Edgar Allan Poe’s work shaped the horror genre as we know it today. He was a master of Gothic Horror, Suspense, and mystery. He wrote poetry, short stories, and novels, conquering all written mediums. He had been called the Father of the Detective story. Famously, his difficult life shaped the nature of the art he created, focusing on death and the macabre. But there is quite a bit that you perhaps didn’t know about Poe, including his first cousin child bride and an extremely mysterious death that became the focus of many conspiracy theories.
Edgar Poe was born on January 19th, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, to actor parents David and Eliza/Elizabeth Poe. There was some speculation that he was named after a character in King Leer, as both of his parents were performing in that play the year of his birth. By 1810, one year later, his father had left the family. And by 1811, one year after that, his mother had died. Poe was the middle of three children.
After the death of Eliza, the Poe children were sent to various caregivers and foster homes. Edgar’s sister Rosalie was adopted by the MacKenzie family in Richmond, his brother William Henry Leonard went to live with his paternal grandfathers, and Edgar Poe went to live with the Allan family in Richmond. John and Frances Allan did not have any children of their own, and it is believed that John was actually Poe’s godfather. The Allans, especially Frances, were quite close with Eliza Poe.
Poe did not have an easy time with the Allans, though Frances Allan was very doting. He often clashed with John Allan over his debts and the cost of his education. As a young man, Poe was fairly athletic. When he was 16 years old, he swam 6 miles in the James River, against the current, which won him notoriety within Richmond. Some believe Poe was engaged to Sarah Elmira Royster or in some texts, her name was mentioned as Elmira Shelton before he went away to college.
In 1826, Edgar enrolled in the University of Virginia. He excelled at his studies, majoring in ancient and modern languages. John Allan, though a successful tobacco merchant, only sent Poe to school with about a third of the money he would actually need to pay for his education and survive. Edgar Poe started to gamble in an effort to raise money, which unfortunately didn’t help him at all. Poe turned to burning his own furniture in order to stay warm in the winter. Poe and Allan clashed over Poe’s gambling debts, and Allan not contributing more to his education. At this point, Edgar decided to drop out of the University.
Upon his return home, Poe was devastated to learn that Sarah was engaged to someone else in Poe’s absence, his first lost love. Heartbroken in April of 1827, Poe decided to move to Boston.
In Massachusetts, he started to use the pseudonym Henri Lee Rennet. At first, he worked small clerk jobs and wrote for newspapers but was ultimately unable to support himself and eventually decided to enlist in the army in an effort to escape his debt. On May 27, 1827, Poe joined the Army, under the name Edgar A. Perry. He also claimed to be 22, though he was only 18 at the time.
He started his service in Boston Harbor for a whopping 5 dollars a month. This was an important time for Poe though, because this year his first book came out. It was a 40-page collection of Poetry, titled Tamerlane and other poems. 50 copies were printed at the time, and it was largely not recognized by the press or critics. It is thought that as of now, there are only 12 known copies of this printing that still exist in the world.
By November of 1827, Poe was stationed in South Carolina. His monthly pay increased to 10 dollars a month as he was promoted to artificer, someone who prepped shells and artillery. Poe worked his way up to Sergeant Major for Artillery, which is as high as he could go with his circumstances. He decided he wanted to leave the Army early, before his 5 years were up and told his commanding officer his reasons for joining the Army in the first place. His commanding officer told Poe he could only leave early if he made up with his foster father, John Allan.
Poe wrote to Allan, who ignored him for months. They only reconciled after Frances Allan passed away. Poe visited her grave the day after her burial, and Allan softened enough to help him be discharged from the Army. Part of the agreement was that Poe must find a replacement for himself, and he must enter West Point to continue his studies. Some sources also mentioned that John Allan paid Poe’s way out of the military.
He took a brief break before attending West Point and stayed with his brother, sickly grandmother, aunt, and first cousin named Virginia, who was 7 years old at the time. He left and released his third volume of work, simply titled Poems. Without the support of John Allan, Poe returned to Baltimore because his older brother had taken ill. Poe was robbed by a cousin when he returned to Baltimore, a different unnamed cousin. At this point, Virginia was 9 years old. It’s also interesting to note that Poe had used Virginia to deliver love notes to a neighbor that Poe sought out during this time. Poe’s brother Henry died on August 1st, 1831, some think at least partially due to his drinking problem. His brother’s death also marked a shift in Poe. It is at this point in his life that he really doubles down on writing and dedicates himself to it with renewed vigor.
Edgar Allan Poe was actually one of the first Americans to support themselves by writing alone. That being said, he did not have an easy go of it. The publishing industry was struggling at this time, and Poe often had to beg friends, family, and strangers for financial support to continue. Poe switched from poetry to prose and started to get stories picked up in Philadelphia.
In October of 1833, he was awarded for his work, MS. Found in a Bottle, by the Baltimore Sunday Visitor. This recognition kick-started his career. John P. Kennedy, a prominent man in Baltimore, helped Poe find publication for some of his work and introduced him to Thomas W. White, the editor of Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger.
By 1835, Poe was assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Unfortunately, that position was short-lived for Poe. He was fired after only a few weeks for being drunk at work.
Edgar Allan Poe received a letter while he was in Richmond from a shared cousin of his and Virginia’s. The cousin wanted Virginia to come live with him and attend school. Poe had a massive freak out, though the intentions of his cousin did not appear to be romantic to historians. He was thought to be hoping to save Virginia from poverty and perhaps to prevent her from marrying too young and waiting a few years until she was old enough to consent.
Poe returned to Baltimore and secured a license to marry his first cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm. It was legal and fairly common in the mid-1800s to marry a first cousin; however, it was not legal to marry a 13-year-old. It is not known if they married at this time or at a later date. Though they did eventually marry. However, if they did marry at this time, Poe would have been 26 years old, and Virginia would have been 13. Either way, it’s not good. Also, in 1835, Poe’s grandmother passed away, and the family lost her income.
There was a ceremony held in 1836 for their marriage, a witness wrongly attested that Virginia’s age was 21 at the time. She was actually 14. He had a track record of lying about her age to friends and other folks in the publishing space as well. He also often lied about his own age, lessening the gap between them. We should also mention that it is public knowledge that before Poe had fallen in love with Virginia, he has pursued a 14-year-old cousin named Elizabeth.
There is a vague, somewhat disputed quote from Poe. He claimed to not share a room and quote “assume the position of husband,” for two years after the marriage. Obviously, there is no way to confirm that. Poe also returned to the Southern Literary Messenger as assistant editor, with a promise of good behavior. He increased the reach of the publication from around 750 copies to 3,500 copies.
Poe published a novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; he became the second editor of another periodical, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and continued to publish collections. Things were on the up and up for him.
In 1840 Poe announced his intentions to start his own periodical. First, he wanted to call it The Penn, with two ns. But it was changed to The Stylus. Sadly, the magazine never came to fruition. Also in this year, he published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. In the preface, he wrote, quote “‘I have written five-and-twenty short stories whose general character may be so briefly defined” which is the first use of the term short story that has yet to be discovered. He was the first to coin the term.
Poe was also known to often write with his Siamese cat on his shoulder. Just a fun fact for you. For the next several years, Poe continued to publish work and hop between literary magazines. In 1841 he published Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is considered the first modern detective story of all time. Things take a turn in 1842, when Virginia starts to show signs of consumption.
While she was singing and playing the piano, and a blood vessel burst in her throat. At this time Poe returns to New York and becomes the Editor of the Broadway Journal. He later becomes the owner. Though he created a bit of an unpleasant reputation for himself when he publicly accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism.
Perhaps the biggest moment in Poe’s career during his life came on January 29th, 1845. The Raven is published, and almost immediately Poe becomes a household name. It originally appeared in the Evening Mirror, and he was only paid $9 for it. Two years later in January 1847 Virginia died at 24 years old. Poe started to drink more heavily than usual throughout her sickness and especially after her death. The only portrait we have of her is a post-mortem one. After her death, he goes on a bender for a bit, binge drinking, etc. The sources describe it as a spree.
In the summer though he sobers up a bit, and he actually becomes engaged again to his first fiancée Elmira when he travels back to Richmond. Not sure what happened to her other fiancé. But first, he has some business to attend to in Philadelphia. So on September 27th, 1849, he left Richmond. He takes a steamer that stops in Baltimore. And then he goes missing for the next five days.
On October 3rd, 1849, Poe was discovered in a gutter by Joseph A Walker, who worked at the Baltimore Sun. The gutter where he is discovered is outside of a public house that was, at the time, being utilized as a polling place. Poe is not just drunk or hungover. He is described as immobile and incoherent. And in shabby clothing, which is an interesting detail. Poe is brought to Washington College Hospital. The hospital actually had a special room for drunk patients, which he assumed to be given his reputation. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure what happened because Edgar never fully regained consciousness.
On October 7th, at 5 AM Edgar Allan Poe died. He was 40 years old. There are some sources that claim his last words were “Lord help my poor soul.” It is interesting that the doctors ruled the cause of death to be phrenitis, which is the swelling of the brain. However, some also believe it was a label given at the time to those who died from drinking, in order to not besmirch their names. Though there was no autopsy on the body.
A few days later he is put to rest in an unmarked grave in a Baltimore cemetery. No funeral. As you can imagine, the high profile and mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe inspired many theories. Some are more plausible than others. Of course, there are those who believe that his death was in fact related to alcoholism. This is the most obvious theory. He was a known abuser of the bottle, and this theory claims that he was also genetically incapable of his body processing the alcohol properly. For example, there are first-hand sources that reported both he and his sister would be staggering or stumbling after a single glass of wine. It is also reported that he had a bad drinking incident leading up to his death; his doctor had warned him that he would not survive another.
Poe was actually a supporter of the temperance movement, which was a movement that promoted moderation and abstinence from alcohol in the months before his death. So many people think that because he was found in such a weak state, it could be due to excessive drinking despite his genetic condition.
There is an extension of this theory. That Poe ran into some trouble while he was drunk on a bender and may have been beaten or attacked and possibly robbed. If he was black out drunk or stumbling around, someone or several people could easily have targeted him and stolen his money and clothing. This theory also gives us an explanation for the strange, tattered clothing he was wearing.
Other similar spin-off theories state that the brothers of his fiancée, Elmira Shelton, got Poe drunk on purpose because they knew the effect it had on him. And then beat him to death. Or tried to. There were rumors that the brothers had warned Poe not to marry their sister. This theory gets more complicated though, with Poe actually making it to Philly. Where he is confronted by the brothers. He goes into hiding. Thus explaining his ill-fitting clothing. He tries to get back to Richmond but the brothers catch up to him in Baltimore and attack.
Before we delve into the strangest theory, I also wanted to mention a medical theory. Some thought he might have died from a brain tumor. A statue was built to honor Poe’s gravesite eventually, but it actually marked the wrong birthday—a day after he was born. During the process, his coffin and body were exhumed, but because it was disintegrating, the coffin actually broke open, and his bones were spilled. The gravediggers reported that there was a hardened mass rolling around inside of his skull, likely to have been a tumor if it was indeed true.
But the most popular and bizarre theory was rooted in voter fraud. Cooping was actually a big problem in Baltimore during the mid-1800s. Cooping was a violent method of stacking the votes, if you will. People were kidnapped and forced to vote multiple times, wearing different outfits. This accounted for a few things—the fact that he was outside a bar that was being used as a polling place, that he was wearing different clothes, and again, this was an active issue in Baltimore where he was at the time.
There was also a very questionable tradition at this time where voters were given a little nip of alcohol as a way to celebrate their vote. If Poe hypothetically voted a few times while being forced to coop, he would have certainly been in a drunken stupor if he was stumbling after one glass of wine. There was huge support for this theory at the time. A faculty member from Johns Hopkins actually wrote to a Poe biographer later in the century and voiced that the sentiment of the area was that Poe was most certainly cooped.
Why couldn’t it be all of these theories? Because actually, when he was still alive, a doctor had told him he had a lesion on his brain that accounted for his issues with drinking. There are also a ton more, mostly related to STIs and other medical conditions.
But Poe’s legacy far exceeded his ominous death. Most of his most notable work fell under the Gothic and Dark Romanticism umbrellas. Dark Romanticism is thought to have been a reaction to the transcendentalism movement, which was an American philosophical movement rooted in the belief that people are inherently good. Needless to say, Poe hated this movement. He referred to followers of the transcendental movement as "Frog-Pondians."
Obviously, he is known for being a macabre writer, dealing often with death, murder, illness, and other morbid themes. He is less known for his humor, but he did write quite a few humorous and satirical pieces. Many films have been inspired by the works and life of Edgar Allan Poe.