Sunday, November 15, 2009

Moran writes to Muddy

On November 15, 1849, five weeks after Poe's death, the 26-year old doctor who tended to him in his final days wrote to Maria Clemm. Dr. John Joseph Moran, the resident physician at Washington College Hospital, had earned his medical degree only four years prior and, it seems, not only worked at the hospital but lived there as well. Considering the sheer number of patients he would have "treated," it's been speculated that he rarely personally saw Poe during his four days at the hospital, if at all.

Maria Clemm first heard of her nephew/son-in-law's death through the newspapers the day after his funeral. A cousin of Edgar named Neilson Poe finally wrote to her four days after his death: "He died on Sunday morning, about 5 o'clock... I was never so shocked, in my life." "Muddy" as she was nicknamed, might have been comforted that Poe's funeral was overseen by a relative, the Reverend W. T. D. Clemm. Still, she desperately sought out details surrounding the circumstances of Poe's death.

Muddy continuously wrote to Neilson Poe and Dr. John Joseph Moran for information and for the return of some of Poe's personal belongings (particularly his trunk, which is now housed at the Richmond Poe Museum, I believe). Poe biographer Kenneth Silverman believes the trunk was finally returned to Muddy while she was staying in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In Moran's November 15 letter, Moran tried to make up for Poe's hasty burial and its lack of pomp and circumstance. He claimed Poe's remains were "visited by some of the first individuals of the city, many of them anxious to have a lock of his hair." It seems unlikely but Moran was likely trying to make Muddy feel better.

Having recently read Drew Gilpin Faust's book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, I have come to see a different point of view on Moran's post-Poe-death writings. We can justify many of Moran's claims as conventional fantasy quite appropriate (and expected) for the time. Attributing the phrase "Lord help my poor soul!" as the author's last words was meant to show that Poe experienced a "Good Death," that he remained true to Christian piety right at the end. Moran suggesting that dedicated fans of Poe (among the "first individuals of the city") implies that Poe's death was not in vain, nor was he forgotten — that he was truly mourned by people who mattered.

Nevertheless, Moran's several re-tellings of Poe's last days constantly changed, particularly his claim that Poe called for the name "Reynolds" several times (the claim disappeared in later tellings, suddenly no longer significant enough to be remembered, if it ever happened... though people still seem to put a lot of stock into it today). If nothing else, it's worth considering if Moran ever really directly treated Poe himself (apparently, Moran didn't even correctly recall which room Poe stayed in). Ultimately, any claims that Moran offers regarding Poe's death should be challenged, if not entirely dismissed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a French from FWI. I have juste discovered your blog about Poe : congratulations !