This October the bicentennial of the death of Edgar Allen Poe will be recognized by many performing arts groups, museums, libraries and historic sites in Virginia. A four hour memorial service is scheduled at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia on October 3rd.[i] In addition, there is an entire website devoted to events celebrating and exploring the life and times of Poe in Virginia, the state where he spent most of his life.[ii] A full schedule of activities is available in 2009. The Edgar Allan Poe aficionado will be treated to a potpourri of resources, perhaps leading to new revelations concerning the cause of Poe’s death.
Edgar Allan Poe’s life was fraught with tragedy, angst, and a mixture of both successes and failures. He was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. His mother, an actress, died a mere two years later, and the toddler was placed in a foster home headed by one John Allan, a Richmond, Virginia tobacco merchant. Poe attended schools in Richmond and in England, and enrolled in the University of Virginia in 1826. Arguments with his foster father ensued concerning Poe’s attendance and tuition payments at the University, and Poe was thrown out of the Allan household onto the street with no money. Poe made his way to Boston, where he published his first book of poems.
Poe joined the military in 1827 under the assumed name of Edgar A. Perry. After serving two years, he was discharged, allegedly with aid from his formerly estranged foster father John Allan. A West Point appointment followed, but Poe withdrew from there as well. Poe, while living in Baltimore, began to have more success in his publishing. In 1832 five of his tales were displayed in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier. By 1835, he had moved to Richmond, married his younger cousin, and began to become well known as a writer of rather dark and shocking tales.
Poe’s success of his poem “The Raven” in 1845 led to further successful publications, while at the same time Poe was unable to make a success of the publication of other journals. 1847 also proved to be very tragic year for Poe, as his wife Virginia took ill and died. Poe is reported to have turned to alcohol for relief after his wife’s death. Alcohol and Poe did not mix well, and “personality changes” were the norm when he was on a binge.
Mystery ironically surrounds the death of this author of the macabre. While traveling to and from lectures in Virginia, Poe actually disappeared on September 27, 1849. and was found in a stupor in Baltimore. Taken unconscious to a hospital, he moved in and out of consciousness and delirium and was never able to explain his movements between September 27th and his discovery in Baltimore. He died on October 7th. No autopsy was performed, and he was buried in Baltimore.
Poe scholars have since his death been proposing theories on the cause of Poe’s death.[iii] The magnitude of the proposed causes of Poe’s death reads like a medical journal index: Heart Disease, Dipsomania, Epilepsy, Toxic Disorder, Diabetes, and even Rabies, to list a few. Perhaps the most intriguing hypothesis is put forth by John E. Walsh, who makes the case that Poe was the victim of homicide.
Regardless of the cause of Poe’s demise at age 40, his works live on. He would probably appreciate the mystery he left with us. But if you ponder the works of this icon of American horror on the anniversary of his death, listen carefully for a tell-tale heart.