Considered the originator of the detective mystery story, Edgar Allan Poe’s final week was as mysterious as any of his tales.
His 1849 death is shrouded in theories and puzzles and guesses but it has never been conclusively solved.
The known facts are clear.
Poe left Richmond, Virginia on September 27, 1849. He was going to go to New York with stops along the way in Baltimore and Philadelphia. In New York he was going to meet up with his aunt and then move them to Richmond where Poe’s fiancee was living. It was to be a new start in the troubled life of the writer.
It is known that he reached Baltimore on the 28th. He checked his luggage at a local hotel which is odd in and of itself. If he meant to travel directly from Baltimore to Philadelphia that day, why would he check his belongings at a hotel? We will never know the answer to that question.
After his arrival in Baltimore, he vanished from September 28th to October 3rd. He never accounted for those missing days nor did anyone come forward to say that they knew of his whereabouts.
We do know that on October 3rd he was found outside an election voting location in a nearly incoherent state and in somebody else’s clothes. He was able to tell someone of an acquaintance living in Baltimore who came to fetch him and take him to nearby Washington College Hospital. Poe lingered in a delirium for several days, dying on the 7th. He was in a daze during his final days, rarely speaking except to call out for someone named Reynolds. Who was Reynolds? Nobody has ever been able to discern who Reynolds was or his connection to Poe. One of the characters in a novel by Poe was named Jeremiah Reynolds, but it is not thought that this was the Reynolds Poe was calling for.
His funeral on the 8th was sparsely attended. A few distant relatives showed up and he was quietly buried in a modest grave in Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. (His remains would late be moved to a more prominent spot with a large monument at his grave.)
Later researchers have come up with a number of theories about Poe’s puzzling passing.
One prominent proposal says that Poe was the victim of an election day illegal practice called “cooping,” where men are drugged or made drunk and then taken from one polling place to another to vote for a single candidate, thus tipping the outcome to favor that candidate. Because someone being cooped would need to appear as a different man at each voting place, this may explain Poe’s changed clothing. The newspapers varied the next day, however, with some saying cooping had not been a problem on the voting day and others claiming that the illegal practice did occur.
Others have put forth the theory that Poe was the victim of being beaten by street thugs or by the brothers of his fiancee. Certainly there would be some hesitation about their sister becoming involved with a poor writer with a known alcohol problem.
Or Poe could have just become terribly drunk and wandered the streets of Baltimore in a daze for the last week of his life. Subsequent tests of Poe’s hair, however, seem to show that Poe was not drunk at all at the time of his death. Poe taking drugs in his final week seems equally unlikely.
Some researchers have looked for medical reasons for Poe’s disappearance and subsequent erratic behavior. Medical conditions put forward in theories include brain tumors, rabies, epilepsy, diabetes and influenza, among others. The theories of thuggery and drinking/drugs and medical conditions, however, do not account for his perplexing change of clothing or the checking of his bags at that hotel in Baltimore.
As time goes by, the possibility of solving the puzzle surrounding Poe’s inscrutable final days become more and more unlikely.
The father of mysteries left a mystery of his own that continues to baffle the curious and reputable scholars.
“Midnight Dreary,” John Evangelist Walsh, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.