Edgar Allan Poe, famous for short stories like “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” was a master of mystery and horror. Poe’s life was filled with strange facts; not only did his family disown him, but he famously married his 13-year-old cousin when he himself was 27. Poe is credited with creating the modern detective story – and in his own end, Poe left behind a mystery that no one has yet been able to solve. For over 160 years, countless fans of both literature and crime have been asking, how did Poe die?
Edgar Allan Poe passed on October 7, 1849, and the events surrounding his demise remain shrouded in mystery. Poe was found in a tavern, completely delirious, and yet his doctor testified that there was no evidence of intoxication. Poe raved about a mysterious man named Reynolds before his passing, but no one could identify a person by that name. Perhaps most notably, when Poe was found in the tavern on that fateful and enigmatic night, he was wearing another man’s clothes.
Mercury ingestion as a possible culprit of Poe's end is a theory frequently discussed, as is the possibility of rabies. Perhaps the cooping theory is correct, a conjecture which claims that Poe was kidnapped and forced into voter fraud. Whatever the answer, the end of Edgar Allan Poe's life is one mystery that may never be solved.
On October 3, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe’s doctor, Joseph Snodgrass, received a mysterious letter stating that “a gentleman, rather the worse for wear” had been found at a Baltimore polling location, Ryan's 4th Ward Polls. The man, “who appears in great distress,” said his name was Edgar A. Poe. Snodgrass was baffled – Poe was supposed to be in Philadelphia editing a volume of poetry.
Snodgrass rushed to Poe and found his friend barely conscious and dressed in someone else’s suit. Four days later, Edgar Allan Poe had passed.
On October 7, 1849, Poe allegedly regained consciousness long enough to whisper, “Lord, help my poor soul.” Moments later, he had passed. On the last night of his life, Poe repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds,” according to the attending doctor, but the mysterious Reynolds has never been identified. The Baltimore Clipper reported that Poe succumbed to “congestion of the brain,” a 19th-century euphemism for alcohol poisoning. No autopsy was performed.
Poe was buried the next day with only seven people in attendance. One of these seven described the ceremony as “cold-blooded” and “unchristianlike.” Poe’s own uncle, Henry Herring, said, “I didn’t have anything to do with him when he was alive, and I don’t want to have anything to do with him [now].”
Poe was notorious for his drinking habits, and the fact that he was found in a tavern shortly before his end led to substantial speculation regarding the true cause of his delerium. Days after Poe passed, his friend J.P. Kennedy wrote that Poe “fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle.” Snodgrass also reported that binge drinking as the cause of Poe's fate.
Alcohol could explain Poe's delirium and how he found himself in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia. Even his own relatives believed that Poe may have boarded the wrong train after drinking at the station. As simple and convenient as this theory may seem, it can't account for Poe’s mysterious clothes.
Modern science has found another issue with the theory. Tests allegedly show low levels of lead in a sample of Poe's hair that represents the last few months of his life – strong evidence that Poe had stopped drinking.
In 2006, environmental health engineer Albert Donnay released the results of tests on Edgar Allen Poe’s hair. The tests found arsenic levels 15 times today’s normal level, possibly the result of non-potable drinking water. Arsenic consumption can cause cancer, diabetes, and heart problems, which may have contributed to Poe’s death; however, Poe’s arsenic level was only 2/3 of what is considered lethal.
Donnay also uncovered increasing levels of mercury in Poe’s hair. Over several months, Poe's mercury level shot up 264%. In July of 1849, Poe was taking calomel as a treatment for a cholera outbreak, a medicine that contained mercury. This could account for Poe’s hallucinations and delirium – though his levels were still 30 times below that of a lethal amount.
Although these heavy metals were clearly detrimental to Poe's health, they don't fully explain the mystery of his demise.