Was Edgar Allan Poe robbed?

On “The Airship” literary blog on Oct. 21, 2014, the writer Nicholas Laskin begins a story about the demise of Edgar Allan Poe as follows: “Even 165 years after Poe’s death, we still have little idea what ended his life. This is what we know for sure: On Sept. 27, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond, Virginia with $1,500.”

Laskin then revisits numerous theories about Poe’s death including the possibility that he died as a result of being mugged and robbed of the money. He does not identify the source of his certainty that Poe was carrying such a large sum. In any case, the money, if it ever existed in whatever amount, had disappeared by the time he was found in need of hospitalization in Baltimore where he died on Oct. 7, 1849.

But Laskin does identify three possible explanations for the origin of the cash: 1) magazine subscription payments, 2) an advance payment for a magazine article, and/or 3) from profits from a recently-delivered lecture. In fact, the source of Laskin’s information concerning “the $1,500 that Poe took with him from Richmond” is tied to the third possibility.

In December 1899, a 70-year-old Methodist bishop named Oscar Penn Fitzgerald told an audience at the University of Virginia that when he had been a young journalist in Richmond 50 years earlier, he met Poe and saw him deliver a lecture on “The Poetic Principle” to 300 people who he said paid $5 each for a ticket. In a memoir entitled “Sunset Views” published in 1901, Bishop Fitzgerald repeated the story writing: “With the $1,500, the proceeds of the lecture, in hand, [Poe] started to New York for the purpose of settling up his affairs there … The tragic sequel is well known.”

Bishop Oscar Penn Fitzgerald of Virginia. Sources: Harrison’s Collected Works of Poe, vol. 1; The Poe Log; Wikipedia; Oregon State University; the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore; and Nicholas Laskin on “The Airship.”

Indeed, Poe (who the last time Fitzgerald saw him in Richmond in 1849 was “[c]lad in a spotless white linen suit, with a black velvet vest, and Panama hat”) did deliver such a lecture to a packed house at the Exchange Concert Room in Richmond at 8 pm on Friday, August 17, 1849. However, according to an advertisement for the event that appeared in the Richmond newspaper the “Daily Republican” on August 15th and 16th, a ticket for the lecture cost “25 cents—for sale at the various bookstores.”

It is estimated that, due to inflation, the value of one dollar in 1849 would be 30 dollars today. In other words, a single $5 ticket when Poe was selling them (at the price the Bishop recalled) would cost $150 today, and the total value of selling 300 of them would be $45,000 today. On the other hand, if the tickets were sold for 25 cents each (as advertised in 1849) the equivalent price today would be $7.50 per ticket; and if Poe sold 300 of them he grossed $75 (not $1,500), which approximately equals $2,250 (not $45,000) in 2014 dollars.

In 1987, the scholar and editor of Poe’s collected letters, John Ward Ostrom, estimated that Poe’s earnings during his 14 years as professional author, poet, editor, lecturer, and the head of a family of three amounted to a total of about $6200—which Ostrom calculated to be approximately one-half of the income necessary to reach the poverty level as we know it. It simply defies common sense to believe that Poe could earn nearly one-quarter of his lifetime income from one lecture, or that he would be carrying it around without greater care for its security if he did.

The evidence clearly indicates that Bishop Fitzgerald’s memory concerning the amount of money Poe might have received for his last lecture was inaccurate–although the inaccuracy has retained great currency to the present day. It is therefore also necessary to conclude that the good man really had no idea how much of the $75 Poe possibly received for his performance in Richmond was still in his possession before he embarked on his final journey 40 days later.

When trying to imagine the real cause of Poe’s death, the theory that he died as a result of injuries sustained in a robbery—allegedly fatal injuries that were never detected by anyone during his final four days in Baltimore’s Washington College Hospital by the way—is not a good bet.