Monday, January 18, 2010

We Owe It to Poe to Dig Him Up

I'm not the first person to suggest that Poe's greatest story was one he didn't write, but did participate in. The story of his own death is still shrouded in mystery. Some people think it is an open and closed case, however, they are overlooking so many theories. Without being an expert on Poe, I can't help but delve into this mystery, especially because Elizabeth Oakes Smith, whom I've been studying for the sheer fun of it because I'm weird, was involved in the speculation after Poe died. I find that interesting and I'm curious.

There are many theories about Poe's death. Here's a list, in chonological order, from

Beating (1857)The United States Magazine Vol.II (1857): 268. article by Elizabeth Oakes Smith

Epilepsy (1875)Scribner's Monthly Vo1. 10 (1875): 691.

Dipsomania (1921)Robertson, John W. Edgar A. Poe A Study. Brough, 1921: 134, 379.

Heart (1926)Allan, Hervey. Israfel. Doubleday, 1926: Chapt. XXVII, 670.

Toxic Disorder (1970)Studia Philo1ogica Vol. 16 (1970): 41-42.

Hypoglycemia (1979)Artes Literatus (1979) Vol. 5: 7-19.

Diabetes (1977)Sinclair, David. Edgar Allan Poe. Roman & Litt1efield, 1977: 151-152.

Alcohol Dehydrogenase (1984)Arno Karlen. Napo1eon's Glands. Little Brown, 1984: 92.

Porphryia (1989)JMAMA Feb. 10, 1989: 863-864.

Delerium Tremens (1992)Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar A1lan Poe. Charles Scribner, 1992: 255.

Rabies (1996)Maryland Medical Journal Sept. 1996: 765-769.

Heart (1997)Scientific Sleuthing Review Summer 1997: 1-4.

Murder (1998)Walsh, John E., Midnight Dreary. Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998: 119-120.

Epilepsy (1999)Archives of Neurology June 1999: 646, 740.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (1999) Albert Donnay

Notice the first theory, the one printed in an article in The United States Magazine. The article that states Poe was beaten to death was written by Elizabeth Oakes Smith in 1857. At that time she was 51 years old, an established lecturer on human rights. Her lecture tour began in 1852 after her series of articles Woman and Her Needs were published and widely circulated. She was at the height of her "career," still writing and sought after to speak. Smith knew Poe well. He attended parties at her house and mingled with her friends and acquaintances. She knew the women he spoke to very well.

Here is an excerpt from her 1857 article:

"Not long before his death he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. That Edgar Poe may have subjected himself to the imputation or inebriety may perhaps be conceded, for a glass of wine would act fearfully upon his delicate organization; but that he was a debauched man in any way is utterly false. He was not a diseased man from his cups at the time of his death, nor did he die from delirium tremens, as has been asserted.

The whole sad story will probably never be known, but he had corresponded freely with a woman whose name I withhold, and they having subsequently quarreled, he refused to return her letters, nor did she receive them until - after Poe's death. This retention not only alarmed but exasperated the woman, and she sent an emissary of her own to enforce the delivery, and who, failing of success, beat the unhappy man in a most ruffianly manner.

A brain fever supervened and a few friends went with him to Baltimore, his native city, which he barely reached when he died.

The hand should be palsied, and the name blighted, of the man who, under any provocation, could inflict a blow upon a slender, helpless, intellectual being, however misguided, like Edgar A. Poe."

Smith wrote another article for The Beadle in 1867 stating that Poe was beaten and murdered. People discredited her. One such person was the doctor who treated Poe at the time of his death, Dr. Snodgrass. According to a post on, Snodgrass rebutted Smith's claim in an article, saying:

"I am positive that there was no evidence whatever of any such violence having been used upon his person, when I went to his rescue at the tavern. Nor was there any given at the hospital, where its detection would have been certain, if external violence had really been the cause of his insanity, for there would have been some physical traces of it on the patient's person. In this view of the question I respectfully submit that it is high time that the hypothesis of a beating were dropped."

I'm curious if this doctor was credible. Would a cover up of a beating have ended his career? Did he have something to hide? I wonder all this after having done so much research on Elizabeth Oakes Smith that I feel confident in saying I know this lady's character. The goal of her life was to pursue knowledge, and she felt that moral intelligence was the highest form of wisdom. Why then, would she lie and spread gossip about a friend? Why would she participate in the petty talk among shallow women and men in her literary circle? Look at her article; the way it is worded. She does not use the passive voice, saying, "This is what may have happened, or I have heard this, or perhaps this took place..." She says, flat out, "He was cruelly beaten."

I think Elizabeth Oakes Smith was completely sure of her theory, and completely competent and well-meaning in stating it. So why was she ignored? I think it was because a man, a doctor, discredited her and in that day and age, that was the end of that.

As far as the name Smith is withholding, I've read that it could have been a woman named Elmira Shelton, whose brothers may have been harassing Poe. An author by the name of Walsh wrote a book called Midnight Dreary alleging this theory. This book was widely discredited by Poe scholars. There is another theory that the woman's name was poet Elizabeth Ellet. She wanted correspondence between herself and Poe destroyed to save her reputation. At any rate, it seems that Poe was mixed up with a whole lot of catty women in ways that may have endangered his life.
(If you go to page 19 of this journal you can read some of what I read: )

No one really knows what happened to Edgar Poe. This is why scientists should exhume Poe's body and do forensic testing to rule out murder. Apparently, many scholars don't see the merit in doing such a thing. This was one of the greatest American writers of all time. He was a poor, sad man who struggled. He died in a shameful way, alone in a ditch. No human being deserves this end, although many die this way. Someone should finally publicly acknowledge Poe's celebrity status and do something extravagant for him: attempt to confirm what is truthful about his death. Some Poe experts say don't bother.

"Jeffrey Savoye, secretary/treasurer of the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore, dismisses the idea. He says evidence from historical records likely reveals more than would be gleaned from exhumation. And besides, the monument above the author’s grave would have to be moved with considerable difficulty." (1)

Until someone does that, no one is right about his death. I think Poe would think exhuming himself very cool.

1. McCutcheon, Chuck. "Solving old mysteries: exhumation on the rise" 2005.

2.The image of Edgar Allan Poe's original gravesite is from
3.The picture of Elizabeth Oakes Smith is scanned from the book:

Wyman, Mary Alice. Selections From the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith. New York. Arno Press. 1980.


Putz said...

you opened my eyes, when you first started the elizabeth oaks smith stories, histories, commentaries and insights...thanks from maribel and all the other cows who carry bells

Undine said...

I have to say, I'd be a bit hesitant about taking Elizabeth Oakes Smith too seriously as a source, particularly where Poe is concerned. Smith was a known gossipmonger who was apt to spread stories about her contemporaries that frequently had little basis in fact. This story about the beating is a prime example--it seems to be a distortion of the scandal involving Elizabeth Ellet in 1846 (where Poe claimed to have compromising letters from her that he refused to return, and which allegedly led to her brother going after Poe with murder in his heart.)

Smith's long-time friend Sarah Helen Whitman told Poe biographer John Ingram that Smith barely knew Poe and virtually invented practically everything she ever wrote about him. Ingram himself came to that conclusion, (his favorite word for Smith was "imaginative,") and I fear it's the truth.

Loren Christie said...

Really? A gossipmonger? That goes against everything she said she believed and the good person she was, visiting women in prison and advocating for poor city children. People really seemed to target her with gossip, and discredit her at every turn. I'd love to see some information on that. My email address is on my profile here. Thanks so much for your comment. It's nice to discuss this subject with someone on the blog!

Loren Christie said...

In regard to Sarah Helen Whitman, it seems that they were very close for a few years; they shared an interest in spiritualism. I've read letters at the library. They grew apart and stopped writing each other over time.

Loren Christie said...

Mr. Putz, Do you have a cow named Maribel? We don't really keep cows in the suburbs of Long Island. There are some beautiful farms out east. Hell Hound is my cow.

Undine said...

Oh, I'm not saying Smith was a bad person--I don't believe she intended any harm, but she did spread around a lot of stories about Poe that were demonstrably untrue. (The "died from a beating" tale is just the most notorious example.) She was just one of those people who enjoy gossiping about their contemporaries, and as Poe was the most interesting literary figure of her time, he naturally attracted a lot of her attention.

Smith corresponded with Ingram about Poe herself, and her letters make pretty astonishing reading. In short, she told him one indisputable fable after another. Ingram soon decided she was "useless"--his word--as a Poe source, and dropped the correspondence.

I don't know what Smith's motivation was in her writings about Poe--perhaps she even believed much of what she said about him--but I'm convinced Whitman was right when she said Smith did not have any close acquaintance with him.

She was an interesting and significant figure, though--I don't blame you for taking such an intense interest in her.

Loren Christie said...

Hi Undine, Thanks so much for the info!

Loren Christie said...

I just read something interesting. Poe's attending physician at the time of his death was John Moran, and his medical records are lost. In a letter to Maria Clemm on 11/14/1849 the doctor wrote "you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died." It turns out that his first biographer was an enemy of his during his life- Griswold, and along with the men named Snodgrass and Stoddard he made an example of Poe and the damaging effects of the evils of alcohol. Along with Oakes-Smith, two men stepped forward and supported her theory- John Moran- the doctor and John R. Thompson. (Poor Poe! Here's a guy who lived on the verge of poverty despite his genius talent. Half the literary world resented him out of jealousy.) Oakes-Smith had no good reason to defend Poe, he had written a bad review of her husband Seba's work and a so-so review of her most famous long poem: The Sinless Child.

michelle said...

Of course, we won't know for sure until - if or when - Poe is exhumed, but this explanation is intriguing:

Loren Christie said...

Thanks for the link Michelle- very interesting!

Undine said...

The "brain tumor" theory is interesting, but if that had been the case, wouldn't Poe have suffered a continuous mental and physical decline? While there are accounts of him behaving strangely and suffering from some vague bouts of illness, for most of the last period of his life he appeared to be completely normal. Certainly, his creative powers showed no decline, which I find hard to believe would be the case if he was suffering from a fatal brain cancer.

By the way, Loren, do you know there's a school of thought that says that when they exhumed Poe's body for reburial, they accidentally dug up the wrong coffin? In other words, that handsome Poe monument houses a ringer?

It's hard to say if that's true or not, but personally I think Poe would be delighted at the idea that he pulled off one last hoax on us all.

Loren Christie said...

Good point Undine. Maybe the theory could be valid if a brain tumor appeared and advanced very quickly- like in the last six months of his life. Still that would not prove or disprove the beating theory. But perhaps some sickness was mistaken for addiction. Anyway- he was a great writer- an undeniable talent and one of my favorites. Thanks for the comment. It's nice to hear from you!

Anonymous said...

This sounds pretty interesting, I am quite inspired to look him up. However, I am not sure how confident you can be about the beating theory. There are so many others!

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