Here at Last He is Happy: The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe
“There are some secrets that do not permit themselves to be told.”
–Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd,” 1840
The mysterious death of writer Edgar Allan Poe still haunts and fascinates his fans and biographers. The facts of his untimely passing in 1849 have been obscured and confused since he was found barely conscious in a Baltimore tavern. Even the events and location of Poe’s burial have been shrouded in enigma.
On September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia for New York via Baltimore and Philadelphia. He was slated to edit the work of fellow poet, Marguerite St. Leon Loud, while in Philadelphia. After he completed this work, he would travel to New York to pick up his aunt and former mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, and bring her back to Richmond to attend Poe’s wedding to Elmira Shelton. Poe never made it to New York. He was instead waylaid in Baltimore, where he met his end.
The events of the days following his departure remain tantalizingly elusive. On his way to the train to Philadelphia in Baltimore, it appears he ran into some old friends and was convinced to have a drink with them, even though he had recently joined the Sons of Temperance. That was the last anyone heard of Poe until he was found on October 3 at Gunner’s Hall, a Fourth Ward polling place, located at what is now the 900 block of East Lombard Street, in a state of stupor and disarray. Poe’s friend Joseph Evan Snodgrass and his uncle Henry Herring were summoned to fetch the near comatose bard. Snodgrass was completely shocked at the condition of his friend, later recalling, “…I instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder. The intellectual flash of his eye had vanished….”(1) He also noted that the clothing Poe wore could not possibly be his own. Not only were they filthy, but they were cheaply made and ill fitting, which was very uncharacteristic for a man known for his smart dressing. He was taken to Washington College Hospital (later the Church Home and Hospital), where he died four days later. His illness was marked by fits of delirium and nonsensical ramblings. He repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds.” “Lord, help my poor Soul,” were his last words before he expired on October 7th.
Theories abound as to what caused his death: an alcohol or drug overdose, untreated diabetes, rabies, and even murder. The official cause of death at the time was “congestion of the brain.” The common conception that Poe was a hardened alcoholic or opium addict has been disputed by scholars. He attempted suicide in 1848 by an intentional laudanum overdose, but there is little indication he used such drugs recreationally. Some biographers also claim his drinking was only sporadic or social. He would occasionally overindulge and repent with long periods of sobriety. Friends and family also reported that small amounts of alcohol would make him violently ill. His cousin, Nielson Poe claimed that Poe only had one drink and went from, “a condition of perfect sobriety to one bordering upon the madness usually occasioned only by long continued intoxication.” (2)
Statements such as this gave rise to the theory that Poe was diabetic and that he may have died in a related coma. Other medical causes such as heart failure and carbon monoxide poisoning have also been postulated. The most unusual of these being the suggestion that Poe may have died of rabies. In 1996, Dr. R. Michael Benitez, a cardiologist at University of Maryland Medical Center, studied Poe’s case at his weekly meeting of the Clinical Pathologic Conference in which the doctors would study an unsolved medical case. The patient’s case was presented anonymously, and Benitez decided Poe’s symptoms, such as hydrophobia and agitation, matched that of rabies. In a far more sinister twist, biographer, John Evangelist Walsh, in his 1998 book, Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, claims Poe was murdered by his fiancée’s brothers, who did not feel Poe was a suitable match for their sister.
Poe was buried the next day in the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. The funeral was a simple, somber affair. Less than ten people attended the graveside service, including the men who had taken to the hospital, Snodgrass and Herring, and a few family members. His mother-in-law and fiancée were not in attendance. In fact, Clemm only heard of Poe’s passing through the newspapers.
His body was placed in an unmarked grave in the Poe family plot alongside his grandfather, General David Poe. In 1860, his cousin Nielson commissioned a headstone from Hugh Sisson & Sons, but it was destroyed in a freak accident. The tombstone would be inscribed with the dates of Poe’s life and death and “Hic tandem felice condintur Reliquiae,” or “Here, at last, he is happy.” The marble yard where the grave marker was carved was situated next to train tracks to facilitate easier movement and shipping of the marble. One week before the marker was due for installation, a freight train jumped the tracks and plowed through the yard, destroying everything in its path, including Poe’s headstone. His family could not afford to have a replacement made. His plot remained unidentified; only a small sandstone block bearing the number “8” was placed at the corner of his plot to signify the location of the grave for the arrival of the headstone. But for 15 years, the little block was the only evidence of the poet’s resting place.
As the years went on, Poe’s modest burial site became overgrown with weeds and ill-tended. The public undertook a campaign to raise funds for a more fitting memorial to the great author to place at his grave. Baltimore public school teacher Sara Sigourney Rice championed the cause. She enlisted her elocution students to put on literary performances to raise money. On November 17, 1875, a grand celebration was held to mark the installation of the new monument and more prominent resting place for Poe. The statue was placed in the front of the graveyard and Poe was supposedly reburied beneath it.
However, rumors ran rampant that Poe’s remains were never placed in the new grave. Instead, the body of Philip Mosher Jr., a War of 1812 private who died of scarlet fever during the Battle of North Point, may have been accidentally dug up in October 1875 after some confusion about the location of the plots. Colonel John C. Legg Sr., former police commissioner for Baltimore City, released a report that claimed that George W. Spence, Westminster Hall’s sexton, who had attended the funeral of Poe, told him the writer’s coffin was one made of oak and lead-lined and bore a brass plate with his birth and death dates. Spence also supposedly told Legg that all of the headstones had been turned when a new entrance to the cemetery was built during the Civil War. The exhumed coffin was made of mahogany not oak. This combined with the revelation regarding the moved tombstones convinced Legg that the wrong person was buried under the 1875 stone.
A document in the William Matthew Marine Collection (MS 1016) in the library of the Maryland Historical Society seems to support this allegation. An undated letter from James Tucker to Marine includes a sketch of Poe family gravesite from Westminster First Presbyterian Church’s (the church associated with the burying ground) plot books. The sketch suggests that if the headstones had been indeed turned, the exhumation team dug in the wrong direction, thus bringing up the body of Mosher. He also claimed Spence told the monument committee that French grave robbers had stolen Poe’s body in 1867.
However, these claims are not without controversy. The main evidence against this theory is that Poe’s grandfather David’s plot never bore a tombstone, so it could have never been turned. Poe’s uncle, Herring, claimed that he indeed procured a mahogany coffin not oak. It is also unclear why Legg would know this anecdote.
The story becomes less and less plausible as each claim is investigated, but adds another titillating layer to such a baffling and fascinating tale. So many wild claims have been made about the writer’s death and burial by his detractors and those seeking to associate themselves with his fame that it is nearly impossible to tease out the truth. The macabre nature of many of Poe’s stories certainly encouraged the public to believe the most sinister and bizarre scenarios. The mysteries of his death and burial remains unsolved, but perhaps it is a fitting tribute to an author whose tales were filled with suspense and riddles. (Lara Westwood)
In the spirit of Halloween and to honor the legacy of this great literary figure, the Maryland Historical Society will be hosting two Poe-themed events this October and November. “The Mesmeric Revelations! Of Edgar Allan Poe” is an immersive theater experience in a realm where dead, living, fact, and fiction commingle hosted in the historic home of Enoch Pratt at MdHS. The show will run from October 12 through November 22, 2015. For ticket information and show times, visit the event website. The society is also searching for a worthy Poe fanatic to take over the Baltimore tradition of the “Poe Toaster.” An American Idol-style competition will be held on November 7, 2015, complete with celebrity judges and crowd participation.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Thomas, Dwight, and David Kelly Jackson. “‘For Annie’ and the Final Journey.” In The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849, 844. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987.
(2) Ibid, 844.
“Edgar Allan Poe Museum: Poe’s Life, Legacy, and Works : Richmond, Virginia.” EdgarAllanPoeMuseum : Poe’s Life, Legacy, and Works : Richmond, Virginia.
“Edgar Allan Poe Mystery.” University of Maryland Medical Center. 1996.
Gaylin, David F. Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Geiling, Natasha. “The (Still) Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” Smithsonian.
Phillips, Mary Elizabeth. Edgar Allan Poe, the Man,. Chicago: John C. Winston, 1926.
Scarlett, Charles. “A Tale of Ratiocination: The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe.” Maryland Historical Magazine 73, no. 4 (1978): 360-74.
“The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.
Walsh, John Evangelist. Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.