Edgar Allan Poe’s Grave

Edgar Allan Poe may be one of the most significant and well-known writers of the 19th century, and his influence can still be seen today. Poe was one of the first Americans to attempt to make a living solely through writing (though, as he lived poor and died penniless, one could argue how successful that was). But he helped establish the literary genres of science fiction and gothic horror, while virtually single-handedly inventing the detective mystery. He popularized the short-story format, and also wrote in poetry. For an English major like me, visiting his grave in Baltimore was like paying homage at a holy temple.

Edgar Allan Poe’s gravesite

Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 to two stage actors, one from Britain and the other from Baltimore. They lived in Boston but moved to Richmond just after he was born. His father abandoned them, however, and his mother died when he was just 2 years old. Young Poe was placed with a family friend, a well-off merchant named John Allan, and was given an extensive education for the time, including years abroad in Scotland and England.

Returning to Richmond, Poe went on to the University of Virginia, but his habits of gambling and drinking led his foster parents to refuse to continue paying for him. Broke, Poe traveled to Boston, and here he first tried his hand at writing, producing a short book of poems that he titled Tamerlane, and Other Poems. It had no impact on the literary world and made virtually no money.

In desperation, Poe joined the US Army in 1827 by lying about his age and using the false name Edgar A Perry. He was assigned to Fort Moultrie, in Charleston Harbor, as an artillery officer, and rose to the rank of Sergeant-Major. After two years, though, Poe decided that the life of an Army enlisted man was not for him, and after reconciling with his foster father Allan, Poe successfully ended his five-year enlistment early and applied to the US Army officer school at West Point. He quickly found, however, that the life of a West Point Cadet was not much better than that of an enlisted man, and he deliberately contrived to be expelled from the academy by getting rip-roaring drunk and skipping all his classes. The Army obliged and kicked him out.

By this time, Poe had self-published two more books of poems, the latter one being financed by contributions from his West Point classmates. But none of these made any money, and he bounced around from New York to Baltimore to Richmond before landing a job in 1835 as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. For the rest of his life, he would support himself (barely) through editor jobs and his published writings. When his poetry continued to flop, he turned to short stories instead.

Poe’s first work to receive major attention, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, was published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Between 1841 and 1843 he published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Gold Bug”, and “The Raven”, which put him on the literary map. Other works included “The Purloined Letter”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, and “The Pit and the Pendulum”.

Poe was an intelligent and well-read man who kept up with the latest findings of science, and many of his writings contain details which reflected this. One of his particular interests was cryptography, which formed the basis for his story in “The Gold Bug”, and his long work “Eureka: A Prose Poem” was based in part on his curiosity towards astronomy. Poe’s story “The Balloon-Hoax” came from his fascination with flight and aeronautics. His knowledge of police procedures provided the details for “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, which would inspire creators of later literary detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot.

But Poe found that his most successful works were in the “gothic horror” genre, and his descriptions of death both horrified and fascinated his audience. This was a time when medical care was usually ineffective, people died regularly from a wide variety of diseases, and death was a commonplace feature in every life. The greatest fear of many was that they would fall into a coma, be declared dead by the primitive medicine of the time, and be prematurely buried—it was not unusual for people to arrange to have bells or gongs rigged up at their graves so they could call for help if they awoke inside their buried coffins. Poe played expertly on these dark fears (and even wrote a story titled “The Premature Burial”).

In 1847 Poe’s second wife Virginia died suddenly. He moved briefly to Philadelphia in 1849, then made his way to Richmond, where he became engaged to a widow named Sarah Elmira Royster, whom he had known in his youth. That September Poe left Richmond for a trip to Baltimore to edit a manuscript written by a local poet.

On October 3, 1849, a man named Joseph Walker found Poe wandering aimlessly in the streets of Baltimore, incoherent and delirious. When Walker asked him if he knew anyone in Baltimore who could help him, Poe managed to stammer out the name of Joseph Snodgrass, a local editor. Walker sent a note to Snodgrass stating, “There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.”

Snodgrass in turn took Poe to the Washington Medical College. Poe was never able to tell anyone what had happened to him. He appeared to be wearing soiled clothing that did not fit him and apparently belonged to someone else, and he would occasionally shout the name “Reynolds”, though he was never able to explain the significance. Poe died at 5am on October 7. He was 40 years old.

He was buried in a simple grave at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. In 1875, after Poe’s posthumous fame had grown, an ornate memorial stone was placed near the entrance to the church graveyard, and Poe’s body was exhumed and relocated underneath it. He remains there today. Not far away is the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, in which Poe briefly lived in 1832.

For a writer who was so famously associated with death and dying, it is perhaps entirely appropriate that Edgar Allan Poe’s own death has been a constant source of fascination and mystery since 1849. The odd and unsolved circumstances of his death have provoked a flood of theories, none of which have been verified or universally accepted and none of which really accounts for all the known facts.

The most widely-accepted hypothesis involves alcohol. Poe was known to be quite unable to hold his liquor: he lost several jobs because of drinking binges, and once even lost a potential minor job with the Tyler Administration because he got drunk and didn’t show up for the interview. Poe’s death certificate (which has long ago gone missing) reportedly listed the cause of death as “phrenitis”, or swelling of the brain—at the time a polite way of saying “alcoholism”. Many of Poe’s acquaintances assumed that he had met some old friend in Baltimore, went to a bar, and had a last fatal binge. There were also rumors after Poe’s death, none of them substantiated, that he had been an opium addict. This, however, would not explain why he was wearing someone else’s clothing.

Another possibility is that Poe simply had some disease or condition that damaged his brain and caused his death. Baltimore at this time was a subtropical city surrounded by swamps and mosquitoes, and even in early October it would have been warm enough for diseases like encephalitis or meningitis to be a danger. There may even have been a brain tumor, which 19th century medicine would not have been capable of detecting. But that would not explain the change of clothes.

Other theories are more sinister, and perhaps more in keeping with Poe’s legacy. One idea is that he was simply waylaid by street thugs, robbed, and beaten. Baltimore was then, as it is now, a pretty rough town with a high crime rate, and nobody at the time was safe on its streets. It is not inconceivable that Poe may have been given a blow to the head that caused a fatal brain swelling. But this, however, would also not explain how he got into someone else’s clothing.

Another widely-held hypothesis revolves around that popular American practice of the time—election fraud. October 3, 1849, was an election day in Baltimore with several local political races, and Poe had been found wandering in front of Gunner’s Hall—a polling place. At that time, American politics was thoroughly corrupt and was run by party bosses who were not above using virtually any method to get enough votes to win. One such practice was known as “cooping”: a random victim would be chosen off the street, taken somewhere where he would be forced to drink liquor and/or be drugged, then carried to the polling place to cast a specific vote. Often, the victim would then be changed into new clothing so he could be taken back to vote again under a different name, as many times as possible. The “coop” would then be dumped out on the street to recover.
This hypothesis would, at least, explain why Poe was wearing clothes that were not his own. But there remains no conclusive evidence for it, and his death still remains a mystery.


4 thoughts on “Edgar Allan Poe’s Grave”

  1. I find most 19th century literature absolutely unreadable. Poe is an exception; I have enjoyed some of his stories and poems.

    I wonder now whether Edgar Allan was what his parents named him, or does the Allan come from his foster father’s surname?

    As for his death, seems to me the only really mysterious thing here is the clothing, but how sure can we be he was in fact wearing someone else’s?

    1. You are correct about where “Allen” came from. He was born Edgar Poe.
      Don’t read what Charles Baudelaire says about Poe’s death, whatever you do. I love Baudelaire as a poet, but tabloid journalism got its start in Poe’s day.

  2. PBS’s “American Masters” has the best Poe documentary I’ve seen. (“Terror of the Soul” and you can find it on SchoolTube.) It’s fascinating to compare his style with Henry James. James is, I suspect, one of the writers the commenter above found unreadable and while I love 19th century literature, I too found “The Turn of the Screw” to be a slog, yet Poe’s style is almost contemporary – clean, concise, visual, action-oriented. Also – and this is only my opinion – I consider Poe, not Freud, to be the true discoverer, and navigator, of the unconscious.

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