“Once Upon A Midnight Dreary”

photo courtesy of http://www.todayifoundout.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/poe.jpg

photo courtesy of http://www.todayifoundout.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/poe.jpg

Emma Groves, Staff Writer

FINAL Edgar Allan Poe: America’s most famous writer who met a most mysterious death. Nearly 171 years ago, Poe died from unknown causes with the most complex and odd surrounding circumstances. While there many theories on what caused Poe’s death, one cannot escape the fact that whatever the cause, the method of Poe’s death was undeniably murder.

Edgar Poe was born in Boston in 1809 to a pair of young actors. Sandwiched between his older brother who was a poet and younger sister who was a writer, Poe’s future with being both a poet and a writer looked promising in his artistic home; however, fate was cruel to young Poe and by age three, he lost both of his parents to tuberculosis. Shortly after Poe became orphaned, a young couple took Poe in, but chose to foster him rather than adopt him. John and Francis Allan provided Poe with a quality education as John was a wealthy English businessman, and Poe took on their last name as his middle name and became Edgar Allan Poe.

As Poe grew older, John took him abroad to attend prestigious boarding schools while John attended to business matters. It was very clear to Poe that John wished him to enter into the business industry and become a businessman much like himself, but Poe made it quite clear as well that he wished to publish his written works instead. The two clashed often on this point, so much so that Poe refused to sign the “Allan” in his name and instead wrote it as “A.” As Poe continued to write poetry despite John’s pressure not to, Poe returned to America and met his childhood sweetheart: Sarah “Elmira” Royster. Poe fell in love and the two became secretly engaged despite the Royster family’s strong disapproval. The Royster family viewed Poe as far below their station although the Allan family was far wealthier, due to the fact that Poe was never truly adopted.

At seventeen, Poe wished his sweetheart goodbye with promises to return soon as he enrolled in the University of Virginia where he began to incur his never ending debts. The University of Virginia did not treat Poe kindly. Poe began to gamble and drink and incur massive debts that would only build throughout his life. As the first semester ended, Poe returned home with debts climbing to $2,500 and planned to marry his sweetheart; however, when Poe returned home, he found Elmira affianced to another, Alexander Shelton. It was later found out that Elmira’s father burned and disposed of the letters Poe had written to her while away at school. Crushed and defeated, Poe turned his pain into poetry inspired by his lost love with famous poems such as “Tamerlane” emerging from his heartbreak. Poe tried to get the Allan’s to help with his growing debt, but John refused and Poe was soon kicked out of school for gambling away his tuition money.

To get away from John, Poe enrolled in the military and did quite well as he earned the title of Sergeant Major, but tragedy never lingered too far from Poe’s life, and it soon struck again with the passing of his beloved foster mother Francis Allan. Poe hurried home when he learned of her battle with tuberculosis but didn’t make it back until the day after her funeral. Brought together by grief and Francis’ last wishes, John and Poe reconciled, and John sponsored Poe as he set off to attend West Point.

Poe thrived in his new environment and published his second book. In the meantime, John Allan fathered illegitimate children and married a woman twenty years younger than he and sent Poe a letter which read: “Dear Edgar, I no longer wish to communicate with you. You have taken my generosity and returned nothing but disappointment and embarrassment. From this point onward, you are disowned. John Allan.” While John couldn’t really disown Poe as he never truly adopted him, he could and did cut Poe off. Poe wrote to John telling him he’d then like to unenroll at West Point, and that if he did not get permission, he’d get himself expelled. When Poe received no response, he set to work on getting expelled and earned 44 offenses and 106 demerits, before he was finally expelled.

Before leaving West Point, Poe published another work of poems and set to work as a full time writer. Poe moved in with what was left of his biological family: a paralyzed grandmother, his sick brother, an aunt and his first cousin. Poe then became a literal starving artist and got into horror and suspense largely because Gothic literature was in at the time, and he thought it would sell, but also because he genuinely had an interest in it. Just when his life couldn’t get any worse, his brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, died from tuberculosis before Poe’s 23rd birthday.

In 1835, Poe began to get back on his feet as he landed his first editor job and began a romance with his first cousin Virginia Clemm. The pair soon married and became the latest scandal in town. While marrying your first cousin was quite common at the time, their age gap was not. Virginia was only 13 years old when they married while Poe was 27. Despite the gossip the two carried with them, Poe’s life began to look up, but tragedy struck again when Poe got fired for “improper behavior.” Poe then bounced around editor positions from which he was all fired from for various and vague reasons.

Poe continued writing as he bounced around jobs and published a story entitled Murders in the Rue Morgue. This work became wildly popular and helped shape the famous work of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While his fame and success rose, his home life fell apart as Virginia grew very sick with tuberculosis and soon died at only 19 years of age. In his grief, Poe spiraled into drinking although he was allergic to alcohol, but Poe’s insanity didn’t last long and in the summer of 1829, he paid a visit to an old friend: Elmira Royster Shelton. Poe found Elmira to be a now widowed mother with the same affection in her heart for Poe. The two rekindled their long ago relationship despite Elmira’s family’s still standing disapproval. This relationship sparked quite the controversy among Elmira’s family as marrying Poe would reduce Elmira’s share of her late husband’s property by three quarters as well as losing much of her late husband’s money, but this didn’t phase Elmira or Poe. With only a week before their wedding date, Poe left Elmira to travel to Philadelphia for a job as they desperately needed the money although he felt ill and was advised not to. Poe took his cane and told Elmira he’d be back soon.

However, fate was determined to keep these lovers apart as Poe was soon found lying in the street outside a bar in Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothes and babbling incoherently and crying out for someone by the name of “Reynolds.” Poe died four days later with an unknown cause of death. After his death, an obituary written by his literary rival, Rufus Griswold, assassinated Poe’s character which his friends made no efforts to correct. The man who reportedly found him, Joseph W. Walker, sent a message to Poe’s acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, to come and help. Snodgrass claimed Poe died of alcohol poisoning and sadly used Poe’s death to further his political game as he was a major figure in the Temperance Movement. He used Poe’s death as an example rather than trying to truly assist Poe in his time of need. It is believed that Poe was diagnosed with “congestion of the brain” when he reached the hospital, but his hospital records and death certificate have mysteriously disappeared.

Eight people attended Poe’s funeral, if you could call it that. The ceremony lasted only three minutes, and a sermon wasn’t even given. Edgar’s cousin, however, clipped locks of his hair from his dead body to give to Poe’s admirers and family members to put in their wallets or tape to the back of pictures as was the custom at the time. His hair has randomly shown up in people’s attics here and there and has sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The hair has also served as a great way to test Poe’s DNA. It was initially tested 170 years post mortem to look for chemical pollutants that may have influenced his morbid writing style. However, unlike many other writers of the time, no such pollutants were found in Poe’s hair. Interestingly enough, it was also found that Poe was not poisoned by mercury (a common theory at the time) and his lead levels were quite low. His lead levels were significant due to the fact that if Poe was an alcoholic or a regular drinker as he was made out to be, his lead levels would have been quite high, but as they were not, it disproved another common theory circled around Snodgrass’ eyewitness account, that Poe drank himself to death.

In addition to this, when Poe’s body was excavated to relocate his burial place, an eyewitness account recorded in a local newspaper article described Poe’s brain to have “rattled around inside of his skull just like a lump of mud.” This is a serious point of interest as brains are one of the first thing to rot into thick runny consistency, not the lump that was reported. In a theory proposed in 2006, the hard shrunken mass may have been a calcified tumor, which could have explained Poe’s delusions, forgetfulness, and incoherence in his last few days alive, but as the theorist proposer himself stated, “just because Poe may have had a brain tumor, doesn’t mean he died from it.”

Poe’s physician in his last few days was a man by the name of John Joseph Moran. As visitors were not allowed, Moran was one of the few people to see Poe in his final days. He described Poe’s final days in a detailed letter written to a friend, Maria Clem, shortly after Poe’s death. When Poe rose to fame after his death, Moran toured around giving exaggerated lectures on Poe’s final days. In his written and oral lectures, there were many inconsistencies so most of Moran’s accounts have been believed to be mostly falsified; however, due to his letter he wrote to Clem, factual evidence can be obtained as Moran had nothing to gain from exaggeration at the time of Poe’s death. Moran described Poe in his letter to have been unconscious from when he came in at 5:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. the following morning on October 3rd, which lines up with theories of having been drugged, beaten up, or having contracted a disease. Moran also notes in his letter Poe’s repeated cry for a mysterious “Reynolds.” He then later develops a change in symptoms with a slight lip tremor and delirium as he talked to imaginary objects around him. It appears in the letter as though Poe was severely traumatized and/or suffering from a serious head injury. Moran claimed that Poe didn’t smell of a single drop of liquor which lines up with the lab studies of the lead levels found in his hair. Moran believed Poe to have died after being mugged or beaten up to the point where he could barely stand and have died from his injuries; however, this doesn’t explain his clothing or why he was in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia or the mysterious Reynolds.

So, what killed Poe? Was it an unknown tumor or something more than that? The surrounding circumstances of Poe’s death, from the strange clothes to his found location, lead many to believe that something more complex was at foot, something in the morbid shape of murder. There are three widely accepted theories revolving around Poe’s murder. One involves possible foul play from Elmira’s brothers; another involves a scandalous election; and the last, and most complex, involves one of Poe’s most interesting works: The Mystery of Marie Roget.

The first theory of Elmira’s brothers having a considerable hand in Poe’s death, aligns with most of the evidence. If Moran was correct in claiming that Poe had been beaten, who did it? Well, for most, Elmira’s brothers were the top suspects, and if Poe had been warned, it may have explained why he took the wrong train or boat that night and wound up in Baltimore. However, it wasn’t unusual for someone to take the wrong train or boat, but Poe made a second mistake that night when he took Dr. Carter’s cane instead of his own. Dr. Carter was a friend of Poe’s that Poe visited before winding up in Baltimore. The cane Poe took wasn’t just any cane, it was a sword cane which held a sword inside on it rather than being solid all the way through. It is theorized that like taking the wrong boat or train, this too was purposeful as Poe may have felt that he needed protection from his alleged persecutors. The Royster brothers had an outstanding vendetta against Poe as they felt him an unsuitable match for their sister, but now, Elmira would stand to lose much more than friendly relations with her family by marrying Poe: She would lose a significant amount of land and money, two very culturally important things at the time. As it was just ten days from their wedding date, it has been popularly theorized that Poe did go to Philadelphia like he intended, but had a run in with the Royster brothers and was beaten and attacked, and he fled to Baltimore to escape death at their hands. Once he arrived in Baltimore, his head injury that the brothers afflicted him with worsened and caused his delirious state and eventually his death. After Poe’s death, Elmira back tracked on their engagement saying she would never have married Poe under any circumstances, and she didn’t even attend his funeral. Although Elmira’s letters disprove her back tracked affection for Poe, she held tight to the suspicious claim. Everything seems to line up quite well…that is until you consider the fact that Poe had left the taken cane before leaving to Philadelphia or Baltimore in a local tavern; if Poe had purposefully taken it, why would he not have used it to defend himself against his attackers? Furthermore, the Royster Brothers Theory doesn’t explain Poe’s strange clothing he was found in or why he kept crying out for a mysterious “Reynolds.”

The second and more probable theory of a scandalous election is most likely the most widely accepted belief as to what happened to Poe. The elections of the 1800’s were quite unlike today’s with poll riggings, violence, discrimination and crimes nicknamed as “cooping,” being so common that around each election time, voters were warned by newspaper journalists to be weary of cooping.  Cooping was a form of voter fraud which consisted of members of a certain political party kidnapping voters outside of polling centers or at bars after they received their free drink for voting. Once captured, the voters were taken to “coops” where they we kept, drugged or forced to drink until they became quite drunk or drugged and then their clothes would be changed so that they could not be recognized. The poor men would then be taken to polling places to vote under the names of dead men as voter ID’s were not often checked, and then would vote for whoever they were told to vote for. After they’d vote, they were usually used as many as fifteen more times before being released in a much worse for wear state. Baltimore was so tumultuous in its voting that the city earned the name “mob town” due to its extreme violence and cooping. It is theorized that Poe was a victim of cooping as he was found outside of a bar that was also a polling place the day after a municipal election. Since Poe was found in another man’s clothes, that were in such a rough condition, they’d be easy for the aggressive political party members to get their hands on. However, if Moran was correct in his claim that Poe didn’t smell of liquor, how would a political party be able to get control of him? Well, with Poe’s allergy towards alcohol, he was said to be quite the lightweight which would mean that if Poe had been forced to drink, it wouldn’t have taken much to get him into a cooped state. Furthermore, due to the low amount of alcohol he would have consumed, it would also mean it would exit his system much quicker, perhaps even before Moran could have examined him. In addition to all of this, a local article warned democratic voters of the 4th Ward that their ward would be the place the Whig party would sway the vote, and Poe was found outside of a polling place that doubled as a bar in the 4th Ward. In this theory, every bit of evidence plus outside evidence align with the facts except one: who is this mysterious Reynolds?

There are many theories on why Poe called for a Reynolds, the first of which revolves around a Jeremiah Reynolds who was an inspiration for Poe’s one and only novel. It was theorized that Poe could’ve been reminiscing of his life’s work or that he was delirious and could’ve believed that he was writing once more. Another more far fetched theory proposed that the name “Reynolds” sounded a lot like the word “renounced.” The word renounced was repeated twice in the pledge to the Sons of Temperance which Poe promised Elmira he’d stay true to before his death. Perhaps Poe feared being kicked out of the Sons of Temperance and angering his soon to be wife.  Another proposed that Poe was referring to a Henry Reynolds as a way of trying to tell what happened to him as Henry Reynolds was recorded to be a man who voted at the polling booths where Poe was found. Was this Poe’s cryptic way of telling people he had been cooped? The last theory of the name of Reynolds ties into the last theory of Poe’s murder, and it all revolves around a real murder that Poe himself recorded and investigated in his loosely true crime story: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.

In 1841, the tragic murder of a young shop girl by the name of Mary Rogers was brought to light as her body was found floating in the Hudson. Poe took this murder and did something quite uncommon at the time. He wrote a story in which every detail of Mary Rogers’ murder was accurately recorded with the only difference being the changes of names and locations. The story was published as The Mystery of Marie Rogêt which starred a famous young detective C. Auguste Dupin. The mystery is directly parallel to the real case and Poe even goes as far to say that “the case of Marie Roget is much like that of Mary Rogers.” [SPOLIER ALERT] What Poe did with this case was unheard of in his lifetime and in his story, Poe pins the crime on a swarthy sailor, but naval officers weren’t ever suspected in the real case. In the real case, the suspect list included: a random band of criminals, her fiancé and her employer, John Anderson. Most believed Anderson to be her killer, but in Poe’s story, the swarthy sailor was named Miss Roget’s killer. Anderson was a successful businessman in the tobacco industry who had a shop in New York, and multiple records show that Poe and Anderson knew each other. In 1891, upon Anderson’s death, one of his children fought to contest his will. In the following legal proceedings, it was found that Anderson had paid Poe $5,000 to write The Mystery of Marie Roget in order to draw attention away from himself. Did Poe cover up a killing for his friend? Was he that strapped for cash? In an article written in the New York Evening Post, an anonymous source recounts a dinner in 1846 between Poe and Anderson as told to him by Anderson. At this dinner, Poe supposedly asked Anderson to just hear him out, to which Anderson refused. Poe then said that he wouldn’t have had to come at all if Anderson had just met his requests, and Anderson retorted that demanding money was hardly a request. Poe then questioned whether Anderson truly wanted his secret kept, and the conversation elevated into a violent argument as Poe had some drink and apparently threatened Anderson with a carving knife. Anderson commented on Poe’s lightweight stomach which hurt Poe, and Poe responded that all of the tobacco men were the “same lying scum.” This dinner took place shortly after the republishment of The Mystery of Marie Roget. It was thought that this conversation could mean that Anderson didn’t like that the mystery was being brought to light again. If Poe had been paid to write this story throwing the police off of Anderson’s trail, could it be that Poe was attempting blackmail or extortion upon the reprint? Or was Anderson threatening Poe not to publish it again? Another source from another member present at that 1846 dinner told the article author that Anderson claimed that he simply expected Poe to “keep secrets as friends do.” From this dinner, we can draw that Poe and Anderson had an ongoing relationship and for some reason, Poe found it best to keep the character based on Anderson a brief mention with assumed innocence. Poe ends The Mystery of Marie Roget with a sort of disclaimer that, in essence, says that lightning never strikes the same spot twice and that the murderer of Marie Roget/Mary Rogers is statistically more likely to be anyone other than a swarthy sailor. Was this a clue from Poe to dig deeper? Or perhaps it was his way of assuaging a guilty conscience. Poe himself said that “nothing was omitted in Marie Roget but what [he] omitted [himself], all that is left is mystification.”

In 1885, an article published by the Detroit Free Press claimed Anderson had become more intimate with his young shop girl than he should have, and that Mrs. Anderson watched with growing fear at her husband’s infatuation. It is alleged by “those who are in the position to know” that Mary Rogers was about to become a mother, and upon the discovery, Anderson and a man named Reynolds conspired together in efforts to get rid of the girl who was likely to make trouble. The two agreed that Anderson should take Miss Rogers over to Hoboken and when this was done, Reynolds would start at her at about 6:00 in the evening, and be met by Anderson afterwards. Here the clue breaks, but the mysterious Reynolds Poe called for, may have been found. By yelling the name Reynolds, did Poe intend to not only name his killer, but another’s? If Poe did mean to tip off the police, it was too little too late for both victims…unless, Poe himself was Reynolds. There are many who believe Poe knew just a little too much about the Mary Rogers case, and that he could have only known what he did by being the killer himself. If this is true, perhaps Poe was confessing his greatest guilt before his death in order to assuage his guilty conscience before entering into death.

So what killed Poe? The question seems less to be a “what” and more of a “who.” In my opinion, I believe that Poe was killed by falling victim to cooping, but as he realized death was upon him, he wished to assuage his conscience and either name Mary Rogers’ killer or confess to being her killer himself. Whatever the case may be, Edgar Allan Poe met his death much like many of his characters met theirs: coated in a darkly tragic cloak of mystery.