Text: William T. Bandy, “Dr. Moran and the Poe-Reynolds Myth,” ­Myths and Reality­, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1987, pp. 26-36


­[page 26:]  


W. T. Bandy

It is exceedingly strange, in view of all that has been published on the subject, how little we actually know about the last week or two of Poe’s life. From the day he left Richmond for New York (or was it for Philadelphia?), around 26 September until 3 October 1849, when he was found unconscious, or nearly so, outside Ryan’s Fourth Ward polls in Baltimore, his actions are shrouded in almost complete obscurity. To be sure, various stories have been told concerning his movements, but they are conflicting, unverified and unconvincing. Was he “cooped” by a gang of political thugs, who drugged him or plied him with liquor (or both), then took him around town to vote him as a repeater? If so, the participants could hardly be expected to step forward and testify. Thomas Ollive Mabbott was probably right in describing the story of Poe’s “cooping” as twaddle (1). Did Poe fall in with a group of old friends and indulge to excess in their libations? If so, why had his decent clothing been removed and replaced with dirty and tattered garments? Or was Poe simply the victim of robbers? If so, why did they not take from him the valuable sword-cane he had brought from Richmond and still grasped when he was found?

The first really solid piece of evidence indicating Poe’s presence in Baltimore is the note written by the person who found him and sent for assistance:

Baltimore City, Oct. 3, 1849

Dear Sir: —

There is a gentleman rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s Fourth Ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress. He says that he is acquainted with you, and I assure you he is in need of immediate assistance.  

Yours, in haste,
Jos. W. Walker

To Dr. J. E. Snodgrass

Snodgrass had been a good friend of Poe’s but he was a fanatic on the subject of temperance. In his article on “The Facts of Poe’s Death and ­[page 27:] Burial,” published long afterward, he disgracefully misquoted Walker’s note, though he must have had it before him at the time.(2) Whereas Walker spoke of a “Gentleman, rather the worse for wear,” Snodgrass substituted “in a state of beastly intoxication.” Nevertheless, on receiving Walker’s note, he got in touch with Henry Herring, Poe’s uncle by marriage, and the two of them placed Poe in a hack and transported him to the Washington College Hospital. There they turned him over to the resident physician, Dr. John Joseph Moran. From that time, Wednesday, 3 October until Sunday, 7 October 1849, when Poe died, only the hospital staff were allowed to see him. Neilson Poe, a cousin, called at the hospital, but was refused permission to see the patient. In a letter of 11 October 1849, to Maria Clemm, Neilson Poe wrote: “As soon as I heard he was at the college, I went over, but his physicians did not think it advisable that I see him, as he was very excitable. The next day, I called and sent him changes of linen, etc. And I was never so shocked, as when, on Sunday Morning, notice was sent to me that he was dead.”(3) Thus, apparently, Poe was held virtually incommunicado. Our knowledge of what happened, from the time of Poe’s admittance until the time of his death, depends almost entirely on the evidence of one person only, Dr. Moran.

It must be said that Dr. Moran showed the greatest willingness to tell anyone who would listen the story of Poe’s final illness and death. He even gave a number of public lectures on the subject, of which we have several newspaper reports. His most important statements, however, are contained in three documents, still extant:

(1) Moran’s letter of 15 November 1849, to Maria Clemm. This letter was first published incompletely by Woodberry in his 1885 book on Poe, but with some excisions and false readings.(4) It has often been reprinted with similar infidelities. The most reliable text is the one given by Arthur Hobson Quinn and Richard Hart in 1941.(5) The manuscript which they reproduce in facsimile, is held by the Enoch Pratt Library.

(2) His article published in the New York Herald, 28 October 1875, entitled “Official Memoranda of the Death of Edgar A. Poe.” ­[page 28:]

(3) His book of eighty-seven pages, entitled A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1885, perhaps at Moran’s own expense, by the Washington firm of William F. Boogher.

The errors and inconsistencies contained in these three documents have been noted by some biographers, who usually ascribe them to lapse of memory, an over-developed tendency to romanticize, or to senility. At the time he published his Defense of Poe, in 1885, Moran was no more than sixty-five years of age. Speaking as an octogenarian, I will say that at sixty-five a person is only entering the threshold of maturity. I suggest that perhaps one problem with Moran was his being a frustrated writer of fiction. He was certainly lying when he claimed that his several accounts of Poe’s death were based on the official hospital records. If there were such records, Moran did not consult them; otherwise he would not have given different dates and hours for Poe’s admission and for his death.

In 1849 Moran told Mrs. Clemm that Poe was admitted on 3 October, which date is probably correct, at 5 p.m., which may or may not be correct. In 1875 Moran wrote, in his “Official Memoranda,” that Poe was brought to the hospital at “Ten o’clock in the afternoon,” on the seventh of October, in other words, on the same day he died. This may have been a typographical error, but it remained uncorrected when his article was reprinted in the “Memorial Edition” of Poe’s Poems and Essays, in 1876.(6) Finally, in his Defense of Poe, in 1885, Moran gave a still different version, saying that Poe “was brought to the Washington College Hospital on October 6, 1849, about 9 o’clock A.M.”

Similar contradictions are found in Moran’s assertions regarding Poe’s death. According to the letter of 1849 to Maria Clemm, Poe was still alive at 3 a.m., 7 October, but in 1875 he stated that death “occurred about twelve o’clock, midnight.” Then, in 1885, he placed the time of death “between 12 and 1 o’clock.” It stands to reason that, if Moran had actually consulted hospital records as he claimed, these vital details would not have changed with each telling.

Another instance of Moran’s disregard for facts is his statement, in 1875, that he “communicated, as soon as (Poe’s) death occurred, to (Mrs. Clemm) the sad intelligence of his fate.” He repeated this information in 1885, when he wrote, “Soon after his death, as requested by the poet, I communicated to this lady the sad intelligence.” In actual fact, Moran communicated nothing to Mrs. Clemm until she had written him on 9 November asking him for particulars on her son-in-law’s death.(7) Moran did ­[page 29:] not know, of course, that his personal letter to Mrs. Clemm would some day be widely printed; perhaps he would not have even cared. The similarity of the 1875 wording and that of 1885, in the expression of “sad intelligence,” would seem to show that Moran had before him the Herald article while he was writing his Defense, showing that he was not disturbed by the possibility, that the two texts might be compared.

One of Moran’s more distasteful practices was to attribute to Po speeches which were certainly never uttered. The 1875 article is particularly rich in examples of this kind of forgery, reminiscent of Griswold’s doctoring of Poe’s letters in the notorious Memoir. We can not conceive of Poe’s (or anyone else’s) saying, as he lay dying: “Language cannot tell the gushing well that swells, sways and sweeps, tempest-like, over me, signalling the ‘larm of death.” Or this, as he was drawing his last breath: “The arched heaven encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair.” These alleged quotations were so unbelievable that even the editor of the New York Herald, which published them, had to confess: “We cannot imagine Poe, even if delirious, constructing [such sentences].”(8)

The accounts of 1875 and 1885 are so replete with this kind of fable and untruth that some biographers have been suspicious of them. Such is not the case, however, with the letter to Mrs. Clemm; it has received more favorable treatment, on the ground that it was written so soon after the event. Still, upon close examination, the letter also proves to be unreliable in some respects. It contains one statement, in particular, which has victimized many biographers. After telling Mrs. Clemm that Poe fell into a violent delirium, Moran added: “This state continued until Saturday evening . . . when he commenced calling for one ‘Reynolds,’ which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning.” Here we have the origin of what I call the Poe-Reynolds myth.

A new dimension was added to the myth in 1902, when James A. Harrison published the letter to Mrs. Clemm and added a note: “This Reynolds may have been the author of the ‘Address on the South Sea Expedition’ — a project in which Poe was deeply interested and which doubtess gave him ideas for ‘Arthur Gordon Pym’.”(9)

From this innocuous beginning the Poe-Reynolds myth grew until it contaminated all the biographies of this century. Its first appearance was in Hervey Allen’s Israfel, where we find this sepulchral portrayal of the death scene: ­[page 30:]

On that last night, as the shadows fell across him, it must have been the horrors of shipwreck, of thirst, and of drifting away into unknown seas of darkness that troubled his last dreams, for, by some trick of his ruined brain, it was the scenes of Arthur Gordon Pym that rose in his imagination, and the man who was connected most intimately with them. “Reynolds!” he called, “Reynolds!, Oh, Reynolds!” The room rang with it. It echoed down the corridors hour after hour all that Saturday night.”(10)

This, of course, is the kind of melodrama one would expect to find in a romanticized biography like Israfel. But would a real scholar be so easily fooled? The answer can be found in this extract from the “critical biography” by Arthur Hobson Quinn:

On Saturday night he began to yell loudly for “Reynolds!” Perhaps to his dim and tortured brain, he seemed to be on the brink of a great descending circle sweeping down like the phantom ship in the “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” into “darkness and distance.” In that first published story, Poe had written, “It is evident we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge — some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction. Perhaps this current leads to the South Pole itself”

It would have been natural enough for his favorite theme, the terror of the opening chasm, to lead his thoughts to that other story, Arthur Gordon Pym, and from that to Jeremiah Reynolds, projector of the voyages to the South Seas, whose very language he had used in that tale. He could easily have known Reynolds, but what led to his wild cries must still remain uncertain (640).

Lest is be thought that Allen and Quinn were the only victims of the Poe-Reynolds myth, I point out that it was also used, with less embellishment, by the following biographers: J. A. T. Lloyd in 1931,(11) Marie Bonaparte in ­[page 31:] 1933,(12) Philip Lindsay in 1953,(13) Frances Winwar in 1959[[,]](14) William Bittner in 1962,(15) as well as others, no doubt. One is rather surprised to find it pop up in the prestigious Literary History of the United States, in 1963.(16)

Two scholars have attempted to substantiate Harrison’s tentative identification of Reynolds: Robert F. Almy in “J. N. Reynolds: A Brief Biography with Particular Reference to Poe and Symmes,”(17) and Aubrey Starke, in “Poe’s Friend Reynolds.” Neither attempt strikes me as successful. Almy and Starke could only say that Poe could have known Jeremiah Reynolds, but neither presented acceptable evidence that he did know him. James H. Bready, in an article on “Poe’s Dying Cry for Reynolds,” suggested that Poe was calling for Henry R. Reynolds, a carpenter who served as election judge at the Fourth Ward Polls.(18) An identical proposal was made (independently?) by Philip Van Doren Stern, in “The Strange Death of Edgar Allan Poe.”(19) The priority of the “discovery” is not known, but that matters little, since, as I shall try to demonstrate, Reynolds was only a figment of Moran’s imagination. Burton Pollin suggested, half-jokingly, that Poe was calling for Frederick M. Reynolds, author of Miserrimus. Pollin was more serious and more perspicacious when he concluded: “We must finally leave ­[page 32:] unsettled the question of which Reynolds Poe intended at the end, if he called at all.”(20)

Perhaps, if Poe biographers had only taken the trouble to compare the three documents carefully, point by point, they might have avoided the error which has resulted in so much useless discussion. Here is what such a comparison reveals. Looking once more at what Moran told Mrs. Clemm in 1849: “This (delirium) continued until Saturday evening . . . when he commenced calling for one ‘Reynolds,’ which he did through the night up to three on Sunday morning.” The word “three” was underlined by Moran. This extraordinary behavior, which lasted three hours, and as many as six, is something anyone would retain in his memory, even if the memory was as bad as Moran’s was reputed to be. Yet, in his “Official Memoranda,” published in 1875, Moran does not say one word about Poe’s nocturnal shouts. Indeed, since he declared that Poe’s death occurred “about twelve o’clock midnight,” his earlier statement to Mrs. Clemm was obviously erroneous.

The name of Reynolds does occur in the 1875 account, however, but in a different context: “I had sent for his cousin, Nelson Poe [sic], having learned that he was his relative, and a family named Reynolds, who lived in the neighborhood of the hospital . . . Mr. W. N. Poe came, and the female members of Mr. Reynold’s family.” If we can place any faith in this statement (and I am not sure we can), then the Reynolds in question could hardly be Jeremiah Reynolds, who lived in New York, not Baltimore.

Finally, in his Defense of 1885, Moran again leaves out any references to Poe’s midnight calls for Reynolds. The passage I have just quoted has undergone a very significant alteration: “I had sent for his cousin, Mr. Nielson [sic] Poe, now Judge Poe, of the orphan’s court of Baltimore, having learned that he was related to my patient; and also for a Mr. Herring and family, who lived in the neighborhood. Judge Poe came as soon as he was notified and also the Misses Herring.” The similarity of the language again shows that Moran had the 1875 text before him while he was writing the 1885 version. The substitution of the name “Herring” for that of “Reynolds” must therefore have been deliberate.

At last, Moran’s story makes some sense. Herring, as I have stated, was Poe’s uncle-in-law. Poe knew Herring well. He had frequently been a guest in his home and had spent many happy hours with the Misses Herring. In his biography of Poe, Woodberry says: “He had been from boyhood fond of girls. He turned his attention to his fair cousin, Miss Herring, who was now sixteen . . . Her sister was within a few days of the same age as Virginia ­[page 33:] Clemm, and a cousinly intimacy existed between the families.”(21) Woodberry quotes from a letter he received from Amelia F. Poe, something of a family historian: “Almost always his visits to her were during the morning or afternoon, when he could see her alone. His attentions to her were not approved of by her father, first because he was her cousin, and then for the reason that he considered him poor and inclined to drink” (p. 90). Whatever may have been the feelings of Herring, as a protective parent in the early 1830s, for the young Poe, he was not the kind of man to ignore the desperate call for help in 1849, and he sprang to help his unfortunate relative and, with Dr Snodgrass, took him to the hospital. It is only natural that Poe would call for a relative when he was on his death-bed, and for the one he knew best. He probably did not call for Neilson Poe, whom he disliked, or for the Rev. W. T. D. Clemm, who conducted the funeral services, for he knew him less intimately.

So, it would appear, the mention of Reynolds in the letter to Mrs. Clemm was just a mistake on Moran’s part, which he gradually corrected. We would therefore waste time to speculate further on the identity of Reynolds. The Poe-Reynolds myth, then, is only that — a myth. Let us hope that Poe’s future biographers will avoid the error of Allen, Quinn and tutti quanti and not let themselves be bamboozled by Moran’s letter to Mrs. Clemm. The story of Poe’s death needs no embellishment; the bare facts are enough.

What sort of person was Dr. John Joseph Moran, who had such an important place in Poe’s death, if not in his life? The biographers have shown a rather odd lack of interest in him, although they owe him much. It is not easy to uncover details of his life, but here [[are]] a few facts of some interest.

Moran was born in 1820, according to some records, and 1822 according to others.(22) He received his M.D. from the University of Maryland in 1845. He first practiced in Bladensburg, then was appointed resident at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. At the time he attended Poe, he was only twenty-five or twenty-seven years old, according to which birth-date is correct. He was married and had living quarters in the hospital.

While Poe was still a patient, in fact only a few days after he was admitted, the name of the institution was changed from the Washington College Hospital, which was attached to Washington College in Pennsylvania, to the Baltimore City and Marine Hospital. It was what was known as a proprietary hospital, meaning that it was self-supporting. ­[page 34:]

Moran signed an advertisement in the Baltimore Sun, 5 October 1849, hoping to attract patients for surgical and medical treatment. He listed the hospital’s attractions:

The retreat is delightfully situated upon the highest ground of the city; it commands the most extensive view of the Bay and surrounding country. The apartments are spacious, lofty and well ventilated, and fitted up in the most commodious manner. The Surgical and Medical cases are in charge of gentlemen well known for their experience and judgment in both departments, and are regularly visited by them. The nurses are prompt and efficient in the discharge of their duties and there is nothing spared that would contribute to the comfort and recovery of the patients.

According to Moran, Poe was given a private room, “in the turret part of the building where patients were put who had been drinking freely.” The terms, as Moran stated in his advertisement, were three dollars per week in the Public Ward, for board, nursing, medicine, etc. Accommodations in the private rooms were five to seven dollars per week.

In 1851 the debt of the medical school became so great that the hospital building had to be sold. Another institution inherited the name, Washington University College, in 1867, but it was not associated with the former college. It was staffed by a group of Confederate physicians.(23)

Enticing as Moran’s description of the facilities may have been to prospective patients, it was likely they were primitive, in the college as well as in the hospital, according to modern standards. As late as 1910, Abraham Flexner, in his report on proprietary medical schools in this country, had this to say of one in Baltimore: “The school building was wretchedly dirty. Its so-called laboratories are of the worst existing type; one neglected and filthy room is set aside for bacteriology, pathology and histology; a few dirty test-tubes stand about in pans and old cigar boxes” (Miller 29).

When Moran ceased to be associated with the Baltimore City Hospital is not known, but he probably left when the hospital closed its doors in 1851. In his article in the Herald he said he was resident physician for seven years, but in his 1885 Defense he said: “I have the honor to say that I conducted and controlled this institution for six years as resident physician, living with my family on the premises.” Therefore, if he became resident physician in 1845 and left in 1851, it adds up to six years, or seven, as Moran would probably have put it. For about twenty years, we have no word of Moran’s whereabouts or activities. He finally turns up in Falls Church, Virginia. He ­[page 35:] was highly regarded by the other residents; when the town was incorporated, in 1875, he was elected its first mayor, by acclamation, and served a second one-year term in 1877-78. At one time, he was editor of the Loudon Enterprise, a newspaper in Leesburg, Virginia. He died at his Falls Church home, 12 December 1888, leaving a widow and two grown children.(24)

In a history of Falls Church, Moran is described as “a man with great ability,” and he was certainly a man of substance, a leading member of the local Methodist Church, and, apparently, popular. There is no record of outstanding accomplishments in his chosen field of medicine, however. His only known publications are the article published in the Herald and the booklet published in 1885.

I think it unfair to accuse Moran of malpractice, or of having done less than he should have to save Poe’s life. The curriculum in the medical schools in his student days, and the brevity of attendance required, would hardly produce fully trained doctors.

As a lecturer, although he had only one subject to offer, Moran must have been very successful. He spoke in a number of cities and the reports were, for the most part, favorable. One exception must be noted, however. The Washington Evening Critic, 12 April 1882, printed this uncomplimentary, and unfair, note on its editorial page:

Dr. John J. Moran, of Falls Church, Fairfax County, Virginia, is a very slow and deliberate person. After a silence of some thirty years, he now comes boldly forward and declares, as the attending physician, that Edgar Allan Poe did not die of jim-jams. Moran’s deliberate silence during all these years of detraction of the dead poet’s memory is something singular, when compared to his present fiery zeal. Who is left to dispute Moran? Nobody. Everybody else who knew anything about the attendant circumstances of Poe’s melancholy death is dead. Only Moran and his tale are left.(25)

This is a minority report, however. Moran’s fame as a lecturer was such that a group of the most distinguished citizens of Washington, D.C. wrote him on 28 March 1881, inviting him to address them and aid in the erection of a monument or some other memorial to Poe. The invitation bore thirty-seven signatures, including those of E. M. Gallaudet, founder and president of the College for the Deaf, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert G. Ingersoll, known as “the Great Agnostic,” and, in the past [[last]] place, the twentieth ­[page 36:] President of the United States, James A. Garfield. Whether the lecture was delivered and whether Garfield heard it (for he was assassinated only a few months later), I cannot say.(26)

When I first began to study Moran’s writings on Poe, I admit that I was not very tolerant. He impressed me as a chronic liar, interested only in taking advantage of his fortuitous acquaintance with Poe to attract attention to himself. Now, I am not so sure. That he was a mythomaniac is beyond doubt. That he often handled the truth very loosely is undeniable. But his motive may have been better than I once thought. His creation of the Poe-Reynolds myth was unfortunate, but not premeditated. He was incredibly muddle-headed, but he probably meant well. His worst mistake, as I see it, was to pose as Poe’s defender. When he declared that he detected no trace of alcohol on Poe’s breath when he admitted him to the hospital, he thought he was protecting the poet against the malicious accusations of his enemies. If Poe were alive today, I suspect that he would say of Moran: “I can handle my enemies myself, but God preserve me from my defenders.”


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 26:]

1  Mabbott 1: 569. “The story that Poe was a victim of election violence is twaddle, as R. D. Unger remarked in his letter in the Ingram Collection” (no.402).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 27:]

2  Snodgrass published this article in Beadle’s Monthly, 3 (March 1867), 283-287. The correct text of Walker’s note was first given by Edward Spencer, in “The Memory of Poe,” New York Herald, 27 March 1881 — quoted in Quinn [[p.]] 638.

3  Quinn [[pp.]] 642-643. The original autograph is in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.

4   Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885, pp. 343-345.

5  Edgar Allan Poe Letters and Documents in the Enoch Pratt Library. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 28:]

6  New York: Widdleton, 1876. pp. cxvi-cxxiv.

7  Moran begins his letter of 15 November 1849: “I take the earliest opportunity of responding to yours of the 9th inst . . . .”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 29:]

8  Memorial edition, cited in n6, pp. cxxiv-cxxv.

9  Harrison 1: 336, nl.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 30:]

10  Hervey Allen, Israfel, The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Doran, 1927. 2: 846-847.

11  The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Stanley Paul, 1931. p. 245.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 31:]

12  EdgarPoe,´etude psychanalytique. Paris: Denoel et Steele, 1933. 1: 265,267 (Translated London: Imago, 1949).

13  The Haunted Man: A Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Hutchinson, 1953; reissued, New York: Philosophical Library, 1954. pp. 250-257.

14  The Haunted Palace. A Life of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper, 1959. p 376.

15  Poe: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. p. 7.

16  F. O. Matthiessen, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Literary History of the United States, ed. R. E. Spiller et al. Third Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1963. 1: 340.

17  Respectively in Colophon, n.s. 2 (Winter 1937), [[pp.]] 227-245, and American Literature, 2 (May 1930), [[pp.]] 152-159.

18  Baltimore Sun, 7 October 1949.

19  Saturday Review, 15 October 1949. pp. 8-9, 28-30.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 32:]

20  Discoveries in Poe. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1970. pp. 198-200.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 33:]

21  The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, Personal and Literary . . . . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909. 1: 89-90.

22  According to Medical Annals of Maryland (Baltimore, 1903, p. 510), Moran was born in 1820.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 34:]

23  Information on the hospital and medical college is found in “A Nineteenth Century Medical School: Washington University of Baltimore,” by Genevieve Miller, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 14 (1943), [[pp.]] 14-30.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 35:]

24  Melvin Lee Steadman, Jr., Falls Church by Fence and Fireside. Falls Church: Falls Church Public Library, 1964. pp. 75-77, 378-380.

25  In Ingram’s Poeana, University of Virginia, No. 819.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 36:]

26  Original manuscript held by the Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas.



This publication is based on lectures delivered at the rededication of the Sir Moses Ezekiel statue of Poe at the Univeristy of Baltimore in 1983.

Some minor typographical errors in the original printing of this lecture have here been silently corrected.

© 1987 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - MAR, 1987] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Myths and Reality - Dr. Moran and the Poe-Reynolds Myth (W. T. Bandy, 1987)