Around the late 1870s, Poe’s biographer J.H. Ingram received several letters that blamed Poe’s death on a cooping scheme. A letter from William Hand Browne, a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins, explains that “the general belief here is, that Poe was seized by one of these gangs, (his death happening just at election-time; an election for sheriff took place on Oct. 4th), ‘cooped,’ stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted, and then turned adrift to die.”
“A lot of the ideas that have come up over the years have centered around the fact that Poe couldn’t handle alcohol,” says Semtner. “It has been documented that after a glass of wine he was staggering drunk. His sister had the same problem; it seems to be something hereditary.”
Months before his death, Poe became a vocal member of the temperance movement, eschewing alcohol, which he’d struggled with all his life. Biographer Susan Archer Talley Weiss recalls, in her biography “The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe,” an event, toward the end of Poe’s time in Richmond, that might be relevant to theorists that prefer a “death by drinking” demise for Poe. Poe had fallen ill in Richmond, and after making a somewhat miraculous recovery, was told by his attending physician that “another such attack would prove fatal.” According to Weiss, Poe replied that “if people would not tempt him, he would not fall,” suggesting that the first illness was brought on by a bout of drinking.
Those around Poe during his finals days seem convinced that the author did, indeed, fall into that temptation, drinking himself to death. As his close friend J. P. Kennedy wrote on October 10, 1949: “On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch. . . . He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe! . . . A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched.”
Though the theory that Poe’s drinking lead to his death fails to explain his five-day disappearance, or his second-hand clothes on October 3, it was nonetheless a popular theory propagated by Snodgrass after Poe’s death. Snodgrass, a member of the temperance movement, gave lectures across the country, blaming Poe’s death on binge drinking. Modern science, however, has thrown a wrench into Snodgrasses talking points: samples of Poe’s hair from after his death show low levels of lead, explains Semtner, which is an indication that Poe remained faithful to his vow of sobriety up until his demise.
4. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
In 1999, public health researcher Albert Donnay argued that Poe’s death was a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from coal gas that was used for indoor lighting during the 19th century. Donnay took clippings of Poe’s hair and tested them for certain heavy metals that would be able to reveal the presence of coal gas. The test was inconclusive, leading biographers and historians to largely discredit Donnay’s theory.
5. Heavy Metal Poisoning
While Donnay’s test didn’t reveal levels of heavy metal consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning, the tests did reveal elevated levels of mercury in Poe’s system months before his death. According to Semtner, Poe’s mercury levels were most likely elevated as a result of a cholera epidemic he’d been exposed to in July of 1849, while in Philadelphia. Poe’s doctor prescribed calomel, or mercury chloride. Mercury poisoning, Semtner says, could help explain some of Poe’s hallucinations and delirium before his death. However, the levels of mercury found in Poe’s hair, even at their highest, are still 30 times below the level consistent with mercury poisoning.
In 1996, Dr. R. Michael Benitez was participating in a clinical pathologic conference where doctors are given patients, along with a list of symptoms, and instructed to diagnose and compare with other doctors as well as the written record. The symptoms of the anonymous patient E.P., “a writer from Richmond” were clear: E.P. had succumbed to rabies. According to E.P.’s supervising physician, Dr. J.J. Moran, E.P. had been admitted to a hospital due to “lethargy and confusion.” Once admitted, E.P.’s condition began a rapid downward spiral: shortly, the patient was exhibiting delirium, visual hallucinations, wide variations in pulse rate and rapid, shallow breathing. Within four days—the median length of survival after the onset of serious rabies symptoms—E.P. was dead.
E.P., Benitez soon found out, wasn’t just any author from Richmond. It was Poe whose death the Maryland cardiologist had diagnosed as a clear case of rabies, a fairly common virus in the 19th century. Running counter to any prevailing theories at the time, Benitez’s diagnosis ran in the September 1996 issue of the Maryland Medical Journal. As Benitez pointed out in his article, without DNA evidence, it’s impossible to say with 100 percent certainty that Poe succumbed to the rabies virus. There are a few kinks in the theory, including no evidence of hydrophobia (those afflicted with rabies develop a fear of water, Poe was reported to have been drinking water at the hospital until his death) nor any evidence of an animal bite (though some with rabies don’t remember being bitten by an animal). Still, at the time of the article’s publication, Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House Museum in Baltimore, agreed with Benitez’s diagnosis. “This is the first time since Poe died that a medical person looked at Poe’s death without any preconceived notions,” Jerome told the Chicago Tribune in October of 1996. “If he knew it was Edgar Allan Poe, he’d think, ‘Oh yeah, drugs, alcohol,’ and that would influence his decision. Dr. Benitez had no agenda.”
7. Brain Tumor
One of the most recent theories about Poe’s death suggests that the author succumbed to a brain tumor, which influenced his behavior before his death. When Poe died, he was buried, rather unceremoniously, in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore graveyard. Twenty-six years later, a statue was erected, honoring Poe, near the graveyard’s entrance. Poe’s coffin was dug up, and his remains exhumed, in order to be moved to the new place of honor. But more than two decades of buried decay had not been kind to Poe’s coffin—or the corpse within it—and the apparatus fell apart as workers tried to move it from one part of the graveyard to another. Little remained of Poe’s body, but one worker did remark on a strange feature of Poe’s skull: a mass rolling around inside. Newspapers of the day claimed that the clump was Poe’s brain, shriveled yet intact after almost three decades in the ground.
We know, today, that the mass could not be Poe’s brain, which is one of the first parts of the body to rot after death. But Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe’s death, was nonetheless intrigued by this clump. He contacted a forensic pathologist, who told him that while the clump couldn’t be a brain, it could be a brain tumor, which can calcify after death into hard masses.
According to Semtner, Pearl isn’t the only person to believe Poe suffered from a brain tumor: a New York physician once told Poe that he had a lesion on his brain that caused his adverse reactions to alcohol.
A far less sinister theory suggests that Poe merely succumbed to the flu—which might have turned into deadly pneumonia—on this deathbed. As Semtner explains, in the days leading up to Poe’s departure from Richmond, the author visited a physician, complaining of illness. “His last night in town, he was very sick, and his [soon-to-be] wife noted that he had a weak pulse, a fever, and she didn’t think he should take the journey to Philadelphia,” says Semtner. “He visited a doctor, and the doctor also told him not to travel, that he was too sick.” According to newspaper reports from the time, it was raining in Baltimore when Poe was there—which Semtner thinks could explain why Poe was found in clothes not his own. “The cold and the rain exasperated the flu he already had,” says Semtner, “and maybe that eventually lead to pneumonia. The high fever might account for his hallucinations and his confusion.”
In his 2000 book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, author John Evangelist Walsh presents yet another theory about Poe’s death: that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancée, Elmira Shelton. Using evidence from newspapers, letters and memoirs, Walsh argues that Poe actually made it to Philadelphia, where he was ambushed by Shelton’s three brothers, who warned Poe against marrying their sister. Frightened by the experience, Poe disguised himself in new clothes (accounting for, in Walsh’s mind, his second-hand clothing) and hid in Philadelphia for nearly a week, before heading back to Richmond to marry Shelton. Shelton’s brothers intercepted Poe in Baltimore, Walsh postulates, beat him, and forced him to drink whiskey, which they knew would send Poe into a deathly sickness. Walsh’s theory has gained little traction among Poe historians—or book reviewers; Edwin J. Barton, in a review for the journal American Literature, called Walsh’s story “only plausible, not wholly persuasive.” “Midnight Dreary is interesting and entertaining,” he concluded, “but its value to literary scholars is limited and oblique.”
For Semtner, however, none of the theories fully explain Poe’s curious end. “I’ve never been completely convinced of any one theory, and I believe Poe’s cause of death resulted from a combination of factors,” he says. “His attending physician is our best source of evidence. If he recorded on the mortality schedule that Poe died of phrenitis, Poe was most likely suffering from encephalitis or meningitis, either of which might explain his symptoms.”