In late September 1849, Edgar Allan Poe set out from Richmond, Virginia, bound for his home in New York City. But he never arrived. En route, his life came to a mysterious end, worthy of the detective fiction he had become known for. Since then, no one has been able to definitively say what killed one of American literature's most iconic writers at age 40.
On October 3, Poe was found near a Baltimore tavern, appearing to be in an alcoholic stupor and wearing someone else’s dirty clothes. After being taken to a hospital, he reportedly drifted in and out of consciousness, suffering from hallucinations and mostly speaking unintelligibly. Poe died on the morning of October 7, yet all of his medical records (including his death certificate) have been lost to history – not that they would have necessarily shed much light on his true cause of death.
A newspaper later reported that he had died from “congestion of the brain,” a euphemism for fatal alcohol abuse. Yet there are many reasons to doubt this explanation. Although Poe sometimes overindulged, he was not known to be an alcoholic. In fact, according to some reports, he was said to get drunk after only one glass of wine and was wary of alcohol. He drank socially but often went months at a time without drinking at all. Adding even more mystery is the fact that he was a member of the Sons of Temperance at the time of his death, pledging abstinence from drinking.
A mystery writer's greatest mystery:
- According to Dr. John J. Moran, the physician who attended to him in his final days, Poe repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds." To this day, no one has figured out the significance of this name. Moran also stated that Poe's final words were "Lord, help my poor soul," though Moran's credibility as a witness has been doubted, as he frequently changed his account of Poe's hospital stay and death.
- Various causes of death have been suggested over the years, including a brain tumor, cholera, diabetes, syphilis, delirium tremens, epilepsy, and meningeal inflammation. Suicide, murder, alcohol withdrawal, and drug overdose have also been suggested. A 2006 test of Poe's hair ruled out lead poisoning, mercury poisoning, and heavy-metal exposures. Moran, Poe's physician, was skeptical of the alcohol theory, commenting that Poe "had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person."
- Some think Poe was a victim of “cooping,” a form of 19th-century voter fraud, as he was found on Election Day near a Baltimore polling location. Victims were kidnapped, drugged or forced to drink, then put in various disguises in order to repeatedly cast votes at various polling places. A related theory suggests that Poe died from rabies from rat bites he endured during his cooping captivity.