Edgar Allan Poe was a fascinating character. He lived a short life but, in that time, was responsible for helping to create two major genres of literature, before meeting a mysterious death at the age of forty.
Born in Boston in 1809, his father deserted the family when Poe was only a year old and his mother died a year later from consumption. He was adopted by a Scottish merchant named John Allan, but Poe would have a very strained relationship with Allan throughout his early life.
At the age of 17, Poe enrolled in University but dropped out after a year, partly due to gambling debts – something that didn’t help his strained relationship with his stepfather. He then joined the US Army but that didn’t seem to take either and he eventually left the Army by having himself court-martialed. At this point, Poe’s stepfather disowned him.
With no family support, Poe turned to writing to try to make a living. In 1835, Poe secretly married his cousin Virginia who was only 13 years old. During this period, Poe was the editor of a number of periodicals and published many short stories and poems. Despite making his living as a writer, he was constantly in debt and was always turning to others for money. However, he is regarded as one of the first well-known American writers to make his living solely through writing.
In 1845, he published “The Raven”, which was a big hit and made him a household name. In 1847, Virginia died of consumption after many years being sick. The theme of the death of a young woman is a constant throughout Poe’s later works. After Virginia’s death, Poe apparently began to drink heavily and to behave erratically. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, delirious. He was taken to hospital where he died on October 7.
The popular conception of Poe’s death is that he was found lying in a gutter, delirious, after the effects of an alcohol-fuelled week-long binge. However, much of this would turn out to be false. It’s true that Poe went missing a week prior to his death but the fact is, nobody knows where he was or what he was doing for that week until he was found on October 3. Another reason for the alcohol story may be because he was found outside a tavern, but it seems he was staying there, it’s not known whether he was drinking there. The man who found him – Joseph Walker – later claimed that he found Poe “in a state of beastly intoxication” but, again, this has been proven to be untrue.
However, the main reason for this image of Poe is an obituary and subsequent biography written by Rufus Wilmot Griswold who was a rival of Poe’s. Apparently, through pure jealousy, Griswold set about assassinating Poe’s character, claiming he was a depraved alcoholic, drug-addict. Despite the fact that many who knew Poe came to his defence and denounced the obituary, it became the popular image of Poe in the minds of the public.
In the end, there is no agreement on how Poe died. Over the years many theories have been put forward including suicide, murder, cholera, rabies and syphilis. However, it’s somewhat fitting that the man so influential on the mystery genre should have such a mystery of his own surrounding his death.
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