Thursday, October 07, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Death of Edgar Allen Poe

For all the spooky and macabre inventions of his imagination, I doubt even Edgar Allen Poe could write a mystery as gripping as that of his own death...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPoe had been found, incoherent and babbling, in a Baltimore gutter just four days earlier by an acquaintance of his, the printer Joseph W. Walker; at that point Poe had been missing for a week, having last been seen in Richmond, Virginia, as he left to return home to New York City on September 27th.

When he was found, Poe was bloated, unclean, and not wearing his own clothes - none of which were in character for the normally fastidious author.

Walker took Poe to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore where he died on this day in 1849, never again regaining enough lucidity to explain how he'd gotten into such a sorry state.

Theories as to what had befallen him ranged from attempted suicide gone wrong, attempted murder gone wrong, cholera, rabies, even syphilis; the most credible one, though, points to Poe's having been a victim of cooping. Not helping in the matter was the man who claimed to be Poe's literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold; they were actually bitter rivals.

In the years that followed Griswold did nothing to clear up the mystery, but instead defamed Poe's memory to all who would listen, beginning with a scurrilous obituary - widely reprinted - written under the pseudonym 'Ludwig'; yet even one of Griswold's friends described him as 'one of the most irritiable and vindictive men I ever met.' We may safely add plagiarist as well, since Ludwig's depiction of Poe is lifted from a description of a villain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Far from destroying Poe's reputation, Griswold's character assassinations made Poe more popular than ever, likely because it conformed to the public prejudice about what sort of person might write such works as Poe's; Griswold himself died in obscurity eight years later, while Poe's works have been out of favour 'nevermore'.
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