Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Death of Poe

On October 7, 1849, Edgar Poe died. He was 40 years old. Thus ended his struggle for financial success, his foibles (whatever they were), and his genius. Thus begins his greatest mystery.

Perhaps it is fitting (or ironic, depending on your point of view) that the man who invented the modern detective story left such a strange question unanswered: What killed Edgar Poe?

Rising to the challenge, several have offered their theories — some inspired by personal bias, others based on scientific evidence; some a posthumous attempt to malign his character, others an attempt at further fictionalizing the man's already-fascinating story. Besides the cooping theory, and the theory that Poe was drugged/beaten by the brothers of Sarah Elmira Royster, there have been suggestions that Poe was murdered (some even dare to suggest Rufus Griswold) or that he committed suicide. I tend to disagree with those violent suggestions (and even the quote from Baudelaire that says Poe's death was a suicide which was long time in coming).

Is it mundane to think that Poe died of medical reasons? Perhaps it is too simple for people that want a more titillating story but the reality seems to be that people were more likely to die by disease than violence in the 19th century (excluding the Civil War). If Poe's death was because of a medical condition, theories include the following (deep breath): diabetes, epilepsy, tuberculosis, heart attack or heart disease, brain tumor, carbon monoxide poisoning, arsenic, lead poisoning, alcohol poisoning (still popular despite contrary evidence), cholera, syphilis, meningitis, and rabies.

Rabies? Yes, and for a time the theory had fairly substantial support. Though most biographies mention the cooping theory, it seems few take it seriously and many point to medical theories instead.

Regardless, one of the greatest imaginations in all of American writing died this day in 1849. Though his death remains a mystery, I am thankful to know that I can enjoy his works any time. It is unfortunate that today, for the first time in about five years, I will not be able to visit Poe at his grave in Baltimore (his original burial plot is today marked, as shown in the photo above).

*As a footnote, on this same day 45 years later, fellow bicentennial poet Oliver Wendell Holmes died. He was 85 years old.


Kristen M. said...

Sometimes I think that some people just aren't destined to have a long time on this earth. Poe is one of them. If he had lived another forty-five years like Mr. Holmes, would he have been able to sustain his quality of writing? Would he have died in a more public way that gave fuel to his critics? Perhaps the mystery is what Poe would have wanted for himself.

Rob Velella said...

I think Poe would have loved this mystery, especially because of all the excitement it caused. It's like a whole 'nother "Balloon-Hoax"!

I don't know if Poe needed another 45 years like Dr. Holmes. I'd have been happy to see him have ten more though, amidst the flourishing American Renaissance of the 1850s. I can't picture Poe amidst the Civil War. I'm sure the quality of his writing would have sustained itself just great, especially as Poe continued to follow changing trends and popular sentiments. My guess is that he would have written some novels.

Gina said...


Sorry you're not going to make it there this year, Rob. (There goes my theory that you're the Poe Toaster! ;-) )

Rob Velella said...

Or, perhaps, I'm just trying to throw you off...

Brian said...

Nah, you would never have picked the Giants over the Ravens.