Monday, October 5, 2009

Reynolds, help my poor soul

At Washington College Hospital at Broadway and Fayette Street in Baltimore, Edgar Poe was dying. His room has been described as "prison-like," with barred windows, in a section of the hospital normally reserved for drunks. He was denied visitors.

Poe's had suddenly appeared in Baltimore "rather the worse for wear" after disappearing for six days. His stay at the hospital would provide no answers. He was incoherent, occasionally raving mad. A handful of major legends stand out from this time period, both attributable to the questionable testimony of Dr. John J. Moran, Poe's attending physician from October 3 to October 7, 1849. Moran made a minor celebrity of himself, earning his 15 minutes of fame as Poe's last doctor by offering several stories of the writer's last days — stories which occasionally contradicted one another.

In one of Poe's few coherent moments, the good doctor claims that he tried to cheer Poe by saying he would soon be out of the hospital and enjoying the company of friends. Poe's response was that "the best thing his friends could do is blow out his brains with a pistol."

Moran also claimed that Poe woke up to call out the name "Reynolds" — a claim which has inspired much speculation (if even true). Could the name refer to Jeremiah N. Reynolds, the Antarctic explorer who inspired Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket? Many biographers seem to think so, without offering justification why Poe recollected a man he never met 11 years after his novel was published. Historical fiction writers have made the attempt to figure out the mystery as well. Another possibility is Henry R. Reynolds, apparently one of the judges who oversaw Ryan's Tavern's use as the fourth ward polls (Poe was discovered on Election Day). Some suggest Moran misheard and that Poe really was calling for "Herring," his uncle by marriage who lived in Baltimore.

Many of those who speculate on the "Reynolds" mystery seem to ignore that Moran's later accounts did not mention the alleged "Reynolds" rantings. He also claimed that Poe mentioned having a wife in Richmond, which wasn't far off. But, really, how much of Moran's accounts should be trusted?

Moran made it seem as if he was by Poe's side for the entire four days he was in the hospital. This is obviously not likely. But, realistically, it's conceptually possible that Moran was the only witness to Poe's last words. Moran claimed those words were: "The arched heavens encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair."


In another account, Moran offered a simpler possibility: "Lord, help my poor soul." That version is the one that has been entered in the record books as "fact."

*The image above is Washington College Hospital as it looks today, courtesy of Baltimore Then and Now.


Gina said...

Um, yeah, that latter version sounds a LOT likelier.

Poor Poe.

Rob Velella said...

Personally, I think either one is just as "likely" as the other. I believe next to nothing that Moran claimed. If Poe was never coherent enough to explain his condition, he might never have been coherent enough to have quotable last words either.

Poe Forward said...

Yes, i think the long version is probably the truth exaggerated by the good doctor or the editors.