By Arnaldo Teodorani
Many of us have grown reading his tales on self-destruction, revenge and violence. Tales of premature burials, of ghastly cats and ravens, where the line between the living and the dead is never clear. But when you look deeper into the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe a more complex figure emerges, beyond the traditional image of the alcoholic, pale, sickly author with an obsession for death.
Poe’s life was not easy, in many ways: tragic. And his path crossed the Grim Reaper’s many times. But in today’s Biographics we are going to look at another angle of Poe. The athletic military man, the rebellious student, the ruthless reviewer, the father of detective fiction. And to satisfy those with morbid fantasies, we are going to investigate the mystery behind his death.
Edgar Poe was born on the 19th of January 1809, in Boston, from David and Elizabeth, two traveling actors.
Edgar’s life had barely started when he suffered a double trauma. On the 20th of December 1811 Elizabeth died of illness, perhaps pneumonia or tuberculosis, both highly prevalent in the US at that time.
David died within a few days of his wife, the details are unconfirmed. According to one account David was performing in Norfolk, Virginia with his travelling theatre company, when he also died of an illness. A different account tells us that by the time of Elizabeth’s death, the Poe family was a broken one: David had left the household, leaving his wife destitute.
Six days after his mother’s death
the orphaned Edgar was fostered into the home of John and Frances Allan of Richmond. His sister, Rosalie, was taken in by the Mackenzie family, also of Richmond, while big brother Henry remained with the grandparents in Baltimore.
John and Frances Allan were a childless couple and although they never legally adopted Edgar, they considered him to be their son. Edgar called them “Pa” and “Ma”. John was a wealthy merchant, a self-made man from Scotland. While Edgar’s relationship with Frances would always be deeply affectionate, him and John would frequently clash.
On the 7th of January 1812 Edgar was baptised as Edgar Allan Poe. The Allan family with Edgar in tow later moved to London, where they lived from 1815 to 1820.
During these years the young Edgar learned grammar, Latin, Greek and – surprise – dancing!
The Allans returned to America in 1820 and by 1823 Edgar was studying in a school run by one William Burke. Not the body snatcher and murderer of Burke and Hare fame … just a name sake. But still, nice coincidence. Like if Stephen King had graduated from Ed Gein High.
Poe was a very active and athletic teenager, contradicting the common image of the sickly, brooding intellectual. In the summer of 1824 he became famous for swimming seven miles up the James River, against a heavy tide. That’s almost three times the swimming segment of an Iron Man competition.
[Caption: Take that, King and Lovecraft!]
Apparently schoolmaster Burke followed him in a boat in case he needed help. Maybe that’s what kept Edgar going – being chased by a Scottish serial killer on a boat is a powerful motivator. But it wasn’t him, just a name sake.
Later that year, Edgar authored his first poem, of just two lines:
“Last night, with many cares & toils oppres‘d,
Weary, I laid me on a couch to rest”
Which can be paraphrased as
“I am gonna take a nap on the sofa”
In February 1826 Edgar enrolled in the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. But his studies there were short-lived. The wealthy John Allan had no intention to fill Edgar’s pockets with easy money, so the freshman had to subsidise his expenses with a side hustle: gambling. Edgar accumulated $2,000 of gambling debts. That’s more than $50,000 in today’s money.
John Allan refused to pay, leading to a rift between the two men, a situation which would occur again in the future.
That year, Edgar couldn’t really catch a break. During Christmas holidays he was looking forward to reuniting with his childhood sweetheart and prospective fiancée, But Elmira’s parents had pressured her into dumping him for a wealthy and solid businessman Alexander Shelton. Yeah, we get it, but could he swim seven miles chased by a Scottish serial killer?
It is understandable if in March 1827 Edgar decided to leave University and reunite with older brother Henry in Baltimore. Still in need of steady income, in May Poe enlisted in the US Army, under the name Edgar A. Perry.
Private ‘Perry’ did well in the Army and rose to the rank of Sergeant-Major of an artillery regiment in less than two years. Not only that. He also found time to write his first book of poetry, ‘Tamerlane and Other Poems’ published with the pseudonym
The booklet sold about 50 copies. If you come across a copy of ‘Tamerlan’ in your great-great-grandparents’ attic, you could auction it for a nice $172,000.
On the 28th of February 1829, Frances Allan, ‘Ma’, died from a respiratory illness, just like Edgar’s biological mother. In the following years Edgar’s behaviour became erratic and rebellious, probably as a consequence of Ma’s death.
Initially Poe seemed to like an Army life: in April of 1829 he applied to West Point academy, looking forward to a promotion from Sergeant to Lieutenant. He entered the academy in the summer of 1830, but by the following winter he was doing his best to get kicked out.
A once talented cadet, Poe racked up 110 offenses and 106 demerits in two terms. He was court-martialed and tried at the beginning of February 1831 for gross neglect of duty.
What was the cause for his rebellion?
Again, it all came from his relationship with John Allan. ‘Pa’ had remarried, perhaps too quickly, with Mrs Louisa Patterson, which Poe disliked. Moreover, Edgar had discovered that John had sired children out of wedlock. The feud was embittered by a letter written by Poe in which he claimed that John Allan was seldom sober.
Edgar wanted to leave West Point to pursue writing at this stage, but he needed John’s authorisation for a voluntary discharge. When John, now cold and distant, refused, Edgar started his self-sabotaging campaign. He succeeded, and was kicked out from the academy … not before collecting donations from 100 cadets to fund his next book of poems, titled
In the summer of 1831, fate dealt another blow to Edgar, as it claimed the life of his brother Henry, yet another victim of tuberculosis.
Edgar’s writing career started to pick up in the early 1830s, and his short story “Message found in a bottle” won a $50 prize from a Baltimore magazine in 1833. The prize was very welcome, John had closed the coffers. Second wife Louisa did not approve of Edgar, and plus the couple now had a biological son, likely to inherit Allan’s wealth.
In 1834 John fell ill. When Edgar heard the news, he tried to reunite with him one last time. They had not seen each other since West Point. Edgar rushed to Richmond, overcame Louisa’s resistance and finally came face to face with the now terminal ‘Pa’. Thomas Ellis, John’s business partner described the tearful reunion:
“With what little strength was left in him, John stood up …”
Did they hug? Oh no:
“(John) raised his cane and threatened to strike him if he came within his reach!”
It was the last time they ever met. John Allan died on March 27, 1834 and his will – it made no mention of Poe.
In the second half of the 1830s Poe’s writing career took off. Rather: he was always employed, but he had little fame and even less money.
Following his Ma’s death in 1829, Edgar had developed a friendship with his cousin Virginia Clemm, 13 years his junior. Virginia was the daughter of Maria, who was the sister of David Poe. So she was a first-degree relative of Edgar’s via his biological father, not his foster family.
This relationship was initially an innocent one, with Virginia acting as a go-between for Edgar and a girl called Mary Devereaux, whom he was trying to woo.
By 1835, when Poe was 26 and Virginia only 13, the friendship was developing into something else. Despite Virginia’s relatives’ best attempts, on the 22nd of September 1835, Edgar and Virginia married in secret, celebrating a public wedding the following year.
Edgar even took in his aunt-and-mother-in-law Maria Clemm. He nicknamed her ‘Muddy’ for some reason and apparently loved her as a mother, addressing her as such in later poem.
Fun fact: after Poe’s death, Maria was completely destitute, relying on charitable donations – among the donors: Charles Dickens!
Going back to Edgar and Virginia, a marriage at such a young age would certainly not be acceptable by today’s standards, and even back then it was frowned upon. But some authors claim that Edgar’s and Virginia’s relationship may have been purely platonic. The theory is that after the death of both his biological and foster mothers, Poe had transferred his feelings of filial love to Aunt Mary, and in turn, to Virginia.
You can draw a parallel with Poe’s work at this stage, namely the short story ‘Morella’ of April 1835. In this story, an unnamed narrator regards
“with a feeling of deep yet most singular affection … my friend Morella”
The two marry and Morella grows obsessed with death and issues of identity. She dies in childbirth and the protagonist decides to leave the baby girl unnamed for ten years. As she grows old, she is uncannily alike her mother. When the girl turns ten, the father agrees to have her baptised. When he chooses the name ‘Morella’, the girl immediately dies, uttering ‘I am here!’. The tale concludes:
“with my own hands I bore her to the tomb; and I laughed with a long and bitter laugh as I found no traces of the first in the channel where I laid the second. – Morella”
The tale features Poe’s recurring topics of resurrection and identity beyond death. And consider this: the narrator and Morella are friends, before marrying, just like Edgar and Virginia. And then here is a transfer of identity from mother to daughter, which opens the door to more Freudian nightmares that I can handle today.
Morella and the husband in the tale had a happy marriage. How was Edgar’s and Virginia’s? Apparently, it was successful, despite lack of money. Virginia had a deep adoration towards Poe and always kept his portrait under her pillow.
Edgar, on the other hand, had started flirting with one Frances Sargent Osgood, but besides exchanging letters there is no proof of a relationship. Frances was being unsuccessfully courted by another author and journalist, Rufus W. Griswold, keep an eye on him. These letters were enough to enrage another lady, Elizabeth Ellet, who had a crush on Poe.
Her reaction caused a scandal, as she alleged Poe and Frances had a physical affair. She even spread rumours that Poe was
“subject to acts of lunacy.”
Virginia was unconcerned with Poe’s flirtations, but this scandal affected deeply her frail health.
In the second half of the 1830s Poe went full workaholic, moving frequently across East Coast cities, looking for work in magazines. He did not neglect his creative writing, though, publishing his first and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym in 1838.
In the following two years Poe published two works: his seminal collection of ground-breaking short stories ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque’; and a treatise on shellfish, ‘The Conchologist’s First Book’, which he co-authored.
One of the two sold out in just two months. Guess which?
The shellfish. It was the shellfish manual. I am not going to comment on the taste of American readers in the 1830s, but hey, this was Poe’s only commercial success in his lifetime. But he never made a dime from royalties.
In 1841 Poe took a position as editor for Graham’s Magazine, which he also used as a platform for his own short stories. Poe grew the circulation of the magazine from 5,000 to 37,000 subscribers.
Poe even convinced Charles Dickens to write for the Graham! But in May, Poe left the magazine, handing over his duties to Rufus W. Griswold. Remember him? Poe wrote to a friend:
“My reason for resigning was disgust with the namby-pamby character of the Magazine … The salary, moreover, did not pay me for the labour which I was forced to bestow”
By that time, Virginia had already fallen ill to tuberculosis, some say as a consequence of the Ellet scandal. Her health worsened, but Poe did not stop on his streak, he was finally going places.
In 1843 Poe’s tale ‘The Gold-Bug,” won a $100 prize from a Philadelphia newspaper. It was followed by a theatrical production and a French translation, giving Poe some deserved public attention. He embarked on a tour of sold-out poetry lectures, moved to New York, and was a sub-editor of the Evening Mirror.
It was this paper that in January 1845 published his most famous poem, “The Raven”. It became an immediate, nation-wide hit. What princely sum did Poe earn from this masterpiece? Fifteen dollars. $325 in today’s money.
In February Poe took control and ownership of the Broadway Journal, but this did not help him financially. If anything, he accumulated even more debt, and the Journal shut down in January next year. Things started to pick up thanks to royalties from a publication about New York’s literary scene, but life giveth and life taketh away: Virginia’s condition worsened and by early 1846 she was bedridden. She told a friend:
“I know I shall die soon … but I want to be as happy as possible and make Edgar happy.”
On the 30th of January 1847, Virginia Poe died of tuberculosis in Fordham, New York. On her deathbed, it is claimed that Virginia blamed her death on the jealous Mrs. Ellet.
Poe’s love for Virginia was consuming, as was his grief. For almost two years he visited her grave every day, keeping it fresh with flowers.
What future lay ahead of Edgar Allan Poe now that her beloved Virginia was gone? Let’s pause the man’s life for a while, and let’s dig into his work.
Grotesque and Arabesque
Poe is remembered as master of Horror fiction, and a father of the modern short story. He composed his tales following two main rules: each story should be short enough to be read in one sitting; each word should contribute to the overall effect of the story.
His published work came at the apex of the Gothic and Romantic periods and had a great influence in Europe, where he was idolised by Charles Baudelaire and the movement of the French “Poétes maudits”.
Beyond horror, his body of work encompasses many other genres and in most cases, it is not easy to define. Take the short story “The Duc De L’Omelette”: a French Aristocrat and gourmand dies of disgust when a delicacy is improperly served to him. He wakes up in a Hell and starts plotting his way out. He challenges Satan to a duel, but alas the Prince of Hell does not fence. The next best thing is a nice game of 21, or Blackjack if you like. Satan cannot refuse a game of cards: challenge accepted. The Duc, a skilled gambler, wins the game, and his freedom.
In four pages Poe defines two characters, sets up a conflict, establishes some devilish lore along the way and crosses three genres: comedy, horror and subtle satire of European aristocracy.
Another cross-over of styles he achieved with The Murders of the Rue Morgue. There is some horror also here, with a killing perpetrated by a monstrous assailant. But, most of all, the tale is the first Detective story. Poe established the archetypes of the genre with the following The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter : a brilliant amateur detective, Auguste Dupin, skilled at observation and deduction; a friend who acts as a narrator; a baffled Police force needing the amateur’s help. It’s Sherlock Holmes, more than 40 years earlier.
The same collection “Tales by EA Poe”, features The Gold Bug. This adventure-slash-detective romp tells the story of a narrator, his volatile friend Legrand and a freed slave, Jupiter, who decipher an encrypted message to find a pirate treasure. The story is best remembered for Legrand’s use of frequency analysis to crack the code and for the depiction of Jupiter: to modern ears, it is downright racist. But assigning an important speaking role and a great deal of action to a black character in 1840s America was a rather progressive move.
Much of Poe’s writing career was dedicated to reviews of other authors. As a literary critic, Poe celebrated the works of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among the classics of American literature. But he was known and feared for how he destroyed less skilled authors. This earned him the nickname of
The Tomahawk Man
Tackling the poems of one William W. Lord, Poe opines that
“the only remarkable things about Mr. Lord’s compositions are their remarkable conceit, ignorance, impudence, platitude, stupidity and bombast.”
“from any farther specimens of your stupidity, good Lord deliver us!”
Ouch. Novelists are no luckier. Theodore S. Fay’s 1835 work ‘Norman Leslie’ was “unworthy of a school-boy.”
“There is not a single page of Norman Leslie in which even a school-boy would fail to detect at least two or three gross errors in Grammar, and some two or three most egregious sins against common-sense.”
The one who gets the full tomahawk treatment is Morris Mattson’s novel ‘Paul Ulric’:
“The book before us is too purely imbecile to merit an extended critique — but we shall have no hesitation … in exposing fully before the public eye its four hundred and forty-three pages of utter folly, bombast, and inanity”
Poe was not done yet:
“Such are the works which bring daily discredit upon our national literature … (works) of incongruous folly, plagiarism, immorality, inanity, and bombast”
Poe also attacked fellow journalists, editors and critics. The editor of the Boston Miscellany, H.T. Tuckermann, was an
“insufferably tedious and dull writer”
While critic Rufus W. Griswold was dismissed as a
“toady, destined to sink into oblivion”
Griswold. We’ll meet him again.
The Conqueror Worm
Poe’s reputation still today is one of a heavy drinker, but actually it was only after Virginia’s death that he gave in to alcohol. And even then, he never drank in huge quantities. The problem was that even a small quantity of liquor could knock him out.
In November of 1848 Poe was courting poetess Sarah Helen Whitman, no relation to Walt Whitman. Mrs. Whitman was so concerned about his reputation for drinking that asked for total abstinence from alcohol as a condition for marriage. Poe failed to meet the request and Sarah called off the engagement.
In the summer of 1849 Poe was on a lecture tour in Richmond when he met again his once girlfriend Elmira, the one who had dumped him for the businessman. Elmira was now a widow and the two rekindled their love affair. In August, Elmira accepted Edgar’s proposal. And Poe must have been dead serious about it, as only two days later he joined the Sons of Temperance, a sort of Alcoholic Anonymous for the 19th century.
Everything was working out fine. Then, the chain of events started, one that would lead to Poe’s unresolved death.
On the 26th of September 1849, Poe visited a physician friend called John Carter. He was due to leave Richmond, Virginia to go to Philadelphia to complete an editing job. Carter advised Poe to postpone his trip by a few days, but he decided to leave any ways.
On the 27th of September 1849, Poe left Richmond for Philadelphia. For the following 6 days, he just vanished.
[Screen fades to black, a caption appears on screen: Baltimore, Evening of the 3rd of October, 1849]
A journalist called Joseph Walker, walking outside the pub ‘Gunner’s Hall’ came across a traumatised man, lying in the gutter. The man was visibly ill, in a state of confusion and dressed in worn-out, ill-fitting clothes. The man introduced himself as Edgar Allan Poe and asked for help. Poe asked Walker to contact one Joseph Snodgrass, a newspaper editor with a medical background.
Snodgrass took Poe to a hospital, where was treated by Dr John Moran. Moran noted down his patient’s symptoms: fever, mania, revulsion to water, calling for somebody called
Moran also asked Poe where he had left his possessions, but the writer could not remember.
On the 7th of October 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died, aged 40. The reported cause of death was phrenitis, or swelling of the brain.
His mother-in-law, in hearing that Poe had died, went to check on his cat, Catterina, and found out that she had also died.
One of the early reported causes of Poe’s death was alcohol abuse. This unverified rumour was spread by Poe’s obituary, more on this later.
Other possible causes include tuberculosis, epilepsy, diabetes and even rabies – the latter may be consistent with Catterina’s death.
Author Matthew Pearl offered another explanation: brain cancer. This is consistent with the symptoms. Plus, when Poe’s body was displaced to another burial in 1875, the coffin broke and witnesses noticed a small clump rolling inside Poe’s skull. This could have been a calcified tumour.
Other theories involve violent crime: Poe may have been assaulted, beaten up by ruffians, as claimed in 1867 by biographer E. Oakes Smith. But Poe’s body did not display any sign of external violence.
Another crime theory involves ‘cooping’. This was a common type of electoral fraud at the time. Gangs of thugs would abduct and ‘coop up’ citizens from the streets and force them into a disguise so they could vote several times for the same candidate. The victims were threatened with violence or rewarded with alcohol. Intriguing theory, mentioned for the first time in the early 1870s. Points in favour:
- Baltimore at that time was in the middle of a local election
- Gunner’s hall was a polling station
- Poe was wearing somebody else’s clothes
- Baltimore’s newspaper The Republican and Argus published warnings against cooping on the 1st and 3rd of October.
Now, we are not Dupins, but we have done some extra sleuthing of our own.
We searched the enigmatic name ‘Reynolds’ in local Maryland newspapers and we found that in September there were two people called Reynold acting as District Delegates in Elkton, just outside Baltimore. Could they be involved in the local Baltimore elections? Was this a name that Poe heard, or read, while being cooped?
We also spoke with an oncology surgeon, formerly at one of London’s biggest cancer centres, whom we will call “Dr M”.
Dr M confirmed that tumoural masses can calcify even when the surrounding healthy tissue decomposes. He offered an additional explanation for the clump rolling inside Poe’s skull: a head trauma. Not only it can cause death, but it can also cause a small bone between the cheekbone and the jaw to fracture and detach, free to rattle inside the skull. A blunt trauma at the back of the head would not leave visible injuries – and Poe’s body did not display any sign of violence.
There are many more theories, so I am going to stop there. Gun to the head, I would go with cooping plus the blunt trauma. Why don’t you tell us your theory in the comments?
On the 9th of October 1849 an obituary of Poe’s appeared on the New York Tribune, signed “Ludwig”. We don’t know if Poe’s death was an assassination, but certainly this article was character assassination. While praising Poe’s work, ‘Ludwig’ wrote that few will be grieved by his death, that the writer had little to no friends and led a dissolute and dissipate life.
Ludwig would publish yet more articles praising Poe the author while destroying Poe the man, exaggerating or inventing embarrassing details. These articles were now signed with his real name:
Rufus W. Griswold.
The irony is that Griswold was Poe’s executor, meaning he had the rights to edit and publish his works for a nice profit, all the while cementing the image of the dissolute and lunatic alcoholic still surviving today.
I hope you have learned something new about Edgar Allan Poe today, please spread the word. We had to skip tons of stuff but if you want to dig deeper check out the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, www.eapoe.org, it’s a real mine of free material, including his full works.
And if we hear somebody repeating one of Griswold’s lies … well, like Poe’s Raven, let’s just say