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.
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.