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The Death of Edgar Allan Poe

Mysteries in the Passing of the Master of the Macabre


Poe's Grave Marker at Westminster Church, Baltimore
Dwight Nadig/E+/Getty Images

At both ends of his earthly existence, “Master of the Macabre” Edgar Allan Poe lingered at the threshold between life and death. At the tender age of 3 years, he was present in the room when his mother died, and not found until several days later. Some 37 years later, his own passage across that threshold is surrounded by mysteries.

Dying in Secrecy and Mystery
On October 3, 1849, Poe was found nearly lifeless in a public house in Baltimore and several days later succumbed to “congestion of the brain.” There is no definitive record of his movements in the several days before he died, and there are many theories as to the cause of his death. Some say it was alcohol poisoning, some say it was some other illness or heart disease that killed him. Just a few years ago, a Poe enthusiast and novelist theorized that he had a brain tumor:

from The New York Observer:
"Poe’s Mysterious Death: The Plot Thickens!,” by Leon Neyfakh
“Last year, the writer Matthew Pearl published a novel called The Poe Shadow, in which a young lawyer sets out to solve one of the great enduring mysteries of American literary history: What killed Edgar Allan Poe?... There are numerous competing theories about Mr. Poe’s death—the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, even has an exhibit dedicated to all of them. Some Poe experts believe it was the result of drink. Others think he had rabies. A few argue he was poisoned by corrupt political operatives. But Mr. Pearl... told The Observer recently that he has unearthed new information that suggests a less sensational answer: Mr. Poe, it seems, may have died of a brain tumor.”

Another strange and prominent theory in the mystery of Poe’s death is that he was a victim of nasty electoral politics: Because he was not wearing his own clothes when he died, although he had been known as a snappy dresser, it is thought his clothes had been stolen. And because it was election day in Baltimore and he was discovered unconscious in a barroom that was being used as a polling place, it is suspected he had fallen prey to the practice of “cooping”—being taken prisoner by a political gang, beaten and forced to vote repeatedly.

After Poe was found unconscious at the public house, he was attended by Dr. John Joseph Moran at Washington College Hospital, where he was kept a virtual prisoner and allowed no visitors, for several days slipping between consciousness and delirium. Moran reported that his final words were “Lord, help my poor soul!,” just before he expired on October 7.

Poe’s funeral was the next day, a hasty 3-minute ceremony in the damp chill, so sparsely attended that the minister declined to give a sermon. He was buried without a headstone, because the monument his cousin had ordered was accidentally destroyed by a derailed train. He was exhumed and reburied, with a new tomb monument, in 1875, at a ceremony to which several leading poets were invited, but only Walt Whitman attended.

Properly Buried 160 Years Later
In 2009, Edgar Allan Poe was finally given a proper send-off in Baltimore—a “viewing” of his recreated dead body in the casket, a funeral procession accompanied by bagpipes, and a memorial service with eulogies delivered by actors in the roles of his contemporaries and colleagues, attended by more than 700 admirers and mourners. The “master of the macabre” was at last laid properly to rest.

from The Baltimore Sun:
A Proper Reburial,” by Robert Little
“Edgar A. Poe, local author and poet of much renown, was laid to rest at Westminster Hall yesterday inside a simple redwood coffin, after a grand theatrical and oratorical send-off to usher him, as he once wrote, ‘into the region of shadows.’ Of course the true Poe remained buried beneath the monument on the northwest corner of the church grounds in Southwest Baltimore, near where his body was placed hastily in a family plot soon after his death on October 7, 1849. But yesterday the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe’s death was revived, so that the great poet could receive the eulogy that eluded him in the days following his demise.”

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