Natasha Geiling reminds us that earlier this month in 1849, the writer was found “delirious and dressed in shabby second-hand clothes, lying in the gutter” in Baltimore. He died a few days later – and we still don’t know why, exactly. Geiling walks us through a few of the theories surrounding Poe’s death, including the notion it might have been due to “cooping,” a form of voter fraud “practiced by gangs in the 19th century where an unsuspecting victim would be kidnapped, disguised and forced to vote for a specific candidate multiple times under multiple disguised identities”:
Voter fraud was extremely common in Baltimore around the mid 1800s, and the polling site where Walker found the disheveled Poe was a known place that coopers brought their victims. The fact that Poe was found delirious on election day, then, is no coincidence.
Over the years, the cooping theory has come to be one of the more widely accepted explanations for Poe’s strange demeanor before his death. Before Prohibition, voters were given alcohol after voting as a sort of reward; had Poe been forced to vote multiple times in a cooping scheme, that might explain his semi-conscious, ragged state.
Around the late 1870s, Poe’s biographer J.H. Ingram received several letters that blamed Poe’s death on a cooping scheme. A letter from William Hand Browne, a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins, explains that “the general belief here is, that Poe was seized by one of these gangs, (his death happening just at election-time; an election for sheriff took place on Oct. 4th), ‘cooped,’ stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted, and then turned adrift to die.”
Another possibility for Poe’s demise?
One of the most recent theories about Poe’s death suggests that the author succumbed to a brain tumor, which influenced his behavior before his death. When Poe died, he was buried, rather unceremoniously, in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore graveyard. Twenty-six years later, a statue was erected, honoring Poe, near the graveyard’s entrance. Poe’s coffin was dug up, and his remains exhumed, in order to be moved to the new place of honor. But more than two decades of buried decay had not been kind to Poe’s coffin—or the corpse within it—and the apparatus fell apart as workers tried to move it from one part of the graveyard to another. Little remained of Poe’s body, but one worker did remark on a strange feature of Poe’s skull: a mass rolling around inside. Newspapers of the day claimed that the clump was Poe’s brain, shriveled yet intact after almost three decades in the ground.
We know, today, that the mass could not be Poe’s brain, which is one of the first parts of the body to rot after death. But Matthew Pearl, an American author who wrote a novel about Poe’s death, was nonetheless intrigued by this clump. He contacted a forensic pathologist, who told him that while the clump couldn’t be a brain, it could be a brain tumor, which can calcify after death into hard masses.
Previous Dish on Poe here.
(Daguerreotype of E.A.P., 1849, via Wikimedia Commons)