Writer aims to bring to life truth about Poe's death

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

January 26, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Michael Powell, who lives in Eugene, Ore., and is an editor at Kinesiology Publications at the University of Oregon, has been a lifelong student of the works and life of Edgar Allan Poe.

"I did my dissertation on Poe and Emerson, who were core American Romantics and believed the world was what you make it to be," said Powell, in a telephone interview from his home the other day.

Over the years, Powell has been intrigued by the circumstances and discrepancies surrounding the death of Poe, who died in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1849, and how many invented facts and accounts have been blindly accepted as true, even by established scholars.

"It has always been a topic of special interest. What happened to Poe is not a pretty picture. We wound up treating one of our best badly," Powell said. "He was a brilliant man, a real genius and underappreciated. He has been down-rated by many scholars for his views on democracy. And the story of what actually happened to him has largely been and remains unchallenged."

Powell's research culminated in Poe's Last Trip to Baltimore, a recently completed monograph.

It's been accepted that Poe, after taking an Old Bay Line steamer from Richmond, Va., landed in Baltimore, and then wandered about the city in a drunken stupor for several days, until being discovered in an East Baltimore saloon on Election Day.

"That's all very troubling and never made any sense. Poe was well-known in Baltimore, and I think it would have been difficult for him to wander about the city unnoticed," Powell said.

Actually, after arriving in the city on Oct. 2, 1849, according to Powell, Poe made his way to President Street Station, where he boarded the 9 a.m. train for Philadelphia, and a temporary freelance editing job.

Later, he planned to travel to New York City, in order to move Maria Clemm, his mother-in-law, and mother of his late wife, Virginia, back to Richmond.

While en route to Baltimore on the steamer Jewess, Powell writes, Poe entered the vessel's saloon and ordered a drink.

"Poe appears to have indulged in a drink, perhaps, as in the past, to treat what he called a `nervous attack,'" Powell writes. "This then had the well-known [to him] consequence of making him very ill."

The effects of the alcohol caught up with Poe, who was transferred to another train and returned to Baltimore.

"By one account," Powell writes, he was found "`lying in the baggage car insensible.'"

By late afternoon, Poe was found in "great distress" at the Ryan Hotel at 44 E. Lombard St., about six blocks north of President Street Station.

"He was, however, coherent enough to send for help," Powell writes, and the first people on the scene were Dr. J.E. Snodgrass, an old friend of Poe's, and Poe's uncle, Henry Herring.

The men, worried that they might have to pay for Poe's care, decided it was best to shuttle him off to the public ward for indigents at the Baltimore City and Marine Hospital on Broadway.

The hospital was under the direction of Dr. J.J. Moran, who had recently taken over the facility that had been established as the Washington Medical College.

"The hospital's name where Poe died is often wrong. He did not die at the Washington Medical College. It had been renamed the Baltimore City and Marine Hospital on Sept. 17, 1849, several weeks before he died," Powell said.

The now-closed hospital later had a third name, Church Home Hospital, which is probably the one that is better known by people today.

An orderly making rounds in the early morning on Oct. 7, 1849, discovered Poe's lifeless body lying in his bed.

He was buried late the next afternoon in the Presbyterian cemetery at Fayette and Greene streets, with only five mourners looking on, according to Powell.

So what took Poe's life? Through the years, scholars and medical experts have suggested - in addition to alcoholism - epilepsy, diabetes, cerebral meningitis, mercury poisoning, a drug overdose and even rabies.

Powell suggests that the poet died from something "like cardiopulmonary collapse, resulting from exposure (malnutrition, lack of sleep, cold, shock of disorientation), a complication of the starved defenses."

Powell said that an exact "cause of death still excites people," and "won't be truly known until someday when his body is exhumed and its DNA examined."

Powell said that five weeks later, Moran wrote a "meticulous account" to Clemm giving a florid view of Poe's death, more fiction than fact, even going so far to say that he personally cared for the dying poet as nurses manned the door.

"He wasn't even in the hospital at the time and probably had no idea Poe was a patient under his roof," Powell said. "In an 1885 booklet about Poe's death, Moran illustrates the room in which he died. Unfortunately, the room he chose was not a room at all but a stairwell."

In another piece of self-promotion, Moran said Poe's body lay in repose in the hospital's rotunda for two days, while 50 women queued up to clip a lock of his hair.

"This is pure nonsense. Moran didn't even attend Poe's funeral," Powell said with a laugh. "I've done my best to nay-say all of this stuff."

Powell dismisses Moran's accounts and others from the time that scholars have not challenged, saying they are nothing more than "self-serving and disingenuous."

"To suggest that everything possible had been done to comfort the famous poet in his hour of extremity, rather than that he had been warehoused indistinguishably among the ill and unwanted, the drunkards, of his traditional home town," writes Powell, is far from the truth.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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