Honors English 9
09 November 2018
Edgar Allan Poe’s Death
In the 169 years since his death, the ultimate demise of Edgar Allan Poe has long been debated. When he died at the age of forty, an autopsy was never performed on his body. His remains have been unearthed and moved from grave to grave various times; therefore, we may never be completely certain of how the poet met his end. Now, thanks to recent testing of his remains, scientists and historians alike have some clues as to what might have contributed to the death of Edgar Allan Poe. Even so, there are many theories as to how exactly he may have died. However, the one that makes the most sense, may surprise many.
First, the conditions where he was found when he was close to dying must be addressed. Poe was en route to Philadelphia, but was found in Baltimore; he may have intended for this to be a stop on his trip. A pedestrian spotted the poet prostrate near a pub, wearing uncharacteristically loose clothing that clearly did not belong to him. Most suspected that he had merely passed out from drinking too much, and he was sent to the nearest hospital on October 3, 1849. While there, he is said to have experienced wild hallucinations, and also spouted incoherent words and phrases while he was conscious. He eventually shuffled off this mortal coil four days later, on October 7, 1849. Witness accounts say that his last words were as follows: “Lord help my poor soul.” After his death, his body was never examined, and he was buried two days later.
There are hundreds of theories about his death out there, ranging from the plausible to the flat-out ridiculous. Some blame disease, some blame kidnapping, and others still say that he was abducted by aliens. One of the prevalent theories is that he died from the effects of alcoholism. Throughout his life, Poe was said to be a raging alcoholic, and resorted to heavy drinking frequently; this could have been a sort of coping mechanism for him. His life was an incredibly tragic one, what with the death of both biological parents, and the death of his wife two years before his own. This theory makes plenty of sense, up until the symptoms he had in the hospital.
Those who drink heavily during their lifetimes often experience a variety of disturbing symptoms and after effects, including changes in behavior, lack of coordination, heart disease, and even various types of cancer. Alcoholism can also weaken one’s immune system, making it more prone to other diseases. However, hallucinations are not among the symptoms experienced by alcoholics. So, what could have caused them? Though alcoholism certainly contributed to his death, it may not have been the final killer for Edgar Allan Poe. The most likely culprit, however, is rabies.
While the symptoms that Poe experienced during his time in the hospital do not line up with those of alcoholism, they do line up with rabies. Rabies patients can experience a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from vomiting, hydrophobia (induced by being nearly unable to swallow liquids), nausea, and, like the reports of Poe, hallucinations. His incoherent, occasional rambling could have been due to these hallucinations, but also could have been spurred on by agitation or anxiety, which are both additional symptoms of the deadly disease. Additionally, due to his extreme alcoholism, Poe’s immune system was likely weakened significantly, making it easier for the virus to penetrate his body. Without the necessary means to fight off the disease, the rabies killed him within days.
Another reason why the rabies theory is reasonable is because of the medical advancements and sanitation of the time period. Sanitation was far worse back in Edgar Allan Poe’s time, and it would therefore be easier for animals to contract the deadly virus while out in the open. Many animals can be carriers of rabies, but it most often occurs in mammals such as cats, dogs, foxes, or raccoons. Given the setting where Poe was found-by a pub, which would have lots of people near the premises-the animal would most likely be either a stray cat or a dog. (Most wild animals would usually shy away from such environments.) The stray mammal in question may have been scrounging for food when it came upon the passed-out poet. Poe, who may have already been drunk or unconscious, could have been unknowingly bitten or scratched by a cat or dog, and didn’t realize it until he awoke.
We may never know exactly how the poet Edgar Allan Poe met his end. Hundreds of theories have been put forth over the years, and though some have now proven to be completely false (aliens, anyone?), a few have proven reasonable. As medical technologies advance, scientists have continued to find more and more clues. For now, the best guess is that rabies killed the poet, but alcoholism may have also contributed to his death. In the meantime, it is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in all of American history.
“Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018
“How Did Edgar Allan Poe Die?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2015,
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2015, www.britannica.com/story/the-mysterious-death-of-edgar-allan-poe
“Rabies.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 July 2017,