The Mysterious Death of E.A. Poe - Baltimore's Restless Poet By William Connery
The following letter was found in an old trunk in Paris by a colleague of mine. It was written by a French police investigator, one Monsieur Dauphin, who had apparently become acquainted with Edgar Allan Poe while on holiday in America. My colleague has refused to send the original and may have taken certain liberties in his translation to suit modern English--or possibly to suit himself. It is a curious document and may shed some light on the death of the poet.
January 1, 1850
Happy New Year and greetings from the fair city of Baltimore. I have been searching here for several months, trying to shed light upon the untimely (and, I must admit, exceedingly strange) demise of our mutual friend, M. Poe. I will relate some of Edgar's background, which may be unknown to you, so that possibly with our combined intellects we might unravel how such a man of letters came to such a miserable end.
As we both know, whenever someone asked Edgar about his origins, he was fond of declaring himself a Virginia gentleman. But if asked about his birthplace, Edgar scorned Boston, where he was delivered, and claimed Baltimore instead. I believe this peculiarity was due to his family's Baltimore roots.
Poe's great-grandfather John Poe came from Ireland to settle in Baltimore in 1755. John's son, David Poe Sr., grew up in Baltimore, where he became a respected businessman. Upon the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he sided with the rebels.
In 1779 he was commissioned as assistant deputy quartermaster general for the City of Baltimore. His military rank was major, but he was affectionately known as General Poe. He believed in the cause so much, he spent $40,000 to provide supplies for the Revolution. When General Lafayette visited the United States in 1824, he related how David Poe had sent $500 to help feed and clothe his troops, and how Mrs. Poe had helped to make five hundred pairs of pants for them.
When the British attacked Baltimore in 1814, the Maryland militia was called out and stopped the invaders at the Battle of North Point. Among the patriots defending the city was 71-year-old David Poe.
I write so much about the grandfather to show you the fine stock from which Edgar came. So many of his detractors focus only on the lives of his immediate parents. It is true that David Poe Jr. defied his parents and left law school to become an actor. According to the reviews I have been able to hunt down, he was not a master of his craft. His wife, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, was considered a fine young actress, however. Their second son, our dearly departed friend Edgar, was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, where they were performing.
Later that year, David Jr. disappeared. Some say he died; others say he wanted to get away from his failing career and expanding family. Overburdened with three young children, Elizabeth succumbed to consumption at the age of 24. Of her children, Henry, the eldest, went to live with his grandparents in Baltimore. The baby, Rosalie, was taken in by the MacKenzie family of Richmond. Edgar was also raised in Richmond, by the Allan family.
I will not burden you with too much of Edgar's upbringing. We both know he did not get along with his guardian, John Allan. Edgar followed quite a tortuous path in his life. Before the age of 23, he had spent several years in the Army, a semester at the University of Virginia, and a semester at West Point. By the time he moved to Baltimore in 1831, Edgar had already penned a few poems and received some minor notoriety. That same year, his older brother died of consumption.
Edgar's first real literary recognition came in 1833, when three Baltimore gentlemen, Mr. Kennedy, Dr. Miller, and Mr. Latrobe, gathered to judge entries for a writing contest sponsored by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. They awarded Edgar's "MS Found in a Bottle" the $50 first prize.
My dear friend, I must apologize! I am surely boring you with these details of Edgar's life. Let me quickly get to the recent circumstances of his passing. From 1835 until this past year, Edgar moved up and down the East Coast, living alternately in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York City. He continued writing on many topics, including philosophy and cosmology in one of his last published works, "Eureka." Before leaving Baltimore in 1835, Edgar proposed to his cousin Virginia, and they married soon after in Richmond. As you know, Virginia's health was fragile. She contracted consumption and died in 1847 at the age of 24, the same age as dear Edgar's mother. Is it any wonder that many of Edgar's stories and poems, such as "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Raven," which have brought him the fame he so richly deserved, were filled with death and misery?
But I must come to the point of this letter! This past summer, Edgar seemed to be recovering from the death of his beloved Virginia. He had returned to Richmond and become involved with Sarah Shelton, a woman with whom he had been smitten in his youth and who was now conveniently widowed. According to my sources, Edgar left Richmond by ship on September 27. Supposedly, he arrived in Baltimore on the 28th. His ultimate destination was the Bronx, New York, where he was going to meet his mother-in-law (and aunt) Mrs. Clemm, in order to bring her back to Richmond to attend his wedding with Sarah.
Edgar never arrived in New York. Despite my efforts, I cannot account for where he was during this time. One of my sources claims he got as far as Philadelphia by train, then doubled back to Baltimore. All we know for certain is that he was found outside a tavern on Lombard Street on October 3 (which happens to be a local election day), in a very confused and semiconscious state. Someone recognized him and called for his friend Dr. Joseph Snodgrass and his uncle, Henry Herring. They presumed Edgar was drunk (as you know, drink had a very deleterious effect on Edgar, and he tried to give it up many times).
Edgar was taken by carriage to Washington College Hospital, located on a hill just east of the city. The attending physician, Dr. John Moran, was practically the only one who had contact with Edgar those last days. According to a conversation I've had with him (he keeps himself extremely busy and has little time for anything outside his work), he said he could supply nothing further than what he had already written to Mrs. Clemm.
It seems that for two or three days Edgar was in some sort of stupor, having to be held down and speaking to spectral figures. When Dr. Moran asked him what he needed, Edgar replied that a true friend would blow his brains out with a pistol. He appeared to settle down late on October 6 and uttered the words "Lord help my poor soul" as he passed away early on the 7th. He was buried soon after next to his beloved grandfather David.
I intend to keep working here until I solve this mystery. There is a repugnant rumor that Edgar fell in with a local mob, who liquored him up and took him around voting at different polls, stealing his clothes and dumping him outside Gunnard's Tavern, where people were voting. I plan to go up to Philadelphia and New York, and then down to Richmond. I feel that Edgar's soul will not rest until this is solved. Yours, E.D. No other letter has turned up, and nothing is known of M. Dauphin's further investigations.
• William Connery is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page of The Washington Times. He is available for personalized tours of historic sites in the Baltimore-Washington area and talks on the Civil War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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