Was Edgar Allan Poe’s death predictable?

On June 30, 1849, the Boston newspaper “The Flag of Our Union” announced that a poem by Edgar Allan Poe called “To My Mother” would appear in its next issue. No one knew it would be the last one he ever published.

On that same day, Poe travelled to Philadelphia from his home in New York. Lately he had been in despair about his future and especially about his relationship with Annie Richmond, with whom he had spent about 10 days in Massachusetts a month earlier. And so began another bout with alcohol.

On or about the next day, July 1, he was arrested and briefly detained in a Philadelphia prison for public intoxication. A friend, John Sartain, tried to help him and was very worried about his condition. But Poe seemed to improve before long.

On July 7  Poe wrote to his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, in New York: “I have been so ill—have had the cholera, or spasms quite as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen. The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die. I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka.’” Meanwhile, Annie Richmond and Mrs. Clemm exchanged numerous letters of concern.

On the evening of July 13, Poe departed Philadelphia, arriving in Richmond the next day. On the 19th he wrote to Clemm: “For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval I imagined the most horrible calamities. … All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced—an attack of ‘mania-a-potu.’ May Heaven grant that it prove a warning to me for the rest of my days. … I have not drank anything since Friday morning, and then only a little Port wine.” [Note: Mania-a-potu is a psychiatric term for pathological alcohol intoxication with markedly disinhibited behavior.]

Poe's wife Virginia. (Public Domain)
Poe’s wife Virginia, 24 died in New York. (Public Domain)
Poe was engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster shortly before his death. (Wikipedia)
Poe was engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster shortly before his death. (Wikipedia)

Later that July he proposed marriage in Richmond to his widowed childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster. Poe was also a widower, since his 24-year-old wife, Virginia, died 31 months earlier in New York.

But during the month of August he again became ill, undoubtedly at least in part as a result of exposure to drink. He was then warned by doctors in his sister Rosalie’s home that further such attacks could be fatal. A neighbor, the poetess Susan Archer Talley remembered that Dr. Gibbon Carter “had a long conversation with him, in which Poe expressed the most earnest desire to break from the thralldom of his besetting sin, and told of his many unavailing struggles to do so. He was moved even to tears, and finally declared, in the most solemn manner, that this time he would restrain himself,—would withstand any temptation.”

True to his intention, on August 27, Poe joined the “Sons of Temperance” union in Richmond and took an oath to abstain from drinking alcohol. Word of his declaration and membership in the temperance organization was apparently big news. It was published in the “Banner of Temperance,” “The Daily Republican,” “The Raleigh Times,” the Philadelphia “Evening Bulletin,” “The Richmond Whig,” the Cincinnati “Atlas,” the “Dollar Daily,” “Wheler’s Southern Monthly Magazine,” the “Boston Museum,” “The Flag of Our Union,” and other papers.

On September 26, as Poe prepared to leave Richmond, planning to put his affairs in order in the North before returning with Maria Clemm, Elmira Royster found him to be “quite sick” with “considerable fever.” He had been on the wagon for one month.

Poe arrived in Baltimore on September 28 and, according to a summary of statements recorded soon thereafter, began “drinking heavily, apparently after being persuaded to take a single glass of alcohol by old friends” in the city. On Oct. 7, 1849, he died in a Baltimore hospital at age 40. The cause has never been officially resolved.

[Source: “The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809–1849”]


2 thoughts on “Was Edgar Allan Poe’s death predictable?

  • November 8, 2015 at 11:44 AM

    The letter written to Clemm from Philadelphia contains a more relevant reference that Dan does not mention. Poe wrote that he felt like he was dying from “congestion of the brain, not so much from the cholera (which he mistakenly thought he had) as the calomel taken.”. That he took calomel is evidenced by a spike in mercury found in the heavy metal hair analysis of Poe’s hair that I organized with the Baltimore Poe Society, but it didn’t kill him.

    Had Dan read Poe’s death noice in the Baltimore News American he’d have seen that the medical examiner reported the same: ” congestion of the brain”. This is a hallmark of acute CO poisoning, now called edema.

    Poe literally predicted his exact cause of his death just months before he died.

  • October 7, 2015 at 4:33 PM

    That picture of Elmira is a proven forgery from the 1920s.

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