Despite his macabre literary genius, Edgar Allan Poe’s life was short and largely unhappy. After his young wife, Virginia, contracted tuberculosis in 1842 and died five years later, the already hard-drinking Poe apparently dove deeper into the bottle.
In the late summer of 1849, he was in Richmond, Virginia, where he proposed to an old sweetheart, Elmira Shelton. On September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, supposedly bound for Philadelphia. The details of his actions and whereabouts over the next few days remain uncertain, but on October 3, a passerby noticed Poe slumped near an Irish pub in Baltimore, Maryland.
When Poe’s friend Dr. Joseph Snodgrass arrived, he found the 40-year-old writer in what he assumed was a highly drunken state, wearing cheap, ill-fitting clothes very different from his usual mode of dress. Taken to Washington College Hospital, Poe slipped in and out of consciousness; he died early on the morning of October 7, reportedly uttering the last words “Lord help my poor soul.”
Poe’s death left a mystery that has lingered for more than a century. No death certificate seems to have been filed, and a local newspaper reported Poe’s cause of death as “congestion of the brain,” supposed to be a euphemism for alcohol poisoning.
Shortly after his death, Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary rival, wrote an obituary characterizing him as a morally bankrupt, drunken womanizer. As Griswold also wrote the first biography of Poe, his biased portrait formed the basis of Poe’s image in the public mind, though later scholars concluded that Griswold’s version of Poe’s debauchery was highly exaggerated.
Aside from alcoholism, historians and biographers have suggested alternative causes of death ranging from lesions on the brain, epilepsy and tuberculosis to cholera, syphilis and even rabies.
Another popular theory holds that Poe may have been a victim of so-called “cooping,” a common practice at the time in which Baltimore’s notoriously corrupt politicians paid thugs to kidnap down-and-out men, especially the homeless. The victims were drugged, disguised and forced to vote over and over at different polling places for the chosen candidates, then left for dead. Supporters of the cooping theory point to Poe’s unfamiliar and ill-fitting clothes, as well as to the fact that citywide elections were held in Baltimore the day he was found; the Irish pub nearby functioned as both a bar and a voting station.