Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Many Deaths of Edgar Poe

"And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die"
-Oscar Wilde, "Ballad of Reading Gaol"
The major roadblock in the efforts to solve the mystery of Poe's death is the strange fact that none of the witnesses to his final days ever managed to coordinate their testimonies with each other, or even themselves. Poe's biographers tend to cherry-pick among the various accounts given over the years by Joseph Snodgrass, Dr. Moran, Neilson Poe, and other minor figures, selecting and arranging statements as they would pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to build whatever narrative most pleases them. For the most part, these chroniclers find it easiest to ignore the fact that whenever you are presented with multiple conflicting accounts of the same event, that only means that none of them can be trusted.

The most commonly accepted story is that a Joseph Walker encountered a disheveled, semi-conscious man "who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe," in Baltimore's Ryan's Tavern. Walker was able to ascertain that the unfortunate man was an acquaintance of Snodgrass, who was immediately summoned. According to Snodgrass, he accompanied the poet to the hospital. Unfortunately, his details of the event varied over the years that he told and re-told the story, and it is established that he manipulated facts in at least one crucial area--the text of the note Walker supposedly sent alerting him to Poe's desperate condition. He falsely claimed Walker warned him that Poe was intoxicated, a lie which does little for Snodgrass' credibility.

Then, of course, the biographies go on to relate Dr. Moran's colorful and harrowing descriptions of his famous patient screaming the name "Reynolds" in his delirium, declaring that the best thing his friends could do for him was to blow out his brains, finally conquering the fever called living with the plaintive plea for God to help his poor soul, etc., etc. (Historians generally ignore Moran's later accounts, which are, amazingly, even more lurid. He also showed a remarkable inconsistency with even the most basic facts, such as the day Poe was brought to the hospital, where he was found--he occasionally liked to say the poet was discovered by an anonymous passerby "lying on a bench by a wharf"--and when he died. According to Poe’s biographer Eugene Didier, Moran lied about having personally attended Poe at all. Again, the point has to be made--if Moran's later versions of Poe's death are demonstrably inconsistent and untrustworthy, why should his original tale be trusted?)

What further complicates the whole matter is the fact that there is a much lesser known, and seemingly equally credible, version of Poe's death that utterly contradicts everything cited above. It comes from a distant relative of his, Elisabeth Ellicott Poe. According to Miss Poe, on October 3, 1849, her grandfather, George Poe Sr. (who was Edgar’s first cousin,) was walking along the streets of Baltimore when saw a man, whom he presumed to be in a drunken stupor, lying beneath the steps of the Baltimore Museum. When he looked closer at the figure, he realized, to his horror, that it was his literary cousin. After sending for Neilson Poe, who lived nearby, George Poe took his unconscious relative to the hospital. Mrs. Clemm was sent for, and doctors worked for days to save the poet. However, he never fully regained consciousness, and finally died on the morning of October 7. Elisabeth Poe was an advocate of the “cooping” theory—that Edgar had been shanghaied by the “Plug Uglies,” a local political organization, drugged, and utilized for their curious electoral purposes. The combination of drugs and exposure, she declared, had killed her famous relative.

Now, of course, Miss Poe’s story—which she claimed was verified by Neilson Poe himself—contradicts the accepted Snodgrass/Moran accounts in practically every detail. Neilson Poe himself was of little help in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Others who knew him asserted that he believed Poe had indeed been “cooped,” a misadventure which resulted in his death. However, a month after Edgar’s demise, Neilson wrote Rufus Griswold that "The history of the last few days of his life is known to no one so well as to myself...I think I can demonstrate that he passed, by a single indulgence, from a condition of perfect sobriety to one bordering upon the madness usually occasioned only by long continued intoxication, and that he is entitled to a far more favorable judgment upon his last hours than he has received..." In short, his famous cousin went on one spree too many. Neilson promised to make a “deliberate communication” on the subject, but so far as we know, he never did.

In 1871, a journalist provided Richard Henry Stoddard with an account he claimed to have received from Neilson. Assuming this journalist quoted him accurately, Neilson claimed that he somehow found Edgar “in a state of insensibility,” and brought him to the hospital. In this version of the story, there was merely a “horrible suspicion” that he had been “cooped.” According to this journalist, while Edgar was traveling to Philadelphia from Baltimore, he took one drink that immediately sent him into a “state of delirium,” and the conductor of the train returned him to Baltimore (presumably, just dumping this stricken stranger on the street to fend for himself.) What happened next was unclear, but the implication was that he then somehow fell into the hands of the unscrupulous ward managers.

Unfortunately, this story is, of course, undocumented (and this journalist never made it clear how Neilson Poe learned all this, as Edgar himself was unable to say what had happened to him.) It does not even come directly from Neilson. It is one of the many inexplicable enigmas surrounding Edgar Poe’s death that, although Neilson evidently spent a good deal of effort investigating the tragedy, he never publicly gave any detailed, first-hand account of what he believed had happened. The reasons for his odd reticence are unknown.

It is strange enough that we do not know for certain where Edgar Poe was or what he was doing in the five or so days between his departure from Richmond and his arrival in Moran’s hospital, or that we cannot even make an educated guess about what killed him. It is virtually incomprehensible that so basic a matter as who first discovered him in Baltimore and brought him to the doctors, where he was found, and whether or not he was intoxicated at the time should be such a matter of dispute. It all makes George W. Eveleth’s assertion that Poe’s death was simply a hoax seem quite rational in comparison.