Both sensitive and macabre, literary pioneer Edgar Allan Poe played a very large role in developing the horror, science fiction, and detective story genres, paving the way for fictional characters like Nancy Drew to Sherlock Holmes. Charles Baudelaire and Salvador Dali were heavily influenced by Poe’s themes and aesthetics, and Alfred Hitchcock even gives him credit for inspiring him to make his suspenseful films. Upon his death, Poe was buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave in Baltimore but was dug up 26 years later to be moved to the site of a statue to honor his legacy.
While Poe was a regular when it came to creating suspense and curating endings to be left for interpretation, little did he know that his own life would end in a similar fate–plastered with questions and unknowns. It seems fitting yet cryptic, that the man of mystery’s death still remains a mystery. What was the cause of Poe’s untimely death? That question remains up for debate to this day.
Death by Brain Tumor
The most recent and realistic theory of Poe’s death suggests he died of a brain tumor, which could’ve played a role in his behavior leading up to death. When he was dug up for transportation to his new memorial, there wasn’t much left to his deceased body besides bone. In transport, a worker happened to notice an unusual mass rolling inside of Poe’s skull. At the time of discovery, newspapers claimed that the clump was actually Poe’s brain that had shriveled up, yet stayed intact, after almost three decades underground.
American author Matthew Pearl, who wrote a novel about Poe’s death, was intrigued by the clump. He contacted a forensic pathologist who confirmed that the clump couldn’t be a brain. However, it’s possible that it was a tumor. Tumors can calcify after death into hard masses, while the brain is one of the first parts of the body to disintegrate.
Death by Seizures
Due to Poe’s substance abuse, another likely cause of his death was the result of a severe seizure. Researchers have speculated a possible misdiagnosis at the time of his death, as complex partial seizures were not well-understood or known during this time period. Poe also may have suffered from complex partial epilepsy–a disease fueled and complicated by his addiction. Poe wrote many tales based on characters with episodic unconsciousness, confusion, and paranoia, paralleling many of his own experiences throughout his life.
Death by Beating
In 1867, biographer E. Oakes Smith wrote in her article Autobiographic Notes: Edgar Allan Poe that, “At the instigation of a woman who considered herself injured by him, he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. It is well known that a brain fever followed. . . ” This, and many other accounts, have mentioned that Poe was beaten senseless before his death.
In another 1872 article, The Grave of Poe written by Eugeme Didier, it is said that while in Baltimore, Poe ran into friends from West Point, who he joined for drinks. He got madly drunk off a single glass of champagne and began to wander the streets. In his drunken state, he “was robbed and beaten by ruffians, and left insensible in the street all night.”
Death by Alcoholism
It’s no hidden fact that abuse was extremely present in Poe’s life, but it’s also been reported that he wasn’t exactly the best when it came to handling his drinks. He would become belligerently drunk off a single glass of wine–a possible hereditary trait as his sister had a similar problem.
Many theorists believe a “death by drinking” demise for Poe. But samples of Poe’s hair from after his death show low levels of lead, which is an indication that Poe remained faithful to his vow of sobriety up until his demise.
Death by Rabies
Researcher, Dr. R. Michael Benitez, believes that Poe was not drunk upon leaving a bar on Lombard Street wearing someone else’s soiled clothes. After Poe entered the hospital, he was heavily perspiring, hallucinating, and shouting at imaginary companions. He later grew confused and belligerent, before eventually passing in the hospital.
Dr. Benitez ties these behaviors and symptoms back to a classic case of rabies. Rabies victims frequently resist drinking water out of fear that it will be painful to swallow. For the brief period Poe was awake and oriented in the hospital’s care, he refused water with great effort.
Death by Voter Fraud
The most heavily speculated cause of Edgar Allan Poe’s death was a means of cooping. In the 19th century, corrupt politicians paid gangs to kidnap unsuspecting victims, disguise them, and force them to vote for a specific candidate multiple times in different outfits. If the victims did not comply, they were beaten or forced to chug liquor. During this time, election ballots were often stolen, and judges were bribed. The practice of cooping was, unfortunately, very common in Baltimore during election periods.
It is believed that Poe was a victim of this behavior. He was found on election day by his friend, Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, on the street near Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls, which was both an Irish pub and a place of voting. Snodgrass found him in a severely drunken state, wearing cheap clothes that didn’t fit and were not his usual style. He was rushed to the hospital slipping in and out of consciousness. He died a few days later, reportedly uttering the last words “Lord help my poor soul.”
By Michela Pantano, contributor for Ripleys.com