Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rather the worse for wear

Baltimore City, Oct 3d 1849
Dear Sir, —
There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's Fourth 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
This was the letter which Joseph W. Walker sent to his former employer Joseph Evans Snodgrass on October 3, 1849. It is the first document record of Poe since September 27 (if it exists; I haven't seen it and have no idea where it is housed).

Poe was found in a delirious state near Ryan's Tavern in Gunner's Hall located at 44 East Lombard Street, Baltimore. The exact situation is unknown (though legend persists he was in a gutter, in an alley, or otherwise in the street; he may very well have been sitting on a chair inside the Tavern). He may or may not have been drunk. He may or may not have been drugged. He may or may not have been wearing someone else's clothing. He may or may not have asked for Snodgrass by name, rather than naming any of his Baltimore relatives.

Snodgrass, a physician/editor, made it to Ryan's by the afternoon. He later recounted that he knew Poe immediately, despite an odd hat — "a cheap palm-leaf one, without a band, and soiled." Snodgrass also later claimed that Poe was a drunken wreck, and his fate was a lesson to all who were intemperate. Snodgrass was, of course, one of the most violently outspoken members of the temperance movement — readers may decide if he had any bias. Snodgrass apparently bumped into a "Mr. H——, a relative of Mr. Poe's by marriage" (identified as his uncle Henry Herring) and the two decided to put Poe in a carriage to the Washington College Hospital. Poe was received by Dr. John Joseph Moran, who later claimed that Poe wore a straw hat that day and that he "had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person."

The day Poe was found was election day in Maryland "for members of Congress and for members of the House of Delegates," according to one newspaper that morning. Ryan's, besides being a tavern, was also hosting the fourth ward polls, as eluded to in Walker's letter to Snodgrass. Scholar William Hand Browne observed: "At that time the polls were usually held at public houses, and the candidates saw that every voter had all the whiskey he wanted."

This coincidental date/location also lent credence to an early theory that Poe was a victim of "cooping" — that he was abducted by thugs hired by a political party or individual politician to force people's vote. Victims were chosen at random and force-fed alcohol or drugs to make them more cooperative. When not forced into polling booths, these people were held in "coops," tight cages which led to the occasional accidental death. Poe might have been forced into another person's clothing to disguise his identity (the thugs would not have known of his celebrity status). He was then kicked to the curb when they were done with him — or, so says this theory.

The six days that Poe went missing is a mystery, but even his reappearance is full of holes and questions. How credible was Dr. Snodgrass? How about Mr. Moran? Was Poe supposed to be in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia or New York? Where was he found? Who called for Snodgrass? Was it just a coincidence that this was Election Day?


Matthew Pearl said...

"if it exists; I haven't seen it and have no idea where it is housed"... I looked into this very question, Rob, as I had not seen it discussed. The transcription we have was done by William Hand Browne. In the archives at UVA, I found details about it in a letter from William Hand Browne to Ingram, February 22, 1909.

The details are a bit esoteric but you will be interested, I know.

I'll put in bold what seem the key points.

“My dear fellow, there is no more doubt about the authenticity of that Walker note than that this is written by me. Here is the story: - W. H. Carpenter, then editor of the ‘Sun,’ received from Mrs. Snodgrass, widow of the Dr. a packet of Poe’s letters, which were among her husband’s papers, and which she wanted him to look over. (Perhaps she thought of selling them, but that was not mentioned to me.) Carpenter spoke to me about them, and at my request placed them in my hands in their old wrapper and string. Having read them and having you in mind, I asked permission to copy them, which was granted, and I sent you the transcript, keeping a press-copy on tissue-paper for myself. Not long after (the letters having gone back to Mrs. Snodgrass) my intimate friend, Edwd. Spencer, asked me to lend him my press copy to use in preparing a paper for the NY Herald. I could not, in courtesy, refuse him. Now folded up in that original packet of letters was the note from Walker. It was in pencil, on coarse paper, which, no doubt he got at Ryan’s. It was written in a good round hand, accurately spelled and punctuated, as one would expect from a printer, and the signature was free and flowing, as a man signs his own name. There was no reason upon earth why Snodgrass or anybody should have made a copy, the original being at hand. Had he, for any reason, made a copy, it would have been on better paper, and with ink. There is no dobut whatever that he laid it aside at the time, and then tied it up with the Poe letters. Where it is now, I don’t know; but you may take your oath the copies I sent you are correct to a comma.

Matthew Pearl said...

By the way, "worse for wear" is an interesting phrase. Some years later it would come to mean drunk, actually. But did it in 1849? I haven't found any uses with that meaning that early, but it's one of these difficult questions to answer.

Rob Velella said...

That's important information, Matthew. I think we should be skeptical of anything that Dr. Snodgrass ever got his hands on in relation to Poe's death. I'm glad you did some legwork on this!