What Caused the Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe?: A Brief Investigation into the Poet’s Demise 171 Years Ago Today

Edgar Allan Poe died 171 years ago today, but we still don’t know why. Of course, we all must meet our end soon­er or lat­er, as the lit­er­ary mas­ter of the macabre would well have under­stood. His incli­na­tion toward the mys­te­ri­ous would have pre­pared him to believe as well in the pow­er of ques­tions that can nev­er be answered. And so, per­haps, Poe would have expect­ed that a death like his own — ear­ly, unex­pect­ed, and of final­ly unde­ter­minable cause — would draw pub­lic fas­ci­na­tion. But could even he have imag­ined it con­tin­u­ing to com­pel gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion of urban-leg­end and Amer­i­can-lore enthu­si­asts, whether or not they’ve read “The Raven” or “The Fall of the House of Ush­er”?

Poe’s end thus makes ide­al mate­r­i­al for Buz­zfeed Unsolved, a video series whose oth­er pop­u­lar episodes include the death of Vin­cent van Gogh, the dis­ap­pear­ance of D.B. Coop­er, and the assas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy. In 25 min­utes, “The Macabre Death Of Edgar Allan Poe” sum­ma­rizes the writer’s remark­ably unlucky life and gets into the detail of his equal­ly unlucky death, begin­ning on Sep­tem­ber 27th, 1849, when “Poe left Rich­mond by steam­er, stop­ping the next day in Bal­ti­more. For the next five days, Poe’s where­abouts are unknown.” Then, on Octo­ber 3rd, he was found “deliri­ous, immo­bile, and dressed in shab­by cloth­ing” in “a gut­ter out­side of a pub­lic house that was being used as a polling place.”

“Rap­ping at death’s cham­ber’s door, Poe was tak­en to Wash­ing­ton Col­lege Hos­pi­tal that after­noon.” (The nar­ra­tion works in sev­er­al such ref­er­ences to his writ­ing.) “Assumed to be drunk, the weak and weary Poe was brought to a spe­cial room reserved for patients ill from intox­i­ca­tion.” Alas, “Poe nev­er ful­ly regained con­scious­ness to be able to detail what had hap­pened to him,” and expired on Octo­ber 7th at the age of 40. The hosts exam­ine sev­er­al of the the­o­ries that attempt to explain what hap­pened (nine­teen of which we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture): did a binge trig­ger his known phys­i­cal intol­er­ance of alco­hol? Did he have a brain tumor? Did he get beat­en up by his fiancée’s angry broth­ers? Was he a vic­tim of “coop­ing”?

Coop­ing, a “vio­lent form of vot­er fraud that was extreme­ly com­mon in Bal­ti­more at that time,” involved rov­ing gangs who “would kid­nap a vic­tim and force him to vote mul­ti­ple times in a vari­ety of dis­guis­es.” This jibes with the loca­tion and state in which Poe was found — and because “vot­ers were often giv­en some alco­hol after vot­ing as a cel­e­bra­tion,” it also explains his appar­ent stu­por. But none of the major the­o­ries actu­al­ly con­tra­dict each oth­er, and thus more than one could be true: “Edgar Allan Poe may very well have been beat­en and kid­napped in a coop­ing scheme, sent into a stu­por with alco­hol after vot­ing, and unable to recov­er due to a brain tumor.” How­ev­er it hap­pened, his death became a final sto­ry as endur­ing as — and even grim­mer than — many of his tales of the grotesque.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mys­tery of Edgar Allan Poe’s Death: 19 The­o­ries on What Caused the Poet’s Demise

Why Should You Read Edgar Allan Poe? An Ani­mat­ed Video Explains

Famous Edgar Allan Poe Sto­ries Read by Iggy Pop, Jeff Buck­ley, Christo­pher Walken, Mar­i­anne Faith­ful & More

5 Hours of Edgar Allan Poe Sto­ries Read by Vin­cent Price & Basil Rath­bone

Édouard Manet Illus­trates Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” in a French Edi­tion Trans­lat­ed by Stephane Mal­lar­mé (1875)

Down­load The Com­plete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Macabre Sto­ries as Free eBooks & Audio Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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