What really happened to the master of the macabre in the days leading up to his death here 145 years ago?

THE PASSING OF POE

October 02, 1994|By Doug Birch

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city, lying alone

* From "The City in the Sea"

On a balmy Friday in late September 1849, a middle-aged man with curly brown hair and deep pouches under his eyes stood among the passengers of a smoke- and cinder-belching steamship as it slid into Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

No diary, letter or newspaper article recorded his arrival. But it's likely he wore his trademark threadbare black suit with a boutonniere and black bow tie. He probably held a Malacca cane, which he was later found clutching.

As he stepped off the ship, perhaps the ancient side-wheeler Pocahontas, he may have plunged into the mob of hansom cab drivers and hotel hawkers that often greeted visitors at the wharves.

One thing is certain: On Sept. 28, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe vanished into the city's crowded, noisy and dangerous streets.

Five days later, he was discovered muttering incoherently and dressed in filthy, outlandish clothes in the first-floor saloon of a hotel in what is now Little Italy. Taken by friends to a hospital in East Baltimore, he spent nearly four days wrestling with invisible demons.

Before dawn on Sunday, Oct. 7 -- 145 years ago this week -- the acclaimed writer died with a hoarse plea: "Lord, help my poor soul."

It was a fitting coda to a remarkable, troubled life.

An author of horror tales about premature burials and corpses springing to life, Poe himself died in a mental maelstrom of confusion and terror.

With the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, he invented the genre of detective fiction. Yet he left few clues about the events that led to his own death -- a puzzle that has intrigued, divided and stumped historians, fans and critics for almost a century and a half.

"People who are interested in Poe are attracted in part by his mystery," said Jeffrey Savoye, the secretary of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. "His death is so shrouded by so much disinformation and lack of information that we don't know why he died, and we'll probably never know."

Yet, Poe's death amounts to more than just a mystery tale, or an antique celebrity scandal. It resembles a faded family album, full of disturbingly familiar faces.

There are faded snapshots of a city wounded by violence. Daguerreotypes of a society split by ethnic divisions. And an intimate portrait of a prodigious talent tragically destroyed, or foolishly squandered -- but in any event, lost.

"There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told."

From "The Man of the Crowd"

Born in Boston, where his parents were working as actors, Edgar Allan Poe was orphaned before he was 2 years old.

After his mother died, he was raised in the household of John Allan, a wealthy merchant in Richmond, Va. John Allan fed and clothed Edgar, and paid to send him to school. But he never adopted the boy, and the pair began to quarrel as Poe grew older. Ultimately, they fought over Poe's college debts and career plans, and severed relations.

After stints as a student at the University of Virginia, as an Army recruit and as a cadet at West Point, Poe moved to Baltimore, where he lived with relatives.

This is where he struggled to launch his writing career. This is probably where, in 1835, he married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia. After a few years, the restless artist moved on to work as an editor, critic and writer in Richmond, Philadelphia and New York.

When Poe arrived here on Friday, Sept. 28, 1849, he was a 40-year-old widower and an accomplished man of letters. The internationally known author of the poem "The Raven" was a master of Gothic fiction and one of the most prominent literary critics of his day.

The stop in Baltimore was expected to be brief. In Richmond, Poe had proposed to a wealthy widow -- a childhood sweetheart -- then set off for New York, probably to pack up his things for the move to Virginia.

He had taken a steamer to Baltimore, then planned to continue north by train, stopping in Philadelphia long enough to edit a book of poetry by the wife of a piano manufacturer, and collect a $100 fee.

The author had much to look forward to: his coming marriage, the move from New York to his boyhood home of Richmond, his long-delayed plans to launch a literary magazine.

But he was also a troubled man.

In an age before effective copyright laws, Poe was chronically broke and forced to borrow small sums of money. He was still shaken by his wife's death from tuberculosis two years earlier. He was in poor health and sometimes drank excessively; a few weeks before leaving Richmond, he joined the Sons of Temperance and swore never to drink alcohol again.

Throughout his life, he quarreled with bosses, had trouble holding onto a job, frequently moved from city to city. Months of overwork would be followed by weeks of lassitude.

In November 1848, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of laudanum, or liquid opium.

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