No aspect of his life has so fascinated Poe’s fans and detractors as his death. Unfortunately, there is also no greater example of how badly Poe’s biography has been handled. Shrouded in opinion and contradiction, the essential details of Poe’s final days leave us with more questions than answers. In the end we must accept that the few tantalizing facts we have lead to no certain conclusion. Poe’s death must, probably, remain a mystery — but the puzzle still teases and entices us. It is easy to find ourselves reviewing the stories again in hopes of finding something new, to settle the question once and for all.
In 1849, Poe was still sharing a home with Mrs. Clemm in New York, in the same little cottage where Virginia had died in 1847. On June 29, 1849, Poe began a lecture tour to raise money and interest in his projected magazine theStylus. He went first to Philadelphia, then to Richmond and Norfolk. While in Richmond, he reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster Shelton. Both Poe and Mrs. Shelton by then were widowed and after a brief courtship, renewed their long-ago engagement, although there is some question as to whether or not the marriage would ever actually take place. Poe left for New York, to gather Maria Clemm and move their belongings back to Richmond. Before leaving, Poe stopped by the office of Dr. John F. Carter, at Seventh and Broad Streets, at about 9:30 at night. After talking for awhile, he went across the street to Saddler’s Restaurant for supper, mistakenly taking Dr. Carter’s malacca cane and leaving behind his own and a copy of Moore’s Irish Rhapsodies. According to Dr. Carter, the cane contained a hidden sword, of which Poe may or may not have been aware (John Carter, “Edgar Poe’s Last Night in Richmond,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. p. 565 and repeated in Weiss, The Home Life of Poe. p. 203-204). Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss noted, “at the restaurant he met with some acquaintances who detained him until late, and then accompanied him to the Baltimore boat. According to their account he was quite sober and cheerful to the last, remarking, as he took leave of them, that he would soon be in Richmond again” (Weiss, “The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe,” p. 714).
Taking a boat from Richmond on September 27, Poe arrived in Baltimore on September 28, 1849. Over the next few days, details about Poe’s actions and whereabouts are uncertain. Even his Baltimore cousin, Neilson Poe, wrote to Maria Clemm on October 11, 1849 “where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain” (Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe. p. 642). Poe apparently called on Dr. Nathan Covington Brooks, who was, unfortunately, out of town. (The origin of the widely repeated information for this visit to Brooks’ home is elusive. G. E. Woodberry’s 1885 Life of Poe (Edgar Allan Poe, 1885, p. 342) seems to be the first mention, giving a slightly extended version, with Poe being partly intoxicated. (Woodberry repeats the information in his 1909 biography of Poe with what erroneously appears to be a note that J. A. Harrison’s 1902 Life of Poe as the source. No such reference occurs there and it is a note only for the sentence marked.)
Bishop Fitzgerald noted that Poe left Richmond with as much as $1,500 gathered as subscription money for his magazine (Harrison, Complete Works. Vol. I, p. 322). In a letter to E.H. N. Patterson, written on November 9, 1849, John R. Thompson claimed, “The day before he went North from Richmond, I advanced him a small sum of money for a prospective article which he probably never wrote” (Harrison, Complete Works. XVII, p. 405). If either story is true, especially Fitzgerald’s, the fact that no money was ever found strongly supports the idea that Poe may have been mugged. It should perhaps be noted that $1,500 would have been an astonishing amount of money for Poe to have collected. Since his proposed magazine was to cost $5 per year, it would indicate 300 subscribers during this one trip, a number which greatly exceeds what Poe appears to have been able to gather in all of his previous efforts combined, dating back to 1840. Without impugning the Bishop’s integrity, the story should be considered apocryphal in the absence of more tangible evidence.)
Thomas H. Lane’s recollection adds further confusion to the story. In four slightly different accounts, he recalled that Poe had gone to Philadelphia to see friends, where he was found ill. Lane thought that Poe intended to go on to New York, but mistakenly took the train back to Baltimore (Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe. p. 637). T. O. Mabbott felt that Lane was correct in the details of the event, but mistaken as to the year, relating instead what had occurred in 1848 (Mabbott, Poems. 1969, p. 568 n. 6). Moran also states that Poe went to Philadelphia, but that bad weather prevented completion of the trip (Moran, Defense of Poe. p 58). Poe may have gone to Philadelphia to comply with the request of Mrs. Leon Loud, to edit her collection of poems, for which Poe was to be paid $100. This clearly was his intent when he wrote to Maria Clemm on September 18, “On Tuesday I start for Phila[delphia] to attend to Mrs Loud’s Poems — & possibly on Thursday I may start for N. York. If I do I will go straight over to Mrs Lewis’s & send for you. It will be better for me not to go to Fordham — don‘t you think so? Write immediately in reply & direct to Phila. For fear I should not get the letter, sign no name & address
it to E. S. T. Grey Esqr. Don‘t forget to write immediately to Phila so that your letter will be there when I arrive” (Ostrom, Letters. p. 461). Why Poe felt that he would not get a letter correctly addressed and why it would be better for him not to go to Fordham is unclear. That Poe did not get to Philadelphia, or at least did not manage to see Mrs. Loud, seems to be confirmed by a short notice of her book, Wayside Flowers. “The late Mr. Poe was accustomed to praise her works very highly, and was to have edited this edition of them” (the International, A Miscellany of Literature, Science and Art. Boston, September 1, 1850, p. 265).
The next certain information about Poe is October 3, 1849, when Joseph W. Walker sent the following note to Dr. J. E. Snodgrass: “Dear Sir, — There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance, Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.” Ryan’s 4th Ward Polls, also known as Gunner’s Hall, was a tavern (such places were often used as election places, and voters were regularly rewarded with drinks). There appears to be no foundation for the tradition that Poe was found in a gutter, although it is at least possible that Walker came across Poe on the street outside, and helped Poe into the nearby public house to wait for the arrival of his friend. Dr. Snodgrass and Henry Herring (Poe’s uncle) came and found Poe in what they presumed was a drunken state. They agreed that he should be sent to the Washington College Hospital, and arranged for a carriage.
At the hospital, Poe was admitted and made as comfortable as the circumstances permitted. Over the next few days, Poe seems to have lapsed in and out of consciousness. Moran tried to question him as to the cause of his condition, but Poe’s “answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory” (Moran to Maria Clemm, November 15, 1849). Neilson Poe tried to visit him, but was told that Edgar was too excitable for visitors. Depending on which account one accepts, Poe died at about 3:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m. on October 7, 1849. Moran gives his last words as “Lord help my poor soul” (Moran to Maria Clemm, November 15, 1849) or, even more improbably, “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being and upon demaons incarnate” (Moran, A Defense of Poe. p. 72). Moran also claims that on the evening prior to his death, Poe repeatedly called out the name of “Reynolds.” Substantial efforts have been made to identify who Reynolds may have been, with unimpressive results. At least one scholar felt that Poe may have instead been calling the name of “Herring” (Poe’s uncle was Henry Herring) (W. T. Bandy, “Dr. Moran and the Poe-Reynolds Myth,” Myths and Realities: The Mysterious Mr. Poe. Baltimore: E. A. Poe Society, 1987, pp. 26-36).
Poe’s clothing had been changed. In place of his own suit of black wool was one of cheap gabardine, with a palm leaf hat. Moran describes his clothing as “a stained, faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat” (Moran, Defense of Poe, p. 59.) J. E. Snodgrass offers a more detailed description: “a rusty, almost brimless, tattered and ribbonless palmleaf hat. His clothing consisted of a sack-coat of thin and sleazy black alpaca, ripped more or less at several of its seams, and faded and soiled, and pants of a steel-mixed pattern of caseinate, half-worn and badly-fitting, if they could be said to fit at all. He wore neither vest nor neck-cloth, while the bosom of his shirt was both crumpled and badly soiled. On his feet were boots of coarse material, and giving no sign of having been blackened for a long time, if at all” (Snodgrass, “The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial,” p. 284). Moran also quotes Capt. George W. Rollins, supposedly the conductor of the train, as noting two men who appeared to be following Poe (Moran, Defense of Poe. pp. 60-61.) Most modern biographies take care to note that in spite of the change of clothing, Poe still had Dr. Carter’s cane. According to Susan A. Weiss, this cane was sent by Moran to Mrs. Clemm, who returned it to Dr. Carter (Weiss, Home Life of Poe. p. 205), but this seems to be a misinterpretation of Dr. Carter’s own testimony. It has also been suggested that the key to his trunk was still in his pocket, although this statement seems based on little more than speculation. The key itself is on display in the Poe Museum in Richmond, as is Poe’s trunk. It is equally reasonable that Mrs. Clemm may simply have had a second key.
The only contemporary public reference to a specific cause of death was from the Baltimore Clipper. a somewhat cryptic “congestion of the brain” (The Poe Log. p. 851). Death certificates were apparently not required at the time and none is known to have been filed for Poe. Dr. Moran’s November 15, 1849 letter to Maria Clemm unhelpfully avoids the simple information we would have liked by saying “Presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died. ” In the late 1960s, Birgit Bramsback made an ardent search for a death certificate or any official hospital records, but found nothing (Bramsback, “The Final Illness and Death of E. A. Poe,” p 40, n. 3).