Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city, lying alone
* From "The City in the Sea"
On a balmy Friday in late September 1849, a middle-aged man with curly brown hair and deep pouches under his eyes stood among the passengers of a smoke- and cinder-belching steamship as it slid into Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
No diary, letter or newspaper article recorded his arrival. But it's likely he wore his trademark threadbare black suit with a boutonniere and black bow tie. He probably held a Malacca cane, which he was later found clutching.
As he stepped off the ship, perhaps the ancient side-wheeler Pocahontas, he may have plunged into the mob of hansom cab drivers and hotel hawkers that often greeted visitors at the wharves.
One thing is certain: On Sept. 28, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe vanished into the city's crowded, noisy and dangerous streets.
Five days later, he was discovered muttering incoherently and dressed in filthy, outlandish clothes in the first-floor saloon of a hotel in what is now Little Italy. Taken by friends to a hospital in East Baltimore, he spent nearly four days wrestling with invisible demons.
Before dawn on Sunday, Oct. 7 -- 145 years ago this week -- the acclaimed writer died with a hoarse plea: "Lord, help my poor soul."
It was a fitting coda to a remarkable, troubled life.
An author of horror tales about premature burials and corpses springing to life, Poe himself died in a mental maelstrom of confusion and terror.
With the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, he invented the genre of detective fiction. Yet he left few clues about the events that led to his own death -- a puzzle that has intrigued, divided and stumped historians, fans and critics for almost a century and a half.
"People who are interested in Poe are attracted in part by his mystery," said Jeffrey Savoye, the secretary of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. "His death is so shrouded by so much disinformation and lack of information that we don't know why he died, and we'll probably never know."
Yet, Poe's death amounts to more than just a mystery tale, or an antique celebrity scandal. It resembles a faded family album, full of disturbingly familiar faces.
There are faded snapshots of a city wounded by violence. Daguerreotypes of a society split by ethnic divisions. And an intimate portrait of a prodigious talent tragically destroyed, or foolishly squandered -- but in any event, lost.
"There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told."
From "The Man of the Crowd"
Born in Boston, where his parents were working as actors, Edgar Allan Poe was orphaned before he was 2 years old.
After his mother died, he was raised in the household of John Allan, a wealthy merchant in Richmond, Va. John Allan fed and clothed Edgar, and paid to send him to school. But he never adopted the boy, and the pair began to quarrel as Poe grew older. Ultimately, they fought over Poe's college debts and career plans, and severed relations.
After stints as a student at the University of Virginia, as an Army recruit and as a cadet at West Point, Poe moved to Baltimore, where he lived with relatives.
This is where he struggled to launch his writing career. This is probably where, in 1835, he married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia. After a few years, the restless artist moved on to work as an editor, critic and writer in Richmond, Philadelphia and New York.
When Poe arrived here on Friday, Sept. 28, 1849, he was a 40-year-old widower and an accomplished man of letters. The internationally known author of the poem "The Raven" was a master of Gothic fiction and one of the most prominent literary critics of his day.
The stop in Baltimore was expected to be brief. In Richmond, Poe had proposed to a wealthy widow -- a childhood sweetheart -- then set off for New York, probably to pack up his things for the move to Virginia.
He had taken a steamer to Baltimore, then planned to continue north by train, stopping in Philadelphia long enough to edit a book of poetry by the wife of a piano manufacturer, and collect a $100 fee.
The author had much to look forward to: his coming marriage, the move from New York to his boyhood home of Richmond, his long-delayed plans to launch a literary magazine.
But he was also a troubled man.
In an age before effective copyright laws, Poe was chronically broke and forced to borrow small sums of money. He was still shaken by his wife's death from tuberculosis two years earlier. He was in poor health and sometimes drank excessively; a few weeks before leaving Richmond, he joined the Sons of Temperance and swore never to drink alcohol again.
Throughout his life, he quarreled with bosses, had trouble holding onto a job, frequently moved from city to city. Months of overwork would be followed by weeks of lassitude.
In November 1848, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of laudanum, or liquid opium.
"I have been terribly depressed since birth," Poe wrote to a friend the year he died. "I cannot express to you how terribly I have been suffering from gloom. . . . I am full of dark foreboding. Nothing cheers or comforts me. My life seems wasted, the future a dreary blank."
"Once upon a midnight dreary . . . "
From "The Raven"
Wednesday, Oct. 3, 1849, brought rain and an early chill to Baltimore. Smoke curled from chimneys. It was Election Day for members of Congress and the state legislature, and men sloshed through the streets to the city's polling places, many of them neighborhood saloons.
That afternoon Joseph W. Walker, a Baltimore Sun compositor, ducked into Gunner's Hall, a hotel and tavern on Lombard Street owned by a man named Ryan. Fourth Ward voters and patrons mingled in the tavern, located just east of the Jones Falls in present-day Little Italy.
Walker talked to a raggedly dressed man. Shocked at the man's condition, he scribbled a note and dispatched it to Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass, a physician who lived on nearby High Street.
"Dear Sir: There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.
"Yours in haste, Jos. W. Walker."
Snodgrass, once editor of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter and a longtime friend of the poet, later recalled that when he arrived, Poe sat slumped in a chair with "an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder." On his head was a "cheap palm-leaf" hat; around his shoulders, a second-hand coat. He wore dingy and badly fitting pants and a rumpled, soiled shirt. He had a Malacca cane.
Poe mumbled and seemed almost paralyzed.
The doctor tried to rent a room upstairs for the sick man, but the hotel was full. About this time, Henry Herring, a well-off lumber dealer and Virginia Poe's uncle, walked in. He offered to help his nephew-in-law, but refused to take the sick man home with him. In the past, Herring said, Poe had abused him and been ungrateful for his help -- presumably when Poe was drunk.
So Snodgrass and others carried Poe into a horse-drawn cab, which took him to what was then called the Washington Medical College and is now Church Hospital -- at the crest of Broadway in East Baltimore.
Dr. John J. Moran, the young resident physician, put his patient in a second-floor room with a view of Fells Point, Locust Point and the harbor.
& There, Poe passed out.
"It was the most noisome quarter . . . where every thing wore the worst impress of the most deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime. . . . Horrible filth festered in the dammed-up gutters. The whole atmosphere teemed with desolation."
From "The Man of the Crowd"
What happened between the time Poe left the docks on Friday and that next Wednesday when he wound up in Gunner's, just a few blocks east? No first-hand accounts survive about his five days missing in Baltimore. Rumor and the speculation have filled the void.
It's clear, though, that in 1849, Baltimore's streets were dangerous places for a stranger to wander.
A noisy, restless and rapidly growing city of 169,000 residents, Baltimore was one of the nation's largest urban centers and a commercial hub of the booming South. Iron foundries pumped smoke skyward. A forest of ship masts jammed the Inner Harbor. Merchants peddled goods from Pratt Street warehouses or clapboard storefronts lining Baltimore Street.
Baltimore was just beginning to acquire its rich ethnic texture. Irish immigrants came to escape the potato famine of 1845-1849. German political dissidents arrived at the docks, fleeing repression after the collapse of their country's 1848 liberal revolution. By 1850, about one out of five Baltimoreans was born overseas.
The city's population of free blacks and fugitive slaves was one of the nation's largest, and growing rapidly. Still, slave traders were busy here: Coffles of chained men, women and children were sometimes marched through downtown streets.
Immigrants competed for scarce jobs with free blacks and migrants from America's rural areas.
Knots of young men loitered around saloons or the streets. Whiskey was cheap and generally more potent than today. Temperance advocates, meanwhile, battled the bottle with a righteous vigor.
Neighborhood gangs, usually made up of members of a single ethnic group, flourished. Adopting names like the Eighth Ward Blaggards, the Red Necks and Butt Enders, they attacked rival gangs or unlucky bystanders, employing fists, clubs, knives and pistols.
Many gang members also worked as firemen in the city's numerous private companies, which raced each other to blazes. Sometimes, while the building burned, competing companies would battle for the right to fight the fire -- and the right to collect the insurance company's fee for dousing the flames. Firefighters were even suspected of committing arson to drum up business.
A handful of police officers and night watchmen struggled to cope with growing violence. In five years, the city jail population would grow by 40 percent.
Violence escalated during election season. And Poe was unlucky enough to arrive here during a fierce political battle.
The Whig Party had controlled Maryland politics for the previous decade, but saw its grip slipping. Democrats, meanwhile, aggressively recruited immigrants and were gradually eroding their rivals' power.
As in most major American cities in the early 19th century, election fraud was widespread in Baltimore. One popular form of ballot rigging was called "cooping."
A few days before Election Day, gangs of thugs roved the city, rounding up drunkards and the homeless. They furnished their captives with liquor and food and kept them in a basement or back room -- like chickens in a coop. On Election Day, these hapless citizens were herded to the polls to vote, repeatedly, for the candidates of the party that sponsored the gang.
There were no voters' lists. Balloting was done with color-coded cards, so there was nothing secret about it. Election judges, who were charged with challenging the qualifications of suspicious voters, were often bribed to look the other way, says Robert I. Cottam Jr., a Baltimore historian who has studied the politics and gang violence of the era.
By some accounts, there was a notorious Whig coop in the rear of an old firehouse on High Street, near Gunner's saloon.
Poe -- injured, sick, drunk or perhaps just vulnerable-looking -- was scooped from the streets by a gang and carried off to their coop, some biographers and historians strongly suspect.
On Election Day, Oct. 3, he and his fellow captives most likely would have been roused and herded over to Gunner's, where they would have been told to vote the Whig ballot. That done, Poe would have been sent back to his coop, told to swap clothes and then herded out to vote again. The exchange of clothing was supposed to make it harder for opponents at the polls to spot the fraud, Mr. Cottam said.
Critics of the cooping theory have sometimes objected that Poe had too many fans, friends and relatives in Baltimore to permit him to be marched through the streets without being recognized and rescued.
In the days before television, however, celebrities were not so easily recognized. And it seems hard to account for Poe's strange attire in any other way.
Many scholars find the cooping theory very persuasive. In his 1934 biography of Poe, the scholar Hervey Allen called it "by far the most probable explanation of what happened." Jean Baker, a historian at Goucher College who has written about the politics of pre-Civil War Baltimore, agreed.
"The people who like Poe as a writer really don't like this story of cooping," she said. But, she insisted, the circumstantial evidence seems strong. "It's more than just sort of the myth of Edgar Allan Poe, which would fit nicely with his life."
"I was sick -- sick unto death with that long agony. . . . "
"The Pit and the Pendulum."
After the polls closed that evening, triumphant partisans lighted bonfires in the streets and set off gunpowder charges.
Poe saw and heard none of this. From the time he was taken to Washington Medical College until before dawn the next day, Thursday, Oct. 4, the author lay unconscious in his room.
He woke to a nightmare.
Delirious, shaking, drenched in perspiration, he began to babble, talking with "spectral and imaginary objects on the walls," Moran, the resident physician, reported. For more than 24 hours, he remained restless, incoherent.
Then, on Friday afternoon, Poe was able to talk to Moran, although he was still confused: He said that he had a wife in Richmond. To soothe his patient, Dr. Moran said Poe would soon be staying with friends.
"At this he broke out with much energy," Moran reported in a letter written weeks later, "and said the best thing his best friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol."
Poe dozed, then lapsed back into a "violent delirium." At one point, he had to be held down by two nurses.
By Saturday evening, he began shouting the name "Reynolds," and kept it up for several hours. (To this day, Reynolds' identity remains a mystery.)
Exhausted, finally, he grew silent.
Shortly after 3 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7, Poe turned his head and died.
"We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, -- of the definite with the indefinite -- of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest [has] proceeded thus far, it is the shadow
which prevails, -- we struggle in vain."
"The Imp of the Perverse"
Biographers and others have blamed Poe's death on various things: alcohol withdrawal, injury or illness. Whatever the direct cause, his last months seemed haunted by the shadow of self-destruction.
"This death was almost a suicide, a suicide prepared for a long time," wrote Charles Baudelaire, the French poet and Poe's fervent admirer.
Poe's mother-in-law, Marie Poe Clemm, decided, after talking to friends here, that the writer had run into some former classmates from West Point, who urged him to break his temperance pledge with a fateful toast of champagne.
John Pendleton Kennedy, a Baltimore lawyer and early patron of Poe, came to a similar conclusion. He noted in his diary entry for Oct. 10, 1849, that "Poe fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle."
"The consequence," he wrote, "was fever, delirium and madness."
Snodgrass, a trained physician and the city's leading lTC temperance advocate, wrote years later that, when he found Poe in Gunner's saloon, the poet was "utterly stupefied with liquor."
The New York Herald reported in October 1849 that Poe died during an attack of mania a' potu -- delirium tremens, the chills, pains, fever and hallucinations that come with alcohol withdrawal.
Poe's fans resisted this conclusion then, and they resist it now. His defenders portray him as a level-headed man, often down on his luck, whose character is too often confused with the tortured, self-destructive figures who populated his Gothic tales and poetry.
Some defenders suggest Poe may have been robbed and beaten. Others say illness felled him: Jeffrey Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, thinks the author suffered from diabetes or a heart condition. Poe, he said, probably collapsed in a Baltimore street, and was picked up by passers-by and taken into Gunner's Hall for shelter.
Poe's reputation as a drinker, his defenders say, is false or at least grossly exaggerated. It grew, they say, out of a malicious 1850 memoir by his bitter literary rival, the Rev. Rufus W. Griswold.
Yet there is no question that Poe drank, sometimes with disastrous results.
"I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I so madly indulge," he once wrote. "It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have perilled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, some a sense of insupportable loneliness and the dread of some strange, impending doom."
"Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows."
From "Shadow -- A Parable"
On Monday, Oct. 8, the author's forlorn little funeral cortege -- a hearse followed by a single carriage -- bumped along the cobblestone streets through the rain, from the hospital on Broadway across town to the Presbyterian cemetery at Fayette and Greene streets.
A mahogany coffin was supplied by Henry Herring, the lumber dealer.
About 10 mourners gathered for the hastily arranged ceremony, including the undertaker. The Rev. William T. D. Clemm, a relative of Poe's late wife, said a few words. Mourners lowered the coffin. In all, the service took about three minutes.
That same morning, The Sun carried this obituary:
"DEATH OF EDGAR A. POE. -- We regret to learn that Edgar A. Poe, Esq., the distinguished American poet, scholar and critic, died in this city yesterday morning, after an illness of four or five days. -- This announcement, coming so sudden and unexpected, will cause poignant regret among all who admire genius, and have sympathy for the frailties too often attending it. . . . "
DOUG BIRCH is a reporter for The Sun.
Today at 1:15 p.m. the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore will hold a memorial tribute to the author at his grave in the Westminster Churchyard, Fayette and Greene streets. At 2 p.m. the society will sponsor the 71st Commemorative Edgar Allan Poe Lecture in the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. The topic is the influence of Roman Catholicism on Poe. A reception follows the lecture at 3 p.m. For more information, call (410) 661-1180.