The Death of
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe remains one of America’s most widely read authors. His image is iconic, and his legend and writings pervade contemporary culture. This map explores the societal forces at work in the early 19th century that helped shape Poe’s life, creative output and mysterious death. Poe’s personal struggles and literary achievements in a rapidly urbanizing, often lawless America give us a portrait of a darkly shadowed and singularly focused genius.
Edgar Allan Poe’s lifetime spanned a tumultuous period of rapid urban growth, the social consequences of which are central to his tale “The Man of the Crowd” (1840). As the scholar J. Gerald Kennedy writes in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, this story “conveys a prescient awareness of metropolitan alienation,” with the city a “desolate, dehumanized place.” Poe describes the man of the title as a stranger possessing “the type and genius of deep crime,” because he “refuses to be alone.” This underappreciated tale combines some of the major themes of Poe’s work: the sense of loss, here expressed as being lost and alone, and the concept of the divided self.
Antipathy between the mob and the individual is another of Poe’s chief concerns. In his sci-fi satire “Mellonta Tauta” (1849), Poe describes a horrible despot, “a fellow of the name of Mob.… He was a giant in stature—insolent, rapacious, filthy; had the gall of a bullock with the heart of a hyena and the brains of a peacock.”
American culture underwent a staggering transformation in the early 19th century, during which Edgar Allan Poe debuted as a writer. Improved transportation via canals, turnpikes and railroads knit the nation together, allowing for rapid dissemination of information. Breakthroughs in printing technology, such as continuous rolls of paper and steam-powered presses, sparked a full-blown communications revolution, and larger numbers of better-educated people formed a new reading public. Bookstores proliferated, libraries were established, and publishing became one of America’s fastest-growing industries. This was the heyday of the “penny dreadfuls,” cheap magazines featuring sensationalist stories. Anything zestful was fit to print and, when juicy stories were lacking, to invent. Poe scorned the wildly popular penny presses (his influence on later pulp writers notwithstanding) and lamented that the genre’s influence on the masses was “probably beyond all calculation.”
Poe had another reason to decry the publishing industry—the lack of an international copyright law. American publishers could freely pirate popular British works without paying their authors. As a result, they were reluctant to invest in homegrown writers. As James Fenimore Cooper observed, there was “little hope for American authors,” as long as publishers continued to “saturate the marketplace with reprints of British novels.”
By the early 19th century, industrialized America had the dubious reputation of being a nation of drunkards. Drinking was a way of life. The temperance movement, closely aligned with women’s suffrage, sought to change that, and popular literature helped spread the word. “Deacon Giles’s Distillery” (1836), a celebrated story by the Reverend George B. Cheever, depicts a group of devils producing barrels of rum labeled “Death,” “Murder,” “Poverty” and “Delirium Tremens.”
Edgar Allan Poe was at times a binge drinker, for which he was deemed immoral, a judgment other American authors—notably “lost generation” writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner—later escaped. Poe became the temperance movement’s poster child—the embodiment of alcohol’s inherent vice. Poe drank partly to ease the pain when his wife, Virginia, lay dying. As he explained to a friend, “I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.” Little more than a month before his death, Poe joined the Richmond chapter of the Sons of Temperance.
By 1836 publishing had become big business in America. It was a well-oiled machine driven by literary cliques whose chief enterprise was “puffing”—that is, publishing uncritical “reviews” praising books. Successful puffs came from the establishment presses and were invariably written by their sanctioned authors. (Today’s top newspapers still run “puff pieces” based on publishers’ press releases, and plugs are standard fare on the late-night talk show circuit.) In Edgar Allan Poe’s capacity as editor of some of America’s leading literary journals, he declared war on what he considered the craven, self-serving methods of these presses. Poe was a fearless critic, and his candor resulted in professional enemies, chief among them the litterateur Rufus W. Griswold.
An influential journalist, Griswold gained considerable reputation, influence and power through a series of hugely popular anthologies, particularly his 1842 collection The Poets and Poetry of America. Nevertheless, among the 19th-century literati, Griswold was known for being erratic, dogmatic, pretentious and vindictive. Author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. observed, “What a curious creature Griswold is! He seems to me a kind of naturalist whose subjects are authors, whose memory is a perfect fauna of all flying, running and creeping things that feed on ink.”
Edgar Allan Poe wanted to be included in Rufus Griswold’s literary anthologies. Griswold wanted Poe’s praise. When Poe died, however, Griswold wrote a spiteful obituary under the pseudonym Ludwig. In the piece, which first appeared in the New-York Daily Tribune, he attempted to slander Poe’s reputation, writing that Poe often wandered the streets “in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses” and maintaining that “few will be grieved” by Poe’s death. Griswold expanded the obituary into the book Memoir of the Author, for which Poe’s widowed aunt Maria Clemm may have given permission. As a result, Griswold’s Memoir was the only “authorized” Poe biography for more than two decades. Not surprisingly, Clemm was displeased by Griswold’s work, which employed lies, plagiarism and forgery in an all-out attack upon her nephew’s reputation. Clemm never received any payment, though the Memoir went through multiple printings. Additionally, Griswold kept many of Poe’s manuscripts and other materials he had received from her. Griswold established Poe as the quintessentially dissolute madman, easily confused with the depraved characters of his fiction. The widespread fascination with the Poe myth Griswold created in the biography figures prominently in the author’s popularity today.
Between 1830 and 1860 Baltimore was the nation’s second-largest city, behind New York; amidst this exploding population a violent gang culture emerged. The sharpest contemporary reference point for the violence and corruption that existed at this time is Martin Scorsese’s period epic Gangs of New York (2002). The political party that ruled the street during an election carried an enormous physical and psychological advantage. The prevalence of powerful, savagely territorial gangs in Baltimore, one of which was described as the “vortex of vice,” earned the city the nickname Mobtown.
As the gangs became increasingly politicized, election campaigns became angry, dangerous affairs, with innocent bystanders often caught in the cross fire. Partisans resorted to “cooping,” or abducting men off the street, plying them with liquor and keeping them under lock and key until election day, when the inebriates would be paraded from poll to poll to cast multiple ballots for a candidate.
When Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore on the eve of a municipal election, he inexplicably vanished for five days and then was found delirious with drink, outside a polling place and in clothes not his own. He died four days later without saying what had happened to him.
On September 27, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe boarded a steamship in Richmond, Virginia, heading for New York. He was on his way home. For five days following his disembarkation in Baltimore, he seemed to attract no notice whatsoever; then he was discovered stumbling outside a Baltimore polling station, deliriously drunk. Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died four days later, on October 7. All medical records—including Poe’s death certificate—have been lost, and the credibility of the doctor who treated him has been questioned. Theories abound even today as to the cause of Poe’s death: Suicide! Murder! Cholera! Rabies! Syphilis! Influenza! In a sad irony, Poe’s final days feature a familiar blend of unreality and horror: the creator of the detective story remains at the heart of the mystery of his own death.
Novelist Matthew Pearl takes the presumed phantasmagoric final days of Poe’s life as the premise of his novel The Poe Shadow. It begins with a young Baltimore attorney, Quentin Clark, encountering the “saddest funeral ever seen.” Clark undertakes a quest to find out how Poe died and thereby to restore his reputation as a great American writer.