My Paper, entitled "Human Thirst For Self-Torment": Death of Edgar Allan Poe : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

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Edgar Allan Poe was driven to genius – and madness – by what he called “the human thirst for self-torment” (Meyers 58). Certainly Poe would have marveled at the mysterious, horrific manner in which he died. Indeed, the details of his death seem almost like something out of a story Poe himself could have written. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found barely conscious in the streets of Baltimore. He was immediately taken to a hospital, where he lapsed from unconsciousness to consciousness, delirium to lucidity, and convulsions to stillness. He died four days later - he was 40 years old. In the one hundred fifty years since his death, friends, family, and historians have come up with literally dozens of theories regarding what caused Poe’s death – and every theory has at least some credibility. Jeffrey Savoye of the Edgar Allan Poe Society compared the controversy and mystery of Poe’s death to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Certainly we will never know conclusively what caused Poe’s death. However, it seems that the most widely accepted theory at the time – that a lifetime of alcoholism killed Poe – is the most plausible. It is possible that his heavy drinking caused a hypoglycemic condition – if so, this was likely the immediate cause of his death. It also seems that Poe may have been physically attacked prior to his death. Lastly, a weak heart and brain disease certainly contributed to his death. Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore by boat on September 28, 1849. Exactly what he did or who he was with from the time of his arrival in Baltimore until October 3 is not clear. Neilson Poe, a cousin to the great writer, resided in Baltimore. He wrote after Edgar died, “Where he spent the time he was there [in Baltimore], or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). John Walsh, author of Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, speculates that Poe visited a friend in Baltimore shortly after his arrival (80-81). What is known is that a man named Joseph Walker found Poe half-conscious in the streets of Baltimore on October 3 (Edgar Allan Poe Society; Connery). There is no way of knowing exactly how long he had been outside – but there had been heavy rain and a strong wind the night before. Poe was able to tell Walker that he knew a local doctor, Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass. Coincidentally, Walker knew Snodgrass personally (Silverman 433). Walker sent a letter to Dr. Snodgrass, urging him to come immediately. In the meantime, Walker helped Poe walk to a nearby house to rest (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Dr. Snodgrass soon arrived, followed by Poe’s uncle, Henry Herring (Silverman 434). Both seemed relatively certain that Poe was drunk (Edgar Allan Poe Society; Silverman 434) – and both were puzzled by the clothing that Poe was wearing. For one, Poe was underdressed for the cold October weather (Kehoe). Secondly, the clothes he was wearing did not seem like his own. Snodgrass recalled that Poe wore an “almost brimless, tattered … palmleaf hat,” a dirty coat “ripped … at several of its seams,” “badly-fitting” pants, a “crumpled and badly soiled” shirt, and “boots … giving no sign of having been blackened for a long time” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Dr. Snodgrass decided that it was necessary to call a carriage to transport Poe to the nearby Washington College Hospital (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Poe, who was in a state of delirium, mumbled to himself as Dr. Snodgrass and Herring helped him into the carriage (Silverman 434). Poe arrived at the hospital at 5 PM on October 3 (Silverman 434), where he was placed in a room generally reserved for people who were sick from intoxication. Once at the hospital, Dr. Snograss and Dr. John J. Moran attended to Poe (Edgar Allan Poe Society). His pulse was irregular – at times fast, at times slow (Johnson). Dr. Moran immediately asked Poe what had caused the illness - Moran later wrote that Poe’s answers to this question were “incoherent and unsatisfactory” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Poe remained in this state for ten hours or so (Meyers 254) – then took a turn for the worse. He began to have seizures (Silverman 434; Grose; Meyers 254) and hallucinations quite early in the morning on October 5. He spoke to people who weren’t present and imagined objects on the walls of his hospital room (Cavendish and Tucker; Meyers 254). His face was pale, and he was covered in sweat (Meyers 254). He lapsed from consciousness to unconsciousness (Edgar Allan Poe Society) – and remained in this dreadful state until the evening of October 5. During the evening of October 5, it seemed as though Poe was beginning to recover (Johnson; Meyers 254). Wishing to see if Poe would have any trouble swallowing, Dr. Moran offered Poe brandy – which he declined. Dr. Moran next offered Poe ice water – Moran wrote that Poe “drank half a glass [of water] without any trouble” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Poe seemed as though he may be on the road to recovery through the next day, October 6. He remained fully conscious and became more lucid. He correctly recalled that he was missing a trunk of clothes (this trunk was found after Poe’s death at a nearby tavern) (Meyers 254). However, Poe’s condition began to rapidly deteriorate during the early evening of October 6. He returned to delirium (Johnson). In fact, Neilson Poe came by the hospital that evening and was told his cousin was in no condition for visitors (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Later that night, Dr. Moran told Poe that he wanted him to be comfortable, and said that soon his friends would be able to see him. To that, Poe retorted, “My best friend would be the man who gave me a pistol that I might blow out my brains” (Edgar Allan Poe Society; Silverman 435) – and then he fell asleep (Walsh 42). Later during the evening of October 6, Poe returned to his earlier delirious state, and fought nurses who had to forcibly keep him in his hospital bed (Walsh 42; Connery). Late during the evening of October 6 and into the early hours of October 7, Poe began to call the name “Reynolds.” Friends, family, and historians have been unable to ascertain to whom exactly Poe was referring (Edgar Allan Poe Society) – if he was referring to a real person at all. After calling the name “Reynolds” for literally hours (Meyers 254-255), Poe fell into a coma during the early hours of October 7 (Johnson). He briefly awoke – but only long enough to say “Lord help my poor soul,” which were his last words. He died around 4 AM on October 7, 1849. No death certificate was ever filed for Edgar Allan Poe, as they were not legally required at the time. However, a local Baltimore paper gave the cause of Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Dr. R. Michael Benitez from the University of Maryland Medical Center first theorized in 1996 that Edgar Allan Poe died from rabies (Edgar Allan Poe Society; Johnson). Dr. Benitez was given the facts of Poe’s death and asked to speculate on the cause of death – not discovering until after his study that the subject was the great writer (Johnson). Rabies is a virus that is transmitted through bites from infected animals. It attacks the central nervous system – and can remain dormant in one’s body for over a year (“Did Rabies Fell Edgar Allan Poe?”). Poe had many symptoms of rabies. His lapsing from delirium to lucidity, irregular pulse, sweating, seizures, and hyperactivity are all symptoms of rabies (Johnson; Clayman 843; Grose). Shortly before arriving in Baltimore in late September, Poe complained of a fever (Silverman 436), which is also a symptom of rabies (Clayman 843). Victims of rabies generally die within three to twenty days after the onset of symptoms (Clayman 843) – and Poe’s stay at Washington College Hospital falls within that period. Poe loved animals (Johnson) – and could easily have been bitten by an infected animal. Although friends and family of Poe never mentioned his being bitten by an animal during the year prior to his death, only 20% of those infected with rabies in recent years were themselves able to remember ever being bitten (Johnson). However, it is impossible that Poe died from rabies. Rabies is also known as “hydrophobia,” due to the fact that rabies victims have throat spasms that make swallowing an impossibility (Clayman 843). Dr. Moran recalled on several occasions that he gave Poe ice water – and that Poe had no trouble in drinking it (Edgar Allan Poe Society). It seems that Poe’s death was directly or indirectly caused by his lifetime of drinking. This theory was accepted by most at the time, and seems to have the most credibility even today. Poe’s life-long battle with alcoholism is well documented. Throughout his lifetime, Poe vowed to give up drinking at least half a dozen times – and every time, he went back to it. He could go long periods of time without alcohol – then he would suddenly begin to drink heavily again (Walsh XIV; Meyers 87). Poe was particularly vulnerable to drink when depressed or stressed by a heavy workload (Meyers 88). Towards the end of his life, periods of drinking often caused him to be sick for days (Meyers 87). In the final few months of his life, the symptoms Poe experienced after bouts with drinking came to resemble the symptoms he would experience on his deathbed. Poe was exposed to alcohol at an early age. Poe’s father was an alcoholic. As an infant, the great writer was fed bread dipped in gin by a caregiver. This caregiver also gave laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol) to both Poe and his sister (Meyers 5). Poe’s heavy drinking began during his days at West Point (Meyers 46). Tragically, this would set the tone for the rest of his life. In the early 1830s, before he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, she and her mother had considered moving away with another relative (Silverman 105). The predicament of losing Virginia, with whom he was in love, sent Poe into a deep depression and binges of heavy drinking (Silverman 106). Poe’s drinking quickly gave him a reputation for irresponsibility. In the mid-1830s, Poe lost his job as an editor due to drinking (Silverman 90). After losing this job, Poe admitted he had a problem with alcohol, and vowed to give up drinking (Meyers 120). It seems that Poe did give up alcohol for about two years (Meyers 142). But in 1842, Poe’s wife Virginia became ill with tuberculosis, which would kill her in 1847. In these years, Poe’s wife’s health vacillated back and forth between hopeful and hopeless – and Poe drank heavily throughout the duration of her illness (Edgar Allan Poe Society; Meyers 142). In June 1842, Poe disappeared – he was found a few days later, drunk, in the woods in New Jersey (Meyers 143). In March 1843, Poe went on another drinking spree. He became sick for a few days (Meyers 144), and required care from a physician (Silverman 193). As a result of being in this state, he was unable to keep an appointment with then-president John Tyler regarding a possible government job (Meyers 144). Poe seemed to laugh off this incident. He did apologize to the people in Washington, adding the claim that he had been pressured into drinking by a friend. He half-heartedly promised President Tyler’s son Robert that he would join a temperance society if given a second chance (Silverman 194). Not surprisingly, President Tyler didn’t meet with Poe again. In 1845, Poe was hired as an editor for a magazine called The Broadway Journal. Poe’s drinking and irresponsibility soon caused dissention among other editors – some were so impressed with his work that they were willing to tolerate his irresponsibility to a point, while others refused to work with him. Eventually, one of the two publishers left, disgusted with what had become of the magazine. The remaining publisher soon lost hope that the magazine could ever be a success again, and sold it to Poe (Meyers 185). Poe enlisted a friend to help him with The Broadway Journal. Still drinking, Poe was unable to release complete issues, even with help. Poe was bedridden for a week due to drinking at one point (Meyers 187), and an issue was missed. The magazine began to go under. Finally, Poe and his partner ended the magazine (Meyers 188). In the summer of 1846, following another period of illness due to drinking, Poe again vowed to give up the habit (Silverman 303). But he again began to drink heavily after his wife’s death in 1847 – perhaps this was an escape from the painful truth that his wife was gone (Meyers 207). Within a year after Virginia’s death, Poe began courting a poet named Sarah Helen Whitman. He soon asked her to marry him - but she rejected his proposal, and made it clear that her reason for doing so was his problems with drinking. Poe became depressed, and attempted suicide in September 1848 (Cavendish and Tucker). By November 1848, he promised her that he would stop drinking – and she agreed to marry him. But Poe soon returned to the bottle, and she broke off the engagement (Meyers 235). In the summer of 1849, Poe did a lot of drinking while visiting in Philadelphia (Cavendish and Tucker). Following a drinking spree on June 30, he lost his suitcase, was arrested for drunkenness, and put in prison. While in prison, he saw hallucinations similar to the ones he would see on his deathbed – he saw a woman with a large pot of boiling water, and his dead mother (Walsh 78; Meyers 245). He was delirious for about ten days (Meyers 246) – he later wrote of the incident, “For ten days, I was totally deranged” (Cavendish and Tucker). He once again vowed to give up drinking. In July 1849, Poe joined a temperance society in Richmond called the Sons of Temperance (Cavendish and Tucker; Johnson). But by August 1849, Poe was drinking again. In fact, he become seriously ill – he again experienced symptoms similar to those he had on his deathbed, and had to be hospitalized (Silverman 427). Susan Weiss, a friend of Poe’s, recalled that he was “so pale, so tremulous and apparently subdued as to convince me that he had been seriously ill” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). In fact, she recalled, “[his] life was in imminent danger” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Dr. Gibbon Carter, the doctor attending to him, told him to stop drinking immediately – and warned that another drinking binge could prove fatal (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Poe admitted to Dr. Carter that he was drinking, and said that he wished to stop. It seems that Poe gave up drinking for a few weeks (Weiss) - but later that month, while still in Richmond, Poe again got drunk and again required medical care. Doctors were again unsure if he would survive (Silverman 427). But Poe survived – and continued to drink. Upon arriving in Baltimore in September 1849, Poe met some friends for what was to be one “glass of whiskey” – after this episode of drinking, he would disappear for six days (Cavendish and Tucker). Later that month, Poe again got drunk. As a result of his intoxication, he lost consciousness and, upon regaining consciousness, saw hallucinations (Meyers 252) – exactly as he would on his deathbed the following month. It seems clear that Poe had been intoxicated not too long before he was found in Baltimore. Hallucinations and convulsions, symptoms Poe experienced on his deathbed and several times toward the end of his life after becoming drunk, are symptoms commonly found in alcoholics five to ten hours after intoxication (“Did Rabies Fell Edgar Allan Poe?”). Following Poe’s death in October, the coroner in Baltimore didn’t order an autopsy – he felt sure that alcoholism was the cause of Poe’s death (Walsh 39). Dr. Snodgrass also felt that alcoholism was what killed Poe - he stated on several occasions that Poe was drunk when he was admitted to the hospital where he would die. In fact, Poe’s death inspired Snodgrass to give temperance lectures in later years (Edgar Allan Poe Society). However, it seems that alcoholism wasn’t the only thing that contributed to Poe’s death. It seems that Poe’s body was weakened by other illnesses. For one, Poe likely suffered from liver disease as a result of his heavy drinking (Meyers 256). The liver stores the body’s supply of glucose (sugar) (Clayman 594). In fact, the immediate cause of Poe’s death may have been hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) – a disorder which can be caused by liver disease (Meyers 256). In those who suffer from hypoglycemia, episodes can be brought on by alcohol. Jeff Jerome, who works as a curator at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, strongly believes in this theory (Edgar Allan Poe Society; Johnson). Poe had many symptoms of hypoglycemia toward the end of his life and on his deathbed. Those who suffer from hypoglycemia generally have a low tolerance for alcohol. It seems Poe had a lower tolerance for alcohol in the later years of his life. Also, the signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia are similar to those of Poe had on his deathbed – anxiousness, excitement, being unaware of one’s surroundings, convulsions, and sweating. Interestingly, those suffering from hypoglycemia also sometimes slur their words or suddenly begin to yell. Hypoglycemia can also cause hallucinations and eventually leads to a coma (Meyers 256). Additionally, Poe had a weak heart, which likely contributed to his death. In 1846, he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat (Meyers 207). In May 1848, Dr. John W. Francis told Poe that he had heart disease (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Doctors who attended to Poe during his life also felt that his mental instability was the result of some sort of brain disease. In 1847, after his wife’s death, a doctor prescribed Poe sedatives (Silverman 329). In March 1847, Dr. Valentine Mott diagnosed Poe with “lesions on brain” and “brain fever” (Edgar Allan Poe Society). By late 1848, Poe was being treated for “cerebral congestion” (Silverman 376). Poe, who was mentally unstable throughout his life, made suicidal gestures often (Kehoe). When Poe’s future wife, his cousin Virginia, had considered moving away, Poe began to drink heavily, and told his family that he might commit suicide if they moved (Silverman 105). In September 1848, distraught that Sarah Helen Whitman had rejected his marriage proposal, Poe attempted suicide by consuming a large quantity of opium and alcohol (Cavendish and Tucker). However, it seems this attempt was half-hearted, and that Poe didn’t really want to die - it seems this was a way to try to convince Sarah Helen that he loved her (Meyers 231). A friend of Poe’s from Baltimore recalled that Poe visited him sometime in 1849 in a state of panic. Poe said that some men were going to murder him – while riding on a boat he had heard them talking about it (Meyers 245-246). Poe then asked for a razor so he could cut off his musdasche to avoid recognition. According to this friend’s recollections, Poe then began to speak of suicide. His friend, hesitant to give him a razor, cut Poe’s musdasche himself with scissors (Silverman 20). John Walsh feels that Poe’s being afraid of men trying to kill him and his speaking of suicide were actually two separate incidents. Walsh finds it somewhat implausible that Poe would desperately want to avoid potential murderers only to contemplate suicide minutes later (79) – he feels that Poe may have spoken of suicide at an earlier date, on a separate occasion. But Walsh contends that Poe actually feared being murdered sometime between September 28 (when he arrived in Baltimore) and October 3 (when he was found half conscious in the streets of Baltimore) (80-81). If this time frame is accurate, perhaps Poe’s fear of being wasn’t merely paranoia. It seems likely that Poe was physically assaulted prior to his death - Dr. Moran felt certain Poe had been beaten (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Perhaps Poe was the victim of a random mugging. Maybe a political gang seeking to corrupt a local election beat Poe. Or perhaps a man (or men) beat Poe on behalf of a woman with whom Poe had been romantically involved. If Poe was beaten, it may have been a robbery. A relative believed that he ran into old friends whom he had known at West Point while in Baltimore for the last time, had had too much to drink while in their company, and was mugged and assaulted (Silverman 438). The disheveled clothes Poe was wearing when he was found were clearly not his own – the last time he was seen prior to his death, he had been wearing a wool suit. At the time of his death, he was actually promoting a magazine he was starting called The Stylus – and Poe had come to Baltimore with about $1500 in cash for subscriptions. Yet no money was found on him at the hospital (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Poe was found on October 3, 1849 – interestingly, this was Election Day in Baltimore. It seems possible that a political gang beat Poe in order to get his help in corrupting a local election. Violence and extortion were common in Baltimore elections of the 1800s. Political gangs often snatched innocent people from the streets and kept them locked in a room. Here they were given liquor and opium, and beaten until they agreed to vote for a specific candidate. Victims were often made to change their clothing so they could vote several times – this would certainly explain Poe’s change of clothing. It isn’t inconceivable that the gang would leave Poe in the street when they were done with him. A relative of Poe’s wrote after the writer’s death that a man connected with a political gang in Baltimore admitted that he had taken in Poe. The only problem with this theory seems to be that Poe probably would have been easily recognized in Baltimore (Edgar Allan Poe Society). Still this theory is far from impossible. Lastly, it seems possible that a man (or men) connected to a woman with whom Poe had been romantically involved physically attacked him. A friend from Baltimore recalled that Poe visited him not too long before his death saying he wanted a place to hide – Poe supposedly said he had been visited by hostile men who had threatened him, and that “it had to do with a woman” (Walsh 113-114). John Walsh speculates that this is when Poe asked for a razor so he could cut off his musdasche to avoid recognition, and feels that this visit occurred shortly Poe arrived in Baltimore for the last time (80-81). Elizabeth Oakes Smith, an author, met Poe in 1845 and wrote a series of three interesting articles regarding Poe’s death (Walsh 86). In these articles, Smith claimed that Poe had somehow “ruined” a woman with whom he was romantically involved (she refused to give the name of this woman), and that the woman had asked him to return letters she had written to him. Smith claimed Poe refused to return these letters, and that the woman sent a few men to get the letters from Poe. According to Smith, the men became mad at Poe and beat him in Baltimore (Walsh 89-91). Interestingly, Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Sarah Helen Whitman were friends (Walsh 92). Smith sent Whitman some sort of evidence for her story (Walsh 94). After seeing this evidence, Whitman rejected, in writing, only that Poe had “ruined” the woman (Walsh 95) – but she didn’t reject the motive for the assault nor that the assault occurred. In her writing, Whitman misquoted Smith as saying that Poe had been beaten by “the brothers of a woman” - when actually Smith had said Poe was beaten by “the friend of a woman.” Perhaps this was an accident – or perhaps, as Walsh theorizes, Whitman knew more about the beating than she cared to confess (96). If Poe was beaten by a man or men connected to a woman with whom Poe had been romantically involved, the person or persons were likely connected to Elmira Shelton. Interestingly, according to a friend, Elmira Shelton (the woman Poe was courting at the time of his death) once asked for the letters she had written to him when they got into a fight (Walsh 98-99). Whether or not Elmira and Poe were fighting at the time of his death does not seem to be definitively known – they may or may not have been talking seriously about marriage at the time of Poe’s death (Walsh 107). But most of Elmira’s family (especially her brothers) were very opposed to the idea of their marriage (Walsh 105) – perhaps this was a good motive to physically intimidate or even murder Poe. And interestingly, all three of Elmira’s brothers – George, James, and Alexander Royster - resided and worked in Richmond at the time of Poe’s death (Walsh 100). The death of Edgar Allan Poe remains as mysterious today as it was 150 years ago. Poe was found half-conscious in the street, wearing clothing that was not his own. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he had seizures and saw hallucinations. On day three of his hospital stay, he seemed to become lucid and calm. Then, the next day, the seizures and hallucinations returned – and Poe soon fell into a coma and died. Poe’s death was most likely due to alcoholism and physical assault. If his drinking caused hypoglycemia, this was probably the immediate reason for his death. But Poe’s body was weakened by other ailments as well. Perhaps the only thing that can be said without any hesitation about Poe’s death is that we will never know for sure exactly what caused it.

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