Will Poe's last haunts give up the ghosts?

The imminent closing of Church Hospital tortures the writer's fans, who fear the loss of a Poe landmark.

Baltimore ...or Less

October 31, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,Sun Staff

As if Edgar Allan Poe's much-debated demise was not cause enough for speculation, now comes another uncertainty: What will happen to the place where he died?

The author and poet, Baltimore's favorite grim son, died before daylight 150 years ago in what was Washington College Hospital and is now Church Hospital. The problem today is that Church Hospital is closing shortly, and the prognosis for saving the venerable brick building is not good.

Nearby Johns Hopkins has made an offer to buy Church and its two city blocks on North Broadway, but Hopkins Health System President Ronald R. Peterson said interest in the property is "longer-term land use." He said Church's age -- the oldest building dates to 1835 -- means "we don't think we would be able to use it."

A group of physicians who practiced at Church is attempting to buy the hospital and keep it open, but the hospital's parent company, MedStar Health of Columbia, says the group has not made a formal offer. At the moment, MedStar is negotiating only with Hopkins.

Poe enthusiasts, meanwhile, worry they will lose another landmark.

"Poe once had a very rich association with the city of Baltimore, and much of that has been torn down," said Jeffrey Savoye, secretary and treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Of the houses where Poe lived from 1831 to 1835, only the one at 203 Amity St., currently the Baltimore Poe House and Museum, remains.

For the past 90 years, a bronze plaque has led tourists, fans and scholars into Church Hospital's original entrance, with the words, "To the memory of Edgar Allan Poe, who spent his last days in this house." The plaque was given in 1909, at the centennial of his birth, by a woman whose relative, a doctor, claimed to have treated Poe.

The Poe Society hung a second plaque in the stairwell beside the lobby, in what was thought to be the second-floor room where another physician claims he doctored Poe.

Confused? Join the crowd. Poe's death, at the age of 40, has baffled the curious since it happened.

Historians say the author came to Baltimore, then disappeared. Five days later he arrived at the hospital in a carriage, delirious, disheveled, wearing strange clothes. He died four days after that, on a Sunday, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Was he drunk? Drugged? Dead from epilepsy, diabetes, meningitis, rabies, a beating or mercury poisoning?

No death certificate has been found, and medical records are inconsistent. Savoye believes Poe died from a weak heart, but what triggered his death will never be known. The mystery makes the place where he died even more intriguing.

Church Hospital has taken down the plaques since the closing was announced. It was a smart move, considering that four other markers depicting Poe's Baltimore haunts have been stolen, and only two of them returned. And this year, the 150th anniversary of his death, Poe mania may be at an all-time high.

It's a time when the Maryland Historical Society is displaying rare photographs for its "Poe-Pourri" exhibit; when Prague, in the Czech Republic, has been celebrating a two-month festival; when the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., has an exhibit entirely about Poe's passing. It's called "Lord, help my poor soul" -- after Poe's last spoken words.

It's also a time the Baltimore chapter of his story could come to a sad end.

Like Washington College Hospital in 1851, Church Hospital is closing this week because of money troubles, and few parts of the original hospital have escaped change over the years. Its once elegant round lobby was chopped in half to house offices and a doctor's lounge. Despite its altered state, it's what's left, and for that reason, Savoye hopes the next owners will keep it open.

"You hate to lose your connections," he said. "There's so few of them left."

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