In life, Edgar Allan Poe wrote poems and mysteries. In death, he left the world with a mystery which may never be solved. Was he a casualty of love, a sufferer of rabies, or perhaps a victim of "cooping"?
Edgar Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809. His parents, David Poe, Jr., and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, were actors.
His mother died from consumption in 1811 and his father left the family, so Poe was sent to live with a childless couple, John and Frances Allan, in Richmond, Virginia. The Allans expanded their foster son's name to the version we all know - Edgar Allan Poe - but they never formally adopted him. Poe soon bonded with his foster mother. His foster father, a merchant who sold everything from cloth to tombstones, was distant, and young Poe didn't help matters by writing poems on the back of the man's business papers.
Poe spent part of his childhood in Scotland and England, where he was educated in the classics. He was accepted at the University of Virginia in 1826, but his foster father did not give him enough money to cover tuition. Poe took up gambling, went into debt, and was eventually forced to leave the university. He worked as a clerk and a newspaper reporter, sometimes using the pseudonym Henri Le Rennet.
Eventually he joined the army, under the name Edgar A. Perry. He claimed to have fought in the Greek War of Independence, during which time he was captured and held prisoner in Russia. After the death of his foster mother, his foster father purchased Poe's release from the army and helped him get an appointment to West Point.
Poe's time at West Point was brief - he was kicked out in 1831 after missing too many drills and classes. Some experts believe he wanted to be court-martialed. During this time Poe and his foster father severed ties.
From 1831 to 1835 Poe lived in Baltimore with his Aunt Maria and her young daughter, Virginia Clemm. He continued to write and publish poetry. In 1835, twenty-six-year-old Poe secretly married Virginia, his first cousin, who was only thirteen. Their marriage certificate stated that she was twenty-one. Their relationship seems scandalous now, in the new millennium, but in the 1800s people often married young and sometimes married close relations.
In 1842 Virginia experienced throat trouble while she was singing and playing the piano. She had the early signs of tuberculosis. Poe ended up on an emotional roller coaster ride that lasted years, as his wife's health repeatedly failed, then rallied, over and again. In 1947, he lost the woman he loved. Poe wrote, "I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can and do endure as becomes a man. It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair which I could not longer have endured, without total loss of reason." Virginia's death helped inspire much of Poe's later literary work.
During his brief stints at the University of Virginia, in the army, and at West Point, Poe wrote and published his first volume of poetry, "Tamerlane and Other Poems," with the byline, "by a Bostonian." Some of his fellow cadets donated money to help Poe publish another collection, "Poems."
Great poetry stirred something deep within Poe. He said, "I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement."
In 1835 Poe and his wife moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he worked for the "Southern Literary Messenger" magazine. He wrote scathing reviews. Parts of his only novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," were published as well. His controversial writing style boosted the magazine's circulation. He left the magazine in 1837, however, due to disagreements about his reviews. Poe later released the full version of "Arthur Gordon Pym," which is considered to be one inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick."
In the late 1830s Poe published "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque," which included the famous story, "The Fall of the House of Usher." He edited and wrote material for "Burton's Gentleman's Magazine," then for its successor, "Graham's Lady and Gentleman's Magazine." The latter magazine featured Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which launched a new genre - detective fiction.
Poe never found financial success. He wrote because he felt compelled to write. "With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion," he said. He often borrowed money from friends and family to survive. Because he was writing at a time when international copyright laws did not exist, American publications often reprinted poems and stories from Europe to avoid paying writers. Poe continued writing and editing for various publications whenever he could, including the "New York Mirror" and the "Broadway Journal."
He would not have called himself an artist. He wrote, "Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.'"
Poe became an international celebrity in 1845, following publication of his poetic masterpiece, "The Raven." Sadly, for this creation he only earned about fifteen dollars.
Poe's literary fame brought him the attention of many women, including a poet, Frances Osgood. Their relationship caused a public scandal because both were married at the time. Rufus Griswold, a poet and critic, also admired Osgood. He was already angry because of bad reviews Poe had written about his work, but the fact that Osgood chose Poe over him cemented Griswold's hatred. In later years, he would seek his revenge.
In 1848 Poe delivered a lecture known as "Eureka." It is considered a masterpiece by some, nonsense by others; in either case it is an early version of the Big Bang Theory.
Poe left Richmond on September 27, 1849, ostensibly on his way to Philadelphia to edit a collection of poems for Mrs. Marguerite St. Leon Loud, but he never reached his destination. His whereabouts for the next few days would never be known - on October 3 he was found lying in a gutter in Baltimore, delirious, wearing clothes that were not his own. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment. He was never able to explain what happened to him, but he repeatedly called for someone named "Reynolds." Poe died on October 7, 1849, only ten days before he was to wed his wealthy fiancee, Elmira Shelton. Reportedly, his last words were, "Lord, help my poor soul."
His official cause of death was listed as phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, but other theories abound. Medical possibilities include alcoholism, rabies, epilepsy, a brain tumor, mercury poisoning, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Non-medical possibilities include assault by ruffians or the over-protective brothers of his fiancee, or a crime known at the time as "cooping."
Cooping was a form of voter fraud in which individuals were kidnapped, beaten, plied with alcohol, dressed in different clothes, wigs, etc., then sent to vote for a particular candidate. Victims would then be taken back to the "coop" to don different disguises and vote again, repeatedly, until at last they were set free. Poe was known to have little tolerance for alcohol, so such treatment could have killed him - and he was found wearing a stranger's clothes, in a gutter, near an official polling place, on an election day.
Some say Poe's adversary, Rufus Griswold, may have been involved in a plot to kill Poe. Griswold wrote a scathing obituary, using the pseudonym Ludwig, in which he portrayed Poe as a drug user, a drunkard, and a womanizer. This obituary and a biography Griswold wrote later were the basis for decades of false scholarship about Poe - analysis of hair samples has proven that Poe was, in fact, not a drug user. He rarely drank - he had even joined the temperance movement months before his death.
Griswold somehow convinced Poe's former mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, to name him as executor of Poe's estate. Poe's manuscripts went to Griswold.
Poe could have been speaking about his rival, Griswold, when he said, "To vilify a great man is the readiest way in which a little man can himself attain greatness." Ironically, Griswold's slanderous statements helped create a mythology around Poe that enhanced his image as a writer of macabre tales.
Even setting aside the odd circumstances of his death and the slanderous obituary that followed, Poe has carried on his tradition of being mysterious and extraordinary.
Poe once said, "I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat." His tortoiseshell cat, Catterina, had always been noticeably depressed whenever he traveled. Two weeks after his death, Catterina died. Perhaps she sensed that this time her master would never return.
Poe's cousins had him buried quickly - the day after he died - in an unmarked grave in Westminster Burying Grounds, in Baltimore, Maryland. Twenty-six years later, a statue of Poe was erected in the cemetery. His remains were exhumed in order to place them by the new statue, but the coffin fell apart in the process. One worker noticed a mass rolling around in Poe's skull, which could have been a calcified tumor. Pieces of Poe's coffin became collectors' items. One female devotee supposedly wore a cross she made from pieces of the wood.
After Poe's reburial, some admirers decided that his wife's remains should be moved from her cemetery in the Bronx to be next to him, but they learned that developers had already removed the bodies in order to build on the cemetery site. William Gill, an avid biographer, came forward and admitted that he had rescued Virginia Poe's bones and kept them in a box under his bed for years. At long last, the remains of Poe and his wife were reunited in Baltimore.
In the 1860s, Lizzie Doten, a medium, published some poems that had supposedly been dictated to her by Poe's ghost. Also, Poe's former fiancee, Sara Helen Whitman, hired a medium to live with her because she felt the presence of Poe's spirit.
Perhaps Poe's spirit still remains. After all, in his short story, "The Premature Burial," Poe wrote, "The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?"