Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 27,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1934), pp. 670-675


[page 670:]


THE steamer for Baltimore continued on its way. It was then a voyage of about forty-eight hours from Richmond with many stops. Several things might have happened on the route, and on most steamboats at that time there was a bar forward, for the refreshment of gentlemen travelers. The contingencies will bear being kept in mind.(925)

There is little doubt that, when he left Richmond, Poe was once more approaching one of his periods of collapse. The usual symptoms of great depression, amounting almost to melancholia, had been noted by many as he took his leave, and Elmira noticed that he had a feverish pulse.(923) It was probably the heart again. He had been quite active for some time, and was laboring under considerable excitement over the move South, and his approaching marriage. Under the circumstances, an attack was due. His sudden departure at four A.M., surprising Elmira, seems to show that, even at the time of leaving Richmond, he was a bit irrational.(926) What happened at Sadler’s, or what took place on the boat, it is impossible to be sure about Poe was in that peculiar condition, a physical dilemma in fact, that few who have discussed his failings seem to realize, i.e., his failing heart required a stimulant which would be disastrous to his brain. So far, largely through the good fortune of falling into the hands of friends, and of a latent power of recovery, he had survived. His strength was now exhausted, and Dr. Carter had warned him that one more lapse would bring on a fatal attack. He ventured to overstep the mark, and this time he did not fall into the hands of friends. The result was, as had been medically predicted, fatal. [page 671:]

When, or how he took the drink is a futile discussion. There is no doubt that he did. An attack, such as that which he had experienced at Philadelphia with similar delirium, ensued. The chronicle of the next few days is consequently involved in the lurid mists of confusion.

The steamer landed at Baltimore, probably during the forenoon of Saturday, September 29. What now happened must be pieced out, if possible, by the most plausible conjectures available, made by those familiar with the locality and its customs. We know that Poe was ostensibly upon his way to Philadelphia where he expected to revise Mrs. St. Leon Loud’s poems for a fee of $100. It also seems that, on passing through Baltimore, he expected to call upon some of his friends, for he actually attempted to do so. The trains for Philadelphia left at nine A.M., and eight P.M., and there would therefore have been several hours to wait. If Poe went to a hotel, he would most naturally have chosen the United States Hotel, then just opposite the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station, or possibly old Bradshaw’s near by.(927) Whether he did so, is not known. Sometime during the day he called at the residence of his friend, Dr. Nathan C. Brooks, at which time he was said to have been intoxicated. A void of five days then took place in his history, about which nothing certain can ever be ascertained.(928)

There was an election going on in Baltimore, at the time, for members of Congress and representatives to the State Legislature. The town was notoriously corrupt politically, and terrorized by gangs of hoodlums. Voters were not registered, and anyone who would, or could hold up his hand before a judge of elections, and face the ordeal of a “challenge,” was permitted to take the oath. Thus the party which could round up the greatest number of helpless “voters” could win any election. For several days before balloting such helpless unfortunates as political gangs could sandbag or intimidate were “mobilized,” and kept docile with drugs and whiskey at various places called “coops.” They were then repeatedly voted.

There was an election due in Baltimore on October 3,1849, and, five days before it began, Poe arrived. He was, therefore, in Baltimore while the “campaign” for voters was going on. That he was, when in [page 672:] an already helpless condition, seized upon and “cooped,” is not only quite a possible but by far the most probable explanation of what happened. The reasons for supposing so follow:(929)

On High Street, in the rear of an old engine-house, there was a Whig “coop,” notorious as the “Fourth Ward Club.” It is said that in 1849 there were imprisoned there between 130 and 140 “voters.” Poe was found, upon election day, within two squares of this place at Cooth & Sergeant’s Tavern in Lombard Street, near High Street. From now on we are once more dealing with witnesses and facts.

On October 3, 1849, James [[Joseph]] E. Snodgrass, M. D.,(547) an old friend of Poe, who lived at 103 High Street within about two blocks of Cooth & Sergeant’s Tavern, received a note scrawled in pencil that read:

Baltimore City, 3d, 1849

DEAR SIR, — There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, and he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours in haste,  

To Dr. J. E. Snodgrass

Dr. Snodgrass recognized the signature as that of a compositor on the Baltimore Sun whom he knew slightly.(931) It is evident that Walker recognized Poe as a gentleman in the wrong surroundings, and sent the note to Snodgrass, because Poe knew him, and because he (the Doctor) lived near, and was a medical man.

Dr. Snodgrass hastened through the rainy, chill October weather to the tavern, where he found Poe in the bar-room, sitting helpless in an arm chair, surrounded by ruffians.

His face was haggard, not to say bloated, and unwashed, his hair unkempt and his whole physique repulsive. His expansive forehead . . . and those full-orbed and mellow, yet soulful eyes for which he was so noticeable when himself, now lusterless as shortly I could see, were shaded from view by a rusty, almost brimless, tattered and ribbonless palm leaf hat. His clothing consisted of a sack-coat of thin and sleezy black alpaca, ripped more or less at intervals of its seams, and faded and soiled, and pants of a steel-mixed pattern of cassinett, half worn and [page 673:] badly fitting, if they could be said to fit at all. He wore neither vest nor neck cloth, while the bosom of his shirt was both crumpled and badly soiled. . . . (932)

Dr. Snodgrass, at first, tried to get a private room for Poe at the “tavern,” but while this was being prepared, with confusion and delay, Mr. Herring, Poe’s cousin, arrived.(933) After some consultation, it was decided that Poe had better be taken to the Washington Hospital. A carriage was sent for, and the dying man was carried to the conveyance, still grasping Dr. Carter’s Malacca cane that he had brought by mistake from Richmond. The unconscious, but still muttering wreck of a great poet was now drawn by horses through the streets of Baltimore, and delivered at the Washington Hospital into the hands of the physician on duty, Dr. J. J. Moran, at the hour of five P.M. This was on Wednesday, October 3.

Poe remained unconscious until three o’clock next morning. The mercy of oblivion was then withdrawn. Drenched in perspiration, with shaking limbs, pale, and talking constantly in a “busy but not violent or active delirium, the whole chamber seethed for him, and with vacant converse he talked to the spectres that withered and loomed on the walls.”

Dr. Moran was now called in, and endeavored to obtain some information about where he lived, and his relatives. “But his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory.” He told the physician that he had a wife in Richmond, doubtless thinking of Elmira. Sometime during the day Neilson Poe called, but could not be allowed to see his cousin. Changes of linen, and all comforts were sent him. The Poe and Herring relatives left nothing lacking.

Seeing that he was a gentleman, the doctor had Poe placed in a room not far from the living quarters of his family, and the bedside of the sufferer was visited by the physician’s wife, Mrs. Mary O. Moran.

The key to his trunk was found in his clothes, but he could not remember what had become of the trunk. He seems to have left it at the Old Swan Tavern in Richmond. Dr. Moran, seeing his case was hopeless, strove to cheer him by telling him that in a few days “he would be able to rejoin the society of his friends.” The thought seems to have [page 674:] maddened the patient instead of soothing him, for he “broke out with much energy and said the best thing his best friend could do would be to blow out his miserable brains with a pistol — that when he beheld his miserable degradation he was ready to sink into the earth.” An that he had lost must now have flashed upon him in “concentrated despair.” Worn out, he dozed, — when the doctor returned a little later two nurses were struggling to keep him in bed. A demon worse than all that he had imagined, tormented him in a long and violent delirium.

It went on for days. Neither Mrs. Clemm nor Annie knew. They did not come. In the desperate struggles and agonies of remorse, what was left of him was worn away. Dr. Moran’s wife, hearing he was quiet at last, came down the passage from the wing where she kept house, to take down his last directions, thinking he had something tangible to leave.

He asked her if there was any hope. She replied, thinking he meant, hope for recovery, that her husband thought him a very ill man. He then said, “I meant hope for a wretch like me beyond this life.” She tried to comfort him, “with the words of the Great Physician,” and read him the fourteenth chapter of St. John. Wiping the beads of perspiration from his brow, she smoothed his pillow, gave him a soothing draught, and departed to make his shroud. What Poe thought no one will ever know. Nothing less heartrending can truthfully be said, than that the death of Israfel was more painful than his life.

He lived from Wednesday, the third, to the Sunday following. On Saturday night he began to dream of the past, It would be grateful to record, or to suppose that he sank back into the sunny valley of his childhood, and saw Mrs. Stanard again, that he wandered in gardens with little Rob and Elmira, or that Frances Allan might have come to his bedside, as she used, to soothe his troubled steep. But we know this was not what happened. Nothing was spared him.

On the last night, as the shadow fell across him, it must have been the horrors of shipwreck, of thirst, and of drifting away into unknown seas of darkness(934) 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 [page 675:] Saturday night. The last grains of sand uncovered themselves as they slipped away, during the Sunday morning of October 7, 1849. He was now too feeble to call out any more. It was three o’clock in the morning and the earth’s shadow was still undisturbed by dawn.

He became quiet, and seemed to rest for a short time. Then, gently moving his head he said, “Lord help my poor soul.”



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 670:]

925.  Steamers stopped by signal from plantation wharfs. Poe may have changed to the Norfolk-Baltimore steamer at Old Point Comfort. From a contemporary map (1850) in the writer’s possession, the steamboat route from Richmond to Baltimore was by way of Eppe’s Island, Windmill Point, Powhatan, Sandy Point, Hog Island, Day’s Point, Old Point Comfort, Rappahanoc River, Smith’s Point, Point Lookout, Patuxent River, Cove Point, Sharp’s Island, Herring Bay, Annapolis, Sandy Point, North Point, Baltimore (Map, tables 3 and 5). In 1815, the round trip, steamboat, from Baltimore to Norfolk, required a week. In 1820, the time was cut to twenty hours; by 1840 it required thirteen or fourteen, where it remained for some time. The trip to Richmond from Baltimore in 1849 must have taken at least forty-eight hours with stops. See Steamboat Days by F. E. Dayton.

926.  Woodberry shows conclusively that Poe’s departure from Richmond at 4 AM. was somewhat of a whim.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 671:]

927.  New York Herald, March 27, 1881 (Spencer), a discussion of Dr. Snodgrass’ The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial, Beadle’s Monthly, 1867.

928.  Several other stories about Poe’s doings during these five days exist. He is said to have taken a train to Philadelphia, and to have been put off at Havre de Maryland, and sent back (Conductor George Rollins) — evidence second hand and very flimsy. Bishop O. P. Fitzgerald mentions Poe’s attending a birthday party, and drinking a toast to the “fair hostess” — certainly apocryphal. The election incident story is not given here as certain, but as the most possible. The best discussions are in Woodberry, and Harrison.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 672:]

929.  The author examined various files of the Baltimore newspapers for October, 1849, at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore in May, 1926, also various pamphlets dealing with hospitals and church homes in Baltimore, for some of the facts given in this chapter. Directories of the day were also consulted.

930.  The version of the note given here is a copy from the original. See Harrison, Biography, pages 327-328. This note has been frequently misquoted, due to Dr. Snodgrass’s garbled version. Note copied by W. Hand Brown [[Browne]] for Prof. Harrison.

931.  J. W. Walker, printer, was afterward drowned, so no further evidence from him appears.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 673:]

932.  The account here is taken from The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial, by J. E. Snodgrass, M.D., in Beadle’s Monthly, pages 283 to 288 (1867), original text furnished by John T. Snyder, Esq. The author is aware of the doubtful elements in part of this story, written eighteen years later, but, as Dr. Snodgrass was present, his testimony is that of a direct witness, the only one available. The fact that the Doctor’s memory of dates failed him, does not vitiate his memory of Poe’s appearance, and the events. Note that Poe wore a “planter’s” hat in Richmond, and still had the wreck of it as described by Dr. Snodgrass.

933.  How he was informed does not appear. That he was informed is evident.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 674:]

934.  J. N. Reynolds connected with a project for the exploration of the South Polar Seas. Poe was interested in this in Richmond during the time he was on the Messenger there, and writing Arthur Gordon Pym. He may have had interviews with Reynolds in New York, where Pym was published in 1838. See also Poe’s review of J. N. Reynolds’ pamphlet, South Sea Expedition, in the Southern Literary Messenger for January, 1837. See note 503 and context, this text.






[S:0 - HVA34, 1934] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (H. Allen) (Chapter 27)