Poe-pourri

Add carbon monoxide poisoning to the many theories about the death of Edgar Allen Poe

January 17, 2000|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

For most of us in Baltimore, the annual visit to the gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe is a romantic mystery. What other writer so inflamed the public's imagination that a cloaked "Visitor" would arrive at his grave every year for 50 years, bearing cognac and three roses? Will he appear again this year? We will know the answer early Wednesday morning, the 191st anniversary of Poe's birth.

But Baltimorean Albert Donnay finds the ritual a little worrisome. The cognac -- well, chances are, he says, Poe was actually intolerant of alcohol, despite the fact that his death often has been attributed to imbibing. As for the roses -- "Well, we now know that Poe could not tolerate roses," Donnay says, sitting in his basement office in the Ten Hills area.

How do we know he couldn't tolerate roses?

Because, Donnay says, Roderick Usher (as in "The Fall of the House of -- ") was allergic to flowers. He finds the passage, which he has broken into five parts: "insipid food was alone endurable/could wear only garments of a certain texture/the odors of all flowers were oppressive/eyes were tortured by even a faint light/there were peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror."

See, Donnay says, all five senses were affected. Which is consistent with symptoms reported by those suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity. Which can be caused by chronic carbon monoxide poisoning. Which would be consistent with the illuminated gas lighting used in Poe's day. Which, Donnay believes, would be consistent with the medical facts known about Poe's death.

And which, for those of you keeping score at home, would be at least the 21st theory about Poe's death developed in the 20th century, perhaps the 22nd. But is it, at last, the theory that satisfies doctors and Poe scholars alike?

If you think that's possible, then you are a newcomer to the Poe universe, which thrives on controversy and disagreement. Then again, so was Donnay, when a German doctor recommended in 1997 that he read "Usher" and note the many symptoms therein that overlapped with multiple chemical sensitivity.

Symptoms and stories

"It totally brought me back to Poe," Donnay says now of the unexpected intersection between his scientific research and the long-standing mystery of Poe's death. "I knew nothing of Poe."

Trained as an environmental health engineer, Donnay, 41, had not thought about Poe since he was a teen-ager, reading the more famous tales. A graduate from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, he had specialized in radioactive and hazardous waste disposal. In 1994, he segued into developing resources for patients diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity.

Now MCS, as it is known, is a controversial diagnosis at best: Patients are often told their symptoms, which run a wide gamut, are psychological ("although the literature is 2-to-1 in favor of a physical over a mental cause," Donnay adds). As part of his work, Donnay began to research neurasthenia, which he describes as the 19th-century "analog" to MCS. It was then that Dr. Gernot Schwinger recommended that Donnay read "Usher."

Donnay documented 30 MCS "symptoms" in the story, and posted his findings to an Internet-based support group. The response from the patients was swift and almost universal: Yes, the story captured the nature of their problems with an almost eerie precision.

But please, Donnay's respondents begged, do not associate us with Poe, because everyone thinks he was crazy.

Donnay could not be dissuaded. The more he read of Poe and about Poe, the more he believed that the writer should become the literal poster boy of carbon monoxide poisoning. His drooping eye and mouth, as shown in a Poe portrait at the Maryland Historical Society, could be caused by a common neurological injury, consistent with prolonged exposure to the odorless gas. His letters suggest he was often ill, for inexplicable reasons, throughout his life.

And then there was the famous quote from Charles Baudelaire, the French poet who translated Poe's work after his death: "[F]or Poe the United States was nothing more than a vast prison which he traversed with the feverish agitation of being made to breathe a sweeter air -- nothing more than a great gas lighted nightmare." (Baudelaire also might have been a sufferer; he had the same facial asymmetry as Poe.)

If Poe did suffer from CO poisoning, what was the source? Donnay believes it was the illuminated gas lighting used in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia during Poe's lifetime, and dates Poe's first exposure to 1829 in Baltimore.

He has found evidence that gas lighting existed in the Philadelphia rental house where Poe lived in 1843-1844 -- a house where Poe happened to write "The Telltale Heart," which includes this line: "And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?"

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