The Most Mysterious Thing About Edgar Allan Poe Might Be How He Died

Hulton Archive, Stringer, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Stringer, Getty Images

If it had been the ending of one of his stories, critics might have said it was unbelievable. But Edgar Allan Poe’s death, which came suddenly and without a definitive cause, was very real—and it's just as mysterious today as it was when it happened.

On October 3, 1849—Congressional election day in Baltimore—a typesetter for the Baltimore Sun named Joseph W. Walker spotted Poe near a tavern that was being used as a polling place. The writer was disheveled, barely awake, and dressed in clothes that weren’t his own. Poe struggled to speak or move, but was coherent long enough to mention the name of Joseph E. Snodgrass, an editor and physician friend. Walker reached out to Snodgrass in a note: “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,” Walker wrote, “and he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.”

The situation hadn’t improved by the time Snodgrass arrived a little while later, accompanied by one of Poe's uncles. Poe was delirious and couldn’t provide any clues as to what had landed him wandering the streets in a shabby outfit that clearly didn’t belong to him. The people close to him also weren’t any help: Poe had been missing for six days before his sudden reappearance, so how he ended up near the tavern, let alone in Baltimore, was a mystery.

The last anyone had seen of him was September 27. He had been staying in Richmond, Virginia, where his new fiancee lived. He told her he was heading to Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems, but there was no clear record of him ever arriving in the city. Instead, he next surfaced in Baltimore nearly a week later, clinging to life.

Poe died at Washington College Hospital on October 7. He spent the days leading up to his death tortured by hallucinations and fever dreams. At one point he called out the name “Reynolds” several times, though the identity of this person has never been discovered. His official cause of death, by some accounts, was listed as phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, but the medical records have disappeared, and some historians believe the full story is much darker—and more complicated.

The grave of Edgar Allan Poe.
Saul Loeb, Getty Images

Many experts at the time, including Snodgrass, held that Poe drank himself to death. It was well-known that Poe had a hard time holding his alcohol, and according to some sources, all it took was a glass of wine to make him sick. The alcohol theory remains popular today, but one crucial piece of evidence runs against it—lead was frequently added to wine in the 19th century, and as Chris Semtner, curator of the Poe House in Richmond, Virginia, explained to Smithsonian.com, lead analysis of Poe's postmortem hair samples suggests he'd been avoiding alcohol toward the end of his life. Other theorists also believe Poe was suffering from some kind of poisoning or sickness, but blame carbon monoxide, mercury, rabies, the flu, or a brain tumor for his demise.

Then there are the more colorful theories, which posit foul play was involved. In 1857, biographer E. Oakes Smith claimed that Poe was viciously beaten by a man defending a woman’s honor. A few years later, a different writer published a story of a drunken Poe being attacked by muggers in the days leading up to his death.

Another group of theorists think that Poe was the victim of a deadly voter fraud scheme. During 19th century elections, gangs would sometimes kidnap people and force them to vote for the same candidate multiple times, wearing a different disguise each time to hide their identity. This practice was known as cooping, and it was prevalent in Baltimore at the time of Poe’s death. Voters were usually given booze as a reward for performing their civic duty, so if lightweight Poe was forced to vote over and over again, that could explain the sloppy state in which he was found. The theory also provides the most solid explanation for why he was wearing a stranger’s outfit. The fact that Poe was discovered on Election Day not far from a polling spot that was a common cooping target makes this one of the more popular possibilities.

Of course, there’s also a school of thought that says Poe was murdered. According to this theory, which was formulated by writer John Evangelist for his 1998 book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe did make it to Philadelphia after leaving Richmond. There he was confronted by his fiancee's brothers, who were dead-set against him marrying their sister. After the scuffle, Poe changed into new clothes to disguise himself, hid in Philadelphia for a week, and eventually retreated to Baltimore. But the brothers followed him there and further antagonized him by beating him and forcing him to drink whiskey, which they knew would have a terrible effect.

Though it’s not impossible, this theory is based more on conjecture than hard evidence and isn’t a favorite among experts. In a review for the journal Poe Studies, Poe scholar Benjamin F. Fischer had this to say about Walsh's book:

"Had Walsh stated forthrightly that he was presenting us with a novel, in the detection vein, about Poe’s demise—not a work of academic scholarship—I, for one, would find Midnight Dreary a far more palatable accomplishment […] As it is, Walsh gives us far too many conjectural sentences and phrasings, along with too much shuffling aside of any previous bit of work that does not offer direct support to his thesis."

Over 168 years later, the questions surrounding Poe’s death make it one of the literary world's greatest unsolved mysteries. Despite his macabre reputation, that’s a legacy the writer likely would have been happy to leave behind.

Additional source: Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses

The Ultimate Charles Darwin Quiz

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born (and died!) on April 23.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

This story was first published in 2018.

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