This is the second of a two-part guest blog by mystery novelist Matthew Pearl (The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens).
The Real Investigators of Poe's death
Part II: The Mysterious Mr. Benson
by Matthew Pearl
There may have been another man snooping around Baltimore to find out more about Poe's death in the fall of 1849—or it may be another fiction in the Poe death narrative.
Before going to Baltimore on his way to New York, Poe was staying in Richmond and took the oath from the Sons of Temperance, probably to appease Elmira Shelton and her family. The president of the anti-drinking organization, William J. Glenn, was interviewed at the age of 76 in the Richmond Times March 10, 1893 about Poe's pledge and makes an interesting claim.
“Several of the members of the Council went to Baltimore to make inquiries into the circumstances of the poet’s death,” says Glenn. “After a careful investigation they were satisfied that he had not been drinking. His new coat had been substituted by an old, much-worn garment, and several valuables which he had with him were missing. According to the theory of those who made the investigation, he had been drugged and robbed before he was taken to the hospital where he died.”
Seven years later, in a letter dated December 4, 1900, Glenn gets more specific about this investigation. “In October,” Glenn writes of Poe, “he started to Baltimore... A few days later we heard of his death at a hospital in that city, and the statement was made and too busily circulated that his death was the result of a spree commenced as soon as he reached Baltimore. We of the temperance order to which he belonged exerted ourselves to get at the facts, and the consensus of opinion was that he had not been drinking, but had been drugged. A gentleman by the name of Benson, born in Baltimore in 1811, and living there until he was 21 years old, went to Baltimore, and, as he knew Poe and felt much interest in the manner of his death, went to the hospital at which he died, and had a talk with the doctor (an acquaintance), who told him that Poe had not been drinking when brought to the hospital, but was under the influence of a drug; he added that he suggested the use of stimulants, but that Mr. Poe positively declined taking any.”
Can we put stock in Glenn's accounts? It is intriguing to have a name, at least: Benson. Perhaps it is made more credible by the details about Benson's age and background (if Glenn was making it up, wouldn't he leave that out?). Benson, if he existed, would have been approximately 38 in 1849. He would have lived in Baltimore until about 1832, and by 1849 lived in Richmond. Can we find out who Benson was? If so, could this lead us to more details about Poe's death? Are there other accounts by Glenn or this mysterious Mr. Benson waiting for us out there?
Did the Sons of Temperance really launch their own investigation into Poe's death? If so, was it several members who traveled to Baltimore—as claimed in the 1893 interview—or just one named Benson, as claimed in Glenn's 1900 letter?
*Special thanks to Matthew, who was kind enough to prepare these posts and wait two months before they were posted. On a more personal note, I highly recommend Matthew's novels, especially The Dante Club. -RV