This day, 169 years ago, American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe died at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. He was 40 years old. His cause of death is disputed, even now. Everything from alcoholism, rabies and even political cooping has been blamed.
Much of the mystery can be attributed to one man, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a rival of Poe’s. Under the pseudonym “Ludwig,” he published an obituary on Oct. 9th, in the New York Tribune.
In his obituary he represented Poe as a haunted genius, a madman that wandered the streets in drunken delirium. Griswold, as Ludwig, claimed Poe was quick tempered, arrogant and dismissive of his fellow man.
To the contrary, Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t much of a drinker, despite popular portrayals of him as an absinthe sipping, self-destructive soul haunted by his inner vision. At the time of his death he was a member of the Sons of Temperance, a brotherhood of men who promoted the temperance movement.
Poe’s drinking buddy, Thomas Mayne Reid, even attested to his lack of alcoholism. He admitted that the two engaged in drinking “frolics” but testified that Poe “never went beyond the innocent mirth in which we all indulge… While acknowledging this as one of Poe’s failings, I can speak truly of its not being habitual.”
Much of what the public believes of Poe’s death is attributed to that one, false obituary. Griswold was known for attacking Poe’s character, even while he was still alive. Much of that obituary was copied, almost verbatim, from from that of the fictitious Francis Vivian in The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
Griswold had much to gain from portraying Poe as a dark genius. He claimed that Poe had asked him to be his literary executor. It is unclear whether Poe actually appointed him or whether Griswold became executor through a trick or a mistake by Poe’s aunt and mother-in-law, Maria. In 1850 he presented a collection of Poe’s work that included a biographical article titled “Memoir of the Author” in which Poe was depicted as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman.
Much of it was a lie and denounced by those who had known Poe, including Sarah Helen Whitman, Charles Frederick Briggs, and George Rex Graham. Sadly, Griswold’s account became popular because it was the only full biography available and was widely reprinted. Because of his dark writing, many readers assumed the man himself was haunted as much as his fictional characters.
The mystery of Poe’s death remains. All medical records and documents, including Poe’s death certificate, have been lost, if they ever existed. Dr. John Joseph Moran, Poe’s attending physician, denied Poe any visitors and confined him to a room with barred windows reserved for unruly drunks. Later, he repeatedly contradicted himself in his recounts of Poe’s last days.
To honor Edgar Allan Poe for the premier National Dark Poetry Day, I promote the man behind the misrepresentation. He had a dark vision, a reflection of the pain he saw in the world around him, but he was not doomed to be a self-destructive. His writing was therapeutic and entertaining. It was Griswold’s jealousy and financial gain that has created that falsehood.