The Raven and the mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death

Illustration by Matthew Childers.

The Raven and the mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death


Edgar Allan Poe reinvented “mystery” in literature and influenced thousands with his plutonian art, but nothing has been as poignant as the dark enigma his death comprises.

Edgar Allan Poe’s handwriting – The Spirits of the Dead – Stanzas I, II, III – 1827.

Loss and sorrow were the very substance of his own life story. Edgar Poe was born on the 19th of January 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, as the second child of two itinerant actors.

Poe was going to be named Cordelia, if he had been a girl. His mother had portrayed this Shakespeare’s character in a production of King Lear; but a boy came instead and was named Edgar – Lear’s godson in the plot.

King Lear’s set of characters

His mother died when he was only two years old; at the time she was separated from his father and Poe was adopted by a wealthy family from Richmond, Virginia. John Allan gave him his second name, and as prosperous tobacco dealer, sent him to the best boarding schools in England, America, and later to the University of Virginia when he was 17.

Edgar, however, got involved with gambling and drinking, spent his tuition money on it and ran into direct conflict with his foster father. He left school and joined the U.S. army in 1827, developing reasonably well and by John’s influence, who had recently lost his wife and aimed to reconcile with Poe, he entered West Point as a cadet, where he did not last long, though. 

Poe’s ink cocktail – “This cocktail was inspired by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. I may not have a raven to quoth, but I got me a black chicken. And I intend to exploit her.” – Drinking with Chickens blog – Kate Richards.

Poe was not inclined to follow rules. He wanted to write. He needed to purge all the pain and grief – the chaos that assaulted his soul from time to time.

He was cultured and had artistic genius. He struggled at the beginning, but his natural talent made him flourish in the literary field. In Richmond, he got a first job as the editor of a newspaper and married his cousin Virginia when he was 27 and she was 13.

Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe

Poe was temperamental and emotionally unstable, what rendered him many financial difficulties throughout life, but his work stood out as meteorically creative and innovative.

His poetry engendered the heyday of dark romanticism, immersed in introspection and subjectivity, wrapped in the apocalyptic aura of end times, already present in Byron, and later portrayed in the degeneration, anguish and agony that characterized the spirit of “fin de siècle” and the gothic literature.

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers – exhibited 1812 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965

A lump of death-a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge–
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them – She was the Universe.

Darkness by Lord Byron – 1816

Faust in his Study, 1851 by Carl Gustav Carus

Poe was also the principal forerunner of the “art for art’s sake” movement in the 19th century European literature, of which Oscar Wilde came to be another major exponent, and whose defence he brilliantly laid out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Oscar Wilde in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Illustration by Eugene Dété.

The Raven

Poe was the first American writer to achieve notoriety and fame with a poem. The Raven happened. People were charmed by the fluid rhyme, the rhythmic repetition, the classic and hermetic elements, but especially by the oddity and the suspense of an ominous bird tapping on one’s window in the dead of night and irreverently perching upon a bust of Pallas above the chamber door.

Children took The Raven to the streets; they knew it by heart and giggled every time they saw the bird. At the time, popularity was not a passport to money and luxury yet, but Poe could certainly have followed a more consistent literary and academic career, as demonstrated by the several invitations to recitals, lectures and editorial works.

Poe, however, was quite irregular. Some say he was weakened by addiction, others by illness, but it all became more and more inexorable after the premature death of his wife and cousin Virginia, at the age of 24, after a five-year battle with tuberculosis. Poe was not an immaculate example of husband, but he took the girl and her mother under his protection and after her passing he felt orphaned and abandoned again. Actually, Virginia died at the same age, from the same disease as his own mother.

The Raven condenses this woe; it was written two years before Virginia’s death, with the prospect of loneliness sneaking around.

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
            With such name as “Nevermore.”

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe – 1845

Read the complete poem at

Detective job

Edgar was also a pioneer in the detective story form; this literary genre, as it is known nowadays, developed from him. In Poe’s fiction, we already have all the ingredients that would be immortalized by Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s mystery novels of Hercule Poirot.

Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s hero – idle, rich and flamboyant – spent his hours solving puzzling cases of murder, that clueless and incompetent police officers didn’t know what to do with.

Poe had been contemporaneous with the establishment of the first modern police force in London in 1829 and the development of the scientific police work in America in its first professional police department in Boston, 1838. Three years later he wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.

Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin

The mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death

Edgar Allan Poe reinvented “mystery” in literature and influenced thousands with his plutonian art, but nothing has been as poignant as the dark enigma his death comprises. 

Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849
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, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass, a physician and magazine editor in Baltimore, had been close friends with Poe for almost a decade; they had exchanged letters and published together in a monthly literary journal.

He was the person Poe trusted to call when in agony. Snodgrass had become an activist, devoted to the cause of morals, religion and the peaceful emancipation of the slave population in the state of Maryland.

He was, however, also an ardent Temperance advocate (social movement which morally repudiated the habit of drinking alcohol and helped individuals to free themselves from addiction). This bias may have distorted the interpretation of the facts related to Poe’s death, as Snodgrass later claimed that Poe was “in a state of beastly intoxication”, that he had lost his battle against vice and died in consequence of debauchery. 

Poe’s ink cocktail – Drinking with Chickens blog – Kate Richards.

As is well known, Poe had an expressive personal experience of alcohol abuse. Although not a heavy or even a frequent drinker, there can be little doubt that drinking was behind many of the misfortunes and setbacks Poe suffered throughout his life.

But let us recollect the facts and circumstances related to his death:

Taking a boat from Richmond on September 27, Poe arrived in Baltimore on September 28, 1849. Over the next few days, details about Poe’s actions and whereabouts are uncertain, but he apparently did not run out of money. It seems he had gathered a considerable amount as subscription money for his new magazine, a project that was so dear to his heart. He had also received a small sum for a prospective article that he probably never wrote.

Poe’s Baltimore, 1849

Poe was found on the street, outside Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls, on the day of a municipal election, semi-conscious, dressed in clothes that did not appear to be his own, if they could be said to fit at all.

Instead of his usual black wool suit, he was wearing a faded and soiled sack-coat of thin and sleazy black alpaca, ripped more or less at several of its seams; a dirty shirt with no vest; pants of a steel-mixed pattern of caseinate, half-worn and badly-fitting; a rusty, almost brimless, tattered, ribbonless palm leaf hat; and a pair of unpolished shoes run down at the heels.

Basically, Edgar Allan Poe was not dressed as Edgar Allan Poe on the day of a municipal election, the main local event that preceded his death. He was unrecognizable, unkept and clothed like a poor clown.

How to dress like Poe – John Cusack portrays Edgar Allan Poe in a scene from the gothic thriller “The Raven.”

Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls also known as Gunner’s Hall was a tavern used as polling place where voters were regularly rewarded with drinks and strongly associated with cooping, a form of voter fraud in which unsuspecting victims were made captive, drugged, beaten and forced to vote at different polling stations, each time with a different outfit not to be recognized by electoral authorities. After the fraudulent pilgrimage, many were thrown semi-conscious in a ditch or left to die.

Fights at the election polls, 1857.

Poe was then taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died four days later, on Sunday, October 7.

The only contemporary public reference to a specific cause of death was a somewhat cryptic “congestion of the brain”. Death certificates were not required at the time and none is known to have been filled by Dr. Moran – Poe’s attending physician.

The testimony of the doctor is contradictory and has many inconsistencies. An early version reported that Poe never regained full consciousness and died in confusion, not being able to describe what had happened to him.

Later, after claims that Poe’s addiction and character flaws had led him to death, the doctor came in his defense.

Edgar Allan Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant, nor was the smell of liquor upon his breath or person. He was in my care and under my charge for sixteen hours. He was sensible and rational fifteen hours out of sixteen. He answered promptly and correctly all questions asked, spoke freely…He told me, in answer to my questions, where he had been, from whence he came, and for which place he started when he left Richmond, when he arrived in Baltimore, and the name of the hotel where he registered.

A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Character, and Dying Declarations of the Poet. An official account of his death, by his attending physician, John J. Moran, M.D., published in 1885.

Yet, according to Dr. Moran, Poe had been seized by two thugs, dragged into one of the many sinks of iniquity or gambling hells, drugged, robbed, stripped of every vestige of the clothing he had, reclothed, and later driven or thrown out of the den in a semi-conscious state.

Moran’s accounts vary so widely that they are not generally considered reliable; and they still do not explain the cause of the poet’s death.

It is somehow implausible that he could have drunk himself to death so flatly or that any chronic illness could have developed so abruptly to a fatal neurological picture. Possibly a major trauma or other sort of violence was determinant, leading to some kind of poisoning or brain injury.

After the death of his wife Virginia, Poe engaged romantically with some women, the most significant of them being Sarah Elmira Roister Shelton, who he had known since childhood, although they had lost connection after he left for University and she married another man. Poe was courting the widowed Sarah and proposed to her just before travelling to Baltimore. There was, however, a conflict of interests concerning Roister’s family and their commitment. The inheritance Sarah and her two children had received from her dead husband would be reduced to one third of its original value if she married again.

As soon as Dr. Moran’s “Defense” came out, suspicions fell on the family, particularly Sarah’s brothers, but there is no direct evidence connecting them to the scenario and the fact.

Actually, there are so many hypotheses and lines of argument linking the mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death that many pages would be needed to address all of them. I brought you just a little taste of a true detective story whose details got lost in ignorance, prejudice, malevolence, speculation, fantasy and oblivion.

“Even for those to whom life and death are equal jests. There are some things that are still held in respect.”
― Edgar Allan Poe – The Murders in the Rue Morgue

The enigma of Poe’s death will probably never be solved. We would need the invaluable help of those mesmerizing detective characters that excited our imaginations for so long; at least mine  – this is a case for C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and company. 


Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more—like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze—the breath of God—is still—
And the mist upon the hill,
Shadowy—shadowy—yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token—
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

Edgar Allan Poe –The Spirits of the Dead, Stanzas IV, V – 1827

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