Solving the mystery of Poe's death? Nevermore!

September 27, 1998|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

"Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe," by John Evangelist Walsh. Rutgers University Press. 180 pages. $23.

Before Princess Di's wild ride, before John Belushi's last debauch, before Elvis' final "uh-huh" - before, in short, the tale of the martyred celebrity became a staple of popular culture, there was Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious demise.

When he died in Baltimore in October 1849, the 40-year-old Poe was one of America's most respected literary critics, a popular author, poet and lecturer. He was also depressed and erratic, a binge drinker who occasionally talked of suicide.

After boarding a steamer in Richmond to Baltimore, on his way to Philadelphia, Poe vanished for five days. He was discovered on Election Day near an East Baltimore saloon and polling place, disheveled, apparently drunk and wearing the clothes of a vagrant. He died in what is now Church Hospital, after a three-day illness in which he was alternately lucid and delirious.

The events surrounding Poe's lurid death 149 years ago have never been explained, its cause never determined.

Now comes John Evangelist Walsh, historian and biographer, with the first full-length book on the topic. He claims to have finally cracked the case.

Fat chance.

First, he doesn't even address the question of what killed Poe. Over the years, biographers and scholars have suggested that he died of drink, epilepsy, diabetes, cerebral meningitis, mercury poisoning and even a drug overdose. Maybe he succumbed to a beating by street thugs. Dr. Michael Benitez of the University of Maryland School of Medicine recently suggested he died of rabies.

Instead, Walsh focuses on the events leading up to Poe's death. Since there are no firsthand accounts to contradict him, Walsh is free to speculate.

And speculate he does.

Walsh points out that Poe was engaged to Elmira Shelton, a Richmond widow. And Mrs. Shelton had three brothers. Based on these measly facts and a few rumors, he concludes that the brothers stalked Poe during the last day's of his life, and threatened him. When he wouldn't call off the engagment, Walsh believes, the brothers poured whiskey down the author's throat and dumped him in East Baltimore. Their aim was to disgrace Poe. His death was an accident or a coincidence.

While Walsh has mined the literary sources and published material, he has not done much, if any, original research. And there are annoying errors in the book. He asserts, for example, that Poe couldn't have done any drinking in Baltimore saloons on Election Day because they were closed by law.

This just ain't so. The state legislature didn't pass a law closing bars on Election Day until 1860, 11 years after Poe's death.

"Midnight Dreary" might have broken new ground. Walsh might have rooted around in the well-mined source material, and emerged with one or two new facts. Instead, he's merely added to the pile of rumor, speculation and confusion.

Perhaps that's as it should be. Poe himself once wrote: "There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told."

Douglas Birch, a Sun science reporter, is writing a mystery novel based on Edgar Allan Poe's final days in Baltimore. He has spent hours reading books by and about Poe, visiting his haunts and studying in rare book rooms.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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