The Mysterious Delirium and Death Of Edgar Allan Poe

On October 3, 1849, Poe was found delirious in Baltimore, Maryland, “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance,” according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died a few days later on October 7. The circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe could have been ripped from the pages of one of his horror stories.

Poe, who is best known for “The Raven” and his chilling short stories including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” never regained consciousness to explain his mysterious condition. His official cause of death is listed as “phrenitis,” an archaic term that indicates inflammation of the brain and could have multiple causes. Over the years, fans have suggested theories including suicide, murder, rabies, syphilis, influenza, and “cooping” — the practice of drugging people before forcing them to vote multiple times in polling places.

Sara Elmira Royster, Edgar Allan Poe's fiance [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Sara Elmira Royster, Edgar Allan Poe’s fiancée [Wikimedia Commons]

Could he have been murdered? 

On September 27, Poe had left Richmond, Virginia, to travel to Philadelphia, where he was due to edit a collection of poems. But Poe never made it to Philadelphia to attend to his editing business. Some experts have theorized that Poe may have fallen victim to “ruffians” who beat him senseless, causing his death. But in his 2000 book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, author John Evangelist Walsh said he believed that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his wealthy fiancée, Elmira Shelton. Using evidence from newspapers, letters, and memoirs, Walsh argues that Poe actually made it to Philadelphia, where he was ambushed by Shelton’s three brothers. “His attending physician is our best source of evidence. If he recorded on the mortality schedule that Poe died of phrenitis, Poe was most likely suffering from encephalitis or meningitis, either of which might explain his symptoms,” he wrote. At the time of his death, Poe had been due to marry Shelton in 10 days.

Was he a victim of “cooping”?

Others believe that the fact that Poe was found on election day was no coincidence, and that the author had fallen victim to a practice known as “cooping,” a method of voter fraud practiced by gangs in the 19th century in which an unsuspecting victim would be kidnapped and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times wearing different disguises. According to, voter fraud was extremely common in Baltimore around the mid-1800s, and the polling site where Walker found the disheveled Poe was known for “coopers.”

Plaque marking Edgar Allan Poe's birthplace in Boston [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Plaque marking Edgar Allan Poe’s birthplace in Boston [Wikimedia Commons]

Did he drink himself to death? 

Poe was known to have abused alcohol and opiate drugs, according to researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and it was documented that after a single glass of wine Poe became “staggering drunk.” But a few months before his death, Poe became a vocal member of the temperance movement and gave up alcohol. Further, the medical records indicate that there was no evidence of alcohol use when he was admitted.

Could he have died of rabies?

Dr. Michael Benitez of the University of Maryland Medical Center wrote in 1996 that he believed Poe had died as the result of rabies. Benitez believed that Poe may have gotten rabies from being bitten by one of his pets. “Although there is no account that Poe had been bitten by an animal, it is interesting that in all the cases of human rabies in the United States from 1977 to 1994, people remembered being bitten in only 27 percent of those cases,” he wrote. But once symptoms appear, most patients die within a few days, according to The New York Times. Poe was a known animal lover, and had a cat named Cattarina.

Who was Reynolds? 

The night before his death, according to his attending physician Dr. John J. Moran, Poe repeatedly called out for “Reynolds.” The Poe Museum has put forward several names — from a fellow author to a man Poe owed money to — but the identify of “Reynolds” remains a mystery.

What about carbon monoxide or heavy-metal poisoning? 

In 1999, public health researcher Albert Donnay argued that Poe’s death was a result of carbon-monoxide poisoning from coal gas that was used for indoor lighting during the 19th century. Donnay took clippings of Poe’s hair and tested them for certain heavy metals that would be able to reveal the presence of coal gas, but the test was inconclusive. Poe did have elevated levels of mercury in his system, but this could be explained by his taking calomel (mercury chloride) after being exposed to cholera in July of 1849 — and the levels were not enough to be toxic.

Read more:

The New York Times 

The Poe Museum

Main photo: Edgar Allan Poe [Wikimedia Commons]