Major mistake of the “Worshipers of Edgar A. Poe” always make.

I don’t know why some folk who count themselves as Friends of Poe, refuse to acknowledge that the state of the science of “addiction recovery” in 1848 was non-existent. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that Freud’s discovery of the psychology of the human mind was even conceived. So Dr. examining E.A. Poe, had no idea what addiction really was, nor how to treat its enviable ‘withdrawal’ symptoms, much less the expected ‘addiction recovery’ process. And it wasn’t until 1935 that Bill W. and Dr. Bob happened on the group therapy called “Alcoholics Anonymous”. Of course no valid diagnosis can be made of an event that happened 166 years ago. Which only underlines the fact that relying on physicians notes taken in 1849 also cannot be conclusive either.

Today, in 2015, if you consult The standard American Psychiatric Association diagnostic and statistical manual for “delirium” you will find that it has to be properly assessed before appropriate treatment can be maintained and supported. Poe could have had a head trauma, gone into shock, had a seizure or a stroke; And there is a long process and time within which the body will react to the sudden withdrawal of alcohol and/or drugs. Importantly there is a difference between clinical ‘delirium’ and the notation ‘he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, outside Ryan’s Tavern. Poor man just didn’t receive adequate medical treatment, the delirium was not recognized, and patient expired.

kind regards,

Ricardo Ben-Safed

Portrait of Poe by William Abbot Pratt from September 1849, a month before his death

On September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia, on his way hometo New York. No reliable evidence exists about Poe’s whereabouts until a week later on October 3, when he was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, outside Ryan’s Tavern (sometimes referred to as Gunner’s Hall).[5] A printer named Joseph W. Walker sent a letter requesting help from an acquaintance of Poe, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass.[1] His letter reads:

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[6]

Snodgrass later claimed the note said that Poe was “in a state of beastly intoxication”, but the original letter proves otherwise.[1]
Snodgrass’s first-hand account describes Poe’s appearance as “repulsive”, with unkempt hair, a haggard, unwashed face and “lusterless and vacant” eyes. His clothing, Snodgrass said, which included a dirty shirt but no vest and unpolished shoes, was worn and did not fit well.[7] Dr. John Joseph Moran, who was Poe’s attending physician, gives his own detailed account of Poe’s appearance that day: “a stained faded, old bombazine coat, pantaloons of a similar character, a pair of worn-out shoes run down at the heels, and an old straw hat”. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in this condition, and it is believed the clothes he was wearing were not his own,[7] not least because wearing shabby clothes was out of character for Poe.[8]
Moran cared for Poe at the for-profit Washington College Hospital on Broadway and Fayette Street.[9] He was denied any visitors and was confined in a prison-like room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunk people.[10] Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name “Reynolds” on the night before his death, though no one has ever been able to identify the person to whom he referred. One possibility is that he was recalling an encounter with Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a newspaper editor and explorer who may have inspired the novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.[11] Another possibility is Henry R. Reynolds, one of the judges overseeing the Fourth Ward Polls at Ryan’s Tavern, who may have met Poe on Election Day.[12] Poe may have instead been calling for “Herring”, as the author had an uncle-in-law in Baltimore named Henry Herring. In later testimonies Moran avoided reference to Reynolds but mentioned a visit by a “Misses Herring”.[13] He also claimed he attempted to cheer up Poe during one of the few times Poe was awake. When Moran told his patient that he would soon be enjoying the company of friends, Poe allegedly replied that “the best thing his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol”.[14]
In Poe’s distressed state, he made reference to a wife in Richmond. He may have been delusional, thinking that his wife, Virginia, was still alive, or he may have been referring to Sarah Elmira Royster, to whom he had recently proposed. He did not know what had happened to his trunk of belongings which, it transpired, had been left behind at the Swan Tavern in Richmond.[10] Moran reported that Poe’s final words were “Lord, help my poor soul” before dying on October 7, 1849.[15]

Credibility of Moran[edit]

Because Poe did not have visitors, Moran was probably the only person to see the author in his last days. Even so, Moran’s credibility has been questioned repeatedly, if not considered altogether untrustworthy.[2] Throughout the years after Poe’s death, his story changed as he wrote and lectured on the topic. He claimed (in 1875 and again in 1885, for example) that he had immediately contacted Poe’s aunt (and mother-in-law), Maria Clemm, to let her know about Poe’s death; in fact, he wrote to her only after she had requested it on November 9, almost a full month after the event. He also claimed that Poe had said, quite poetically, as he prepared to draw his last breath: “The arched heavens encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair.” The editor of the New York Herald, which published this version of Moran’s story, admitted, “We cannot imagine Poe, even if delirious, constructing [such sentences].”[16] Poe biographer William Bittner attributes Moran’s claim to a convention of assigning pious last words to console mourners.[17]
Moran’s accounts even altered dates. At different points, he claimed Poe was brought to the hospital on October 3 at 5 p.m., on October 6 at 9 a.m., or on October 7 (the day he died) at “10 o’clock in the afternoon”. For each published account, he claimed to have the hospital records as reference.[18] A search for hospital records a century later, specifically an official death certificate, found nothing.[19] Some critics claim Moran’s inconsistencies and errors were due only to a lapse of memory, an innocent desire to romanticize, or even to senility. At the time he wrote and published his last account in 1885, Moran was 65.[18]

Cause of death[edit]

Poe was originally buried at the back of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground without a headstone. This stone marks the original burial plot today (Lat: 39.28972; Long: -76.62333).

All medical records and documents, including Poe’s death certificate, have been lost, if they ever existed.[19] The precise cause of Poe’s death is disputed, but many theories exist. Many biographers have addressed the issue and reached different conclusions, ranging from Jeffrey Meyers’ assertion that it was hypoglycemia to John Evangelist Walsh’s conspiratorial murder plot theory.[20] It has also been suggested that Poe’s death might have resulted fromsuicide related to depression. In 1848, he nearly died from an overdose of laudanum, readily available as atranquilizer and pain killer. Though it is unclear if this was a true suicide attempt or just a miscalculation on Poe’s part, it did not lead to Poe’s death a year later.[21]
Snodgrass was convinced that Poe died from alcoholism and did a great deal to popularize this idea. He was a supporter of the temperance movement and found Poe a useful example in his temperance work. However, Snodgrass’s writings on the topic have been proven untrustworthy.[2] Moran contradicted Snodgrass by stating in his own 1885 account that Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant. Moran claimed that Poe “had not the slightest odor of liquor upon his breath or person”.[2] Even so, some newspapers at the time reported Poe’s death as “congestion of the brain” or “cerebral inflammation”, euphemisms for deaths from disgraceful causes such as alcoholism.[22] In a study of Poe, a psychologist suggested that Poe had dipsomania.[23]
Poe’s characterization as an uncontrollable alcoholic is disputed.[3] His drinking companion for a time, Thomas Mayne Reid, admitted that the two engaged in wild “frolics” but that Poe “never went beyond the innocent mirth in which we all indulge… While acknowledging this as one of Poe’s failings, I can speak truly of its not being habitual”.[24] Some believe Poe had a severe susceptibility to alcohol and became drunk after one glass of wine.[25]He only drank during difficult periods of his life and sometimes went several months at a time without alcohol.[3] Adding further confusion about the frequency of Poe’s use of alcohol was his membership in the Sons of Temperance at the time of his death.[26][27] William Glenn, who administered Poe’s pledge, wrote years later that the temperance community had no reason to believe Poe had violated his pledge while in Richmond

Ricardo Ben Safed.

About Ric Ben-Safed

Technical and Freelance Writer, degrees in History,Psychology, and Master's in Social Policy and Planning. written hundreds of reports in regard to mental health, major research in genealogy and genetic genealogy as well as local history. I try to be and Independent leaning Libertarian but also like the cooperative anarchist ideas of L.Neil Smith, Murray Rombard, J. Neil Schulman. Fascinated by (Philadelphians, George Lippard ( 1830-1854). Gothic & City Noir, appreciate the Mystics of Philadelphia Mystic Johaness Kelpius (1667-1708), even "God may be a Verb!).
This entry was posted in Quaker City in the 1840's to 1860's. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Major mistake of the “Worshipers of Edgar A. Poe” always make.


    Very interesting post;  I taught Poe for many years, but always tried to hide his dissembled life from my students.    J D’Alessandro


    • Yesterday the 19th was the anniversary of Edgar A. Poe’s birthday. And all I noticed was a news item from Baltimore that someone has picked up the tradition of leaving a single Rose and a bottle of hooch on his gravestone. There was some talk a few years ago that the Poe Cult wanted to remove Poe from Baltimore and re-plant him here in Philadelphia. I guess it came to naught.
      I think John Dalessandro is correct that young students of American Literature ought to be diverted from Poe’s ‘dissembled life’. Poe was basically an Alcoholic who never found any sort of recovery. He died with delirium tremens under suspicious circumstances in Baltimore where he was found unconscious in a gutter, near a saloon. Sad, he had such potential.


Comments are closed.