The Real Investigators of Poe's death
Part I: Neilson Poe
by Matthew Pearl
In writing my novel The Poe Shadow I wanted to imagine someone investigating Poe's death, not a hundred years later, but just after it happened, and to use that as a springboard for a fresh perspective. In my novel, the protagonist, a fictional lawyer named Quentin, recruits a world renown detective to help.
Unfortunately, no Dupin-like detective was on the case in October 1849. In fact, there was no mystery ascribed to the death for years after it happened.
Some still believe there is not much mystery.
There are at least two figures* I have identified as actually investigating Poe's death soon after it happened. (Please note that this post is about the early investigators, not about the complex facts and theories surrounding the death.)
The first investigator is Neilson Poe of Baltimore, a cousin of Edgar's well known to Poe biographers. Neilson was on the case almost right away, and wrote a letter to Poe's aunt and mother-in-law, Maria “Muddy” Clemm, dated October 11, 1849 (Poe had died on the 7th). It is from this letter we receive many of the most reliable and immediate facts about Poe's hospital stay and funeral. (See images from this letter here.)
Here is a key sentence: “At what time he arrived in this City, where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain.” The latter phrase indicates Neilson was making active inquiries, though not yet satisfied with what he found.
By November 1, he writes to Poe literary executor Rufus Griswold: “The history of the last few days of his life is known to no one so well as to myself, and is of touching & melancholy interest, as well of the most admonitory import. I think I can demonstrate that he passed, by a single indulgence, from a condition of perfect sobriety to one touching upon the madness usually occasioned only by long continued intoxication, and that he is entitled to a far more favorable judgment upon his last hours than he was received – All this I will make the subject of a deliberate communication.”
We may assume that in the roughly three weeks between October 11 and November 1 Neilson had done more investigation. The promise of “a deliberate communication” is tantalizing, but never materialized. As late as 1874, Neilson's friend N. H. Morison writes this in a letter: “The story of Edgar Poe’s death has never been told. Nelson [sic] Poe has all the facts, but I am afraid may not be willing to tell them. I do not see why. The actual facts are less discreditable than the common reports published. Poe came to the city in the midst of an election, and that election was the cause of his death.”
While writing my novel, I came across an archival letter in which a Baltimore resident named George B. Coale documents a conversation with Neilson in 1871 about Poe's death.** This is the only known account following up on Neilson's promise to Griswold in 1849. Coale's letter can be interpreted in different ways, though it seems to me to be dismissive of the cooping theory, oddly alluded to by Morison as if it were Neilson's.
One question worth asking: Why did Neilson choose to keep his information to himself, after seeming ready to share it?
*Several obituary writers also seemed to have done some original investigating but those who did, like the New York Herald's Baltimore correspondent, remain unidentified.
**I reprint Coale's letter with my analysis of it in the second of a two part essay in the Edgar Allan Poe Review here. The first part is here.