place and place that coopers often found their victims. Because it was an election day when Edgar was found, this theory makes sense.
    • Often after voting as required, the victims were given alcohol and may account for Edgar’s disheveled state and the ill fitting clothes he was wearing as a disguise.
  • Drinking
    • It’s been often stated that Edgar could not handle alcohol. In fact after a glass of wine he would be staggering drunk.
    • This is also a theory that lead to his demise, but doesn’t explain his disappearance the week before his death or his second-hand clothes. Samples from Edgar’s hair show low levels of lead which means he remained faithful to his vow of sobriety.
  • Rabies
    • In 1996, Dr. R. Michael Benitez was participating in a conference and were given patients with a list of symptoms and were to diagnose and compare with other doctors as well as any written record.
    • According to Dr. Benitez his patient, E.P., had succumbed to rabies. E.P. had been admitted with lethargy and confusion and after admittance to the hospital his condition deteriorated quickly. The patient exhibited delirium, hallucinations, variations in pulse rate, and rapid shallow breathing. The patient was dead within four days.
    • Rabies was a fairly common virus in the 19th century. Edgar didn’t have evidence of an animal bite, and did not have a fear of water as those with rabies develop.
  • Brain Tumor
    • Thirty years after being buried, Edgar was exhumed from an unmarked grave and attempted to be buried near a memorial. However his body was decayed severly. One of the grave workers stated that Edgar’s brain was rolling around in his skull when they attempted to move him.
    • This was not possible as the brain is one of the first things to rot, but it’s possible that it was a brain tumor that can calcify after death into hard masses.
  • Flu
    • Edgar’s fiancee stated that he had been ill a week before his death. He had a weak pulse and fever. It’s suggested he had the flu that turned into pneumonia and that is what killed him.
  • Murder
    • Author, John Evangelist Walsh, suggested in 2000, that Edgar was murdered by his fiancee Elmira Shelton’s brothers.
    • He suggests that Edgar had travelled to Philadelphia as planned and that the three brothers ambushed him and advised him to not marry their sister. Edgar then disguised himself in new clothes and when he returned to Baltimore he was again ambushed by the Shelton brothers. They beat him, forced him to drink whiskey which they knew would put him into a deathly sickness.
    • This theory is not one that is most popular.

So who did it, why, and for what reason? Who was Reynolds? It’s a mystery that we shall never know, and as something that we will always ask about but will find out, Nevermore.

Stay Curious my Friends

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