Four days after being discovered on the streets of Baltimore disheveled and incoherent, Edgar Allan Poe died in the Washington College Hospital of Maryland’s capital on October 7, 1849. Just 40 years old, the man from New England had risen to fame by composing a series of dark poems and short stories. Decades before the world knew of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, Poe was crafting tales filled with mystery for literary magazines all over the fledgling United States.
Born in Boston in 1809, Poe was orphaned early in life and taken into custody by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. John, a successful shop owner, eventually moved the family to Europe in 1815 and entered Poe in a series of grammar schools in Great Britain. When the Allans returned to Virginia five years later, Poe worked his way through the education system, even serving as a member of the local youth honor guard before enrolling at the University of Virginia for a semester.
Unable to afford tuition — allegedly due to excessive gambling — Poe moved north to Boston in search of work. Finding regular employment difficult to secure, he enlisted in the United States Army with the hopes of eventually attending West Point. While helping to defend Fort Independence in Boston Harbor, he published a small volume of original work, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Rising through the ranks of the military, he appealed to his former foster father for help securing the commission he craved.
Though reluctant, Allan provided the necessary letters for Poe to gain a discharge and enter the United States Military Academy. Starting as a cadet in July 1830, Poe lasted mere months before finding a way to be dismissed for insubordination. He had produced two more books of poetry by the summer of 1831 and sought to earn a living as a writer in New York City.
Shifting his work to short stories instead of his hardly-read poetry, Poe managed to find a handful of newspapers willing to print his prose, even winning an award from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for “MS. Found in a Bottle” in October 1833. Catching the attention of a local businessman, Poe connected with a job in Richmond, Virginia as an assistant editor — one he quickly lost due to being under the influence of alcohol.
Shortly after promising to focus on his work, Poe got the position back and secretly married his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm. (Poe, 26, lied and said she was 21.) Back in Richmond and happy, Poe gained a wider audience for his writings and built a reputation for biting commentary. He rapidly moved from one magazine to another, publishing Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1839 and announcing intentions to start a publication of his own.
Tragedy struck in 1842 when his wife Virginia came down with tuberculosis and died. Already known to have trouble with alcohol, Poe increasingly turned to drink as a means to escape the pain. Driven by his sadness to explore the unsavory side of humanity, he created a series of Gothic short stories and the poem which launched him to fame, “The Raven.” Published on January 29, 1845, Poe suddenly became popular.
Paid just $9 for his work, Poe continued to find alcohol as his only release. Though he managed to get engaged to another woman, the relationship soon ended due to his instability. When found dirty and with “lusterless and vacant eyes” on October 3, 1849 outside Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore, heavy drinking was naturally suspected. However, witnesses found his appearance — a shabby jacket and pants, an oversized shirt and worn-through shoes — very peculiar: Poe was known to be very particular about his clothes.
When he died on October 7th, Poe inadvertently created a whole new mystery. No record of the event — death certificate, autopsy report, etc. — has ever been found. Over time, a variety of theories as to cause have been put forward, with drinking being assumed the most likely. Others insist it was tuberculosis or brain tumors among a number of medical possibilities. Some suggest suicide related to the heavy heart he retained after the loss of his beloved Virginia — even murder.
His writings gained more fame as the decades passed, stories like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher are considered classics of the American romance movement. Ironically, though, the man some believe to be the grandfather of the detective novel has left a legacy of mystery in death.
Also On This Day:
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1691 – The Province of Massachusetts Bay is chartered in Great Britain
1931 – Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu is born in Klerksdorp, South Africa
1959 – Soviet orbiter Luna 3 sends the first photos of the far side of the moon to Earth
2001 – The United States sends operatives into Afghanistan as the air assault begins