Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 17,” Complete Works of E. A. Poe , Vol. 01: Biography (1902), 1:327-340


[page 327:]




ACCORDING to even modern standards, Poe could not have reached Baltimore by the James River and Chesapeake Bay — Patapsco route — under from twenty four to twenty-eight hours; then, when steam navigation was so much slower and more imperfect, it must have required much longer. At present a steamer leaves Richmond at 6 or 7 A. M. and reaches Old Point at 5 or 6 P. M.; the fast Bay steamers then reach Washington about five or silt in the morning, the Baltimore route being even longer.

Possibly he met on this rather prolonged and tedious water-trip persons who induced him to break his pledge: one does not know.

The following note from Dr. William Hand Browne to the author is self-explanatory and also explanatory of the last act in the tragedy:

“The following is an exact copy of the pencil note sent to Dr. Snodgrass to notify him of the condition in which Poe was. The writer, J. W. Walker, was (I have been informed) a printer of Baltimore. The note was copied by myself from the original in the possession of Mrs. Snodgrass, widow of Poe’s friend. Dr. Snodgrass, on receipt of the note, hastened to [page 328:] attend Poe, and finding him in a dangerous state, had him removed to the hospital, where he died. W. H. B.”


DEAR SIR, — There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognonnen 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,  


What preluded the situation above pictured is a matter of supposition. One report is that Poe started for Philadelphia by rail and got as far as Havre de Grace, when, falling into a stupor, he was brought back to Baltimore and fell into the hands of political toughs at Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls, was drugged, and carried round from polls to polls in the interests of the Whig party. Dr. Snodgrass’s own garrulous and garbled account of the affair in “Beadle’s Monthly” for 1867 — “The Facts of Poe’s Death and Burial” — has been shown by an intelligent writer (Mr. Spencer) in the New York “Herald,” March 27, 1881, to be wholly untrustworthy. This gentleman had the whole Poe-Snodgrass correspondence in his possession and copied and printed in “The Herald”(1) many interesting extracts from it, including the “coop letter.” We quote from it the following:

The compositor (Walker) was well-known among the earlier printers upon the Baltimore’Sun.’ He was afterwards drowned while swimming in the Spring [page 329:] Gardens. The tavern to which reference was made [in Dr. Snodgrass’s account] was in East Lombard Street, a door or two east of High Street. Dr. Snodgrass himself lived on High Street at that time, within a block or two of the tavern, and it was probably his; immediate proximity as much as anything else, which prompted Walker to send for him. Poe was manifestly very ill, though he did not die until the following Sunday morning (this note was written on Wednesday night). ... It will be noticed that, in spite of the fact that Snodgrass had the original of this note in his possession, he preferred to quote it from memory, and in so doing, utterly perverted its contents. He gave the wrong day of the month, the wrong day of the week, the wrong name for the tavern, and an absolutely false and illusory statement of the printer’s representations as to Poe’s condition. ‘A gentleman rather the worse for wear,’ who ‘appears in great distress,’ and is in evident ‘need of immediate assistance,’ is put down as being ‘in a state of beastly intoxication and evident destitution.’ Walker speaks of a gentleman and stranger, who is so ill as to excite his sympathy and cause alarm; Snodgrass makes him speak of a drunken and penniless loafer. Griswold, of course, makes worse out of Snodgrass’s bad enough. He assigns Thursday, October 4, as the day, speaks of a ‘night of exposure and insanity,’ etc., ‘resolutions and duties forgotten,’ and all the rest of an infamous rigmarole.

“What are the actual facts in regard to Edgar A. Poe’s death? The Baltimore’Sun’ of October 8, 1849, has only this announcement:

“‘We regret to learn that Edgar A. Poe, Esq., the distinguished American poet, scholar, and critic, died [page 330:] in this city yesterday morning, after an illness of four or five days. This announcement, coming so sudden and unexpected, will cause poignant regret among all who admire genius and have sympathies for the frailties too often attending it. Mr. Poe, we believe, was a native of this State, though reared by a foster-father at Richmond, Va., where he lately spent some time on a visit. He was in the thirty-eighth year of his age.’

“Let us suppose,” continues Mr. Spencer; not noticing the errors as to the place and time of Poe’s birth,” that Poe arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday, October 3, 1849, not entirely free from the effects of bad hours in the capital of Virginia. He must have reached the city in the forenoon, and, whether he came by rail or by steamboat, he would have naturally and almost instinctively gone to the United States Hotel (the present Maltby House), opposite which, at that time, was the depôt of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

“Poe was a Whig in politics. There was an election going on that day, a very wet and disagreeable one, for members of Congress and members of the State Legislature. If Poe had been drinking at all, and it is altogether likely that he had, he would talk, and on election day all men talk politics.

“Eight blocks east of the hotel where he [presumably] was, was High Street, and in the rear of an engine-house in this vicinity the ‘Fourth Ward Club,’ a notorious Whig organization, had their ‘coop.’ There was no registry of voters at this time in Baltimore, and almost any one could vote who was willing to face the ordeal of a ‘challenge’ and the oath administered by a judge of elections. Hence, personal [page 331:] voting ‘material’ was valuable, and the roughs of the period, instead of acting as rounders themselves, used to capture and ‘coop’ innocent strangers and foreigners, drug them with bad whiskey and opiates, and send them round to the different voting-places under custody of one or two of their party, ‘to help the cause.’ The system of ‘cooping’ probably culminated in this year, 1849, and, if the writer’s memory does not play him a trick, the ‘coop’ of the Democrats on Lexington Street, near Eutaw, in the rear of the ‘New Market’ engine-house, had 75 prisoners, while that of the Whigs, on High Street, had 130 to 140 — the equivalent of 600 votes.

“The prisoners in these ‘coops,’ chiefly foreigners, strangers, countrymen, fared wretchedly. They were often, at the outstart, and in the most unexpected way, drugged with opiates and such other delrifaciants as would be most likely to keep them from being troublesome and prevent them from resenting their outrageous treatment. They were thrust into cellars and backyards, and kept under lock and key, without light, without beds, without provisions for decency, without food. Only one thing they were supplied with, and that was a sufficient deluge of whiskey to keep their brains all the time sodden, and prevent them from imparting intelligibility to their complaints.

“The Whig ‘coop’ in the Fourth Ward, on High Street, was within two squares of the place where Poe was ‘found.’ It is altogether possible ... that Poe was ‘cooped’ and that his outlaw custodians, discovering too late the disastrous effects of their infamous decoctions upon the delicate tissues and convolutions of his finely organized brain, sought to repair some of the damage they had done, and caused inquiry to be [page 332:] made for the friends of the man they had murdered. Too late!

“Poe was taken that night to the hospital, which is now called the ‘Church Home’ (on North Broadway), suffering from a violent brain fever of a congestive character. He never recovered consciousness, he made no dying speeches and remarks, and his little candle, which now shines so far, went out very briefly about daybreak on Sunday morning, October 7.”

Such were in all probability the environing circumstances of the death of the great lyrist.

Of Dr. J. J. Moran’s account of the poet’s last hours and his dying declarations,(1) written thirty-five years after the events, one can say that it is romantically interesting, but not convincing. Judge Neilson Poe, his third cousin, who was at the hospital constantly until he died, asserted that he never regained consciousness. Dr. Snodgrass, who wrote in 1867, seventeen years after the catastrophe, asserts that he was conscious, and adds (if we may believe them) the following particulars: —

“The Washington Hospital having been fixed upon, a messenger was despatched to procure a carriage. White awaiting its arrival, I had an opportunity to observe more closely than I had taken time to do previously, the condition and apparel of the strangely metamorphosed being in the bar-room who wore a name which was a synonym for genius — the first glance at whose tout ensemble was well calculated to recall Poe’s own so frequently hinted doctrine of the [page 333:] metempsychosis. His face was haggard, not to say bloated and unwashed, his hair unkempt, and his whole physique repulsive. His expansive forehead, with its wonderful breadth between the points where the phrenologists locate the organ of ideality — the widest I ever measured-and that full-orbed and mellow yet soulful eye, for which he was so noticeable when himself, now lustreless and vacant, 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 slazy [[sleazy]] black alpaca, ripped more or less at several of its seams, and faded and soiled, and pants of a steel-mixed pattern of cassinette, half-worn and 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. On his feet were boots of coarse material, and giving no sign of having been blacked for a long time, if at all.

“The carriage having arrived, we tried to get the object of our care upon his feet, so that he might the more easily be taken to it. But he was past locomotion. We therefore carried him to the coach as if he were a corpse, and lifted him in in the same manner. While we were doing this, what was left of one of the most remarkable embodiments of genius the world has produced in all the centuries of its history — the author of a single poem which alone has been adjudged by more than one critic as entitling its producer to a lasting and enviable fame — was so utterly voiceless as to be capable of only muttering some scarcely intelligible oaths, and other forms of imprecation upon those who were trying to rescue him from destitution and disgrace. [page 334:]

“The carriage was driven directly to the hospital, where its unconscious occupant was assigned to the care of its intelligent and kindly resident physician [Dr. J. J. Moran].

... He lived nearly a week, instead of dying ‘next day,’ as one account has it, or in a ‘few hours,’ as another records it, dying on the 7th of the same month, Monday [Sunday]. Besides, it might convey the idea that he had no lucid moments. But he had, and in one of these an incident transpired which, while its mention may serve to extend the already long, as well as interesting record of the last words of noted men, it will be recognized as anything but characteristic of Mr. Poe, who was always haunted by a terrible though vague apprehension of death and the grave. When the hospital physician became satisfied that the author of ‘William Wilson’ — a favorite tale of Mr. Poe — and of ‘The Raven’ — had written his last story and his last poem, he addressed him concernedly and kindly, saying: ‘Mr. Poe, it is my painful duty to inform you that you have, in my judgment, only a very short time to live. If you have any friends whom you would like to see, name them, and your wish shall be gratified; I will summon them.’

“‘Friends!’ exclaimed the dying son of genius — ‘friends!’ repeating the word for a moment as if it had no longer a definite meaning; ‘my best friend would be he who would take a pistol and blow out these d—d wretched brains!’ pressing his hand to his forehead as he uttered the awful imprecation.”

Fortunately, however, we are not dependent upon Dr. Snodgrass’s harrowing account as our sole testimony for Poe’s last hours: there is in existence a letter from Dr. J. J. Moran to Mrs. Clemm, written five [page 335:] or six weeks after the event, which gives an account of bare facts without the romantic coloring of Dr. Moran’s later statement, at the same time relieving the sufferer of the stain of dying with an imprecation on his lips

November 15,’49  


MY DEAR MADAM, — I take the earliest opportunity of responding to yours of the 9th inst., which came to hand by yesterday’s mail. ...

But now for the required intelligence. Presuming you are already aware of the malady of which Mr. Poe died, I need only state concisely the particulars of his circumstances from his entrance until his decease.

When brought to the hospital he was unconscious of his condition — who brought him or with whom he had been associating. He remained in this condition from five o‘clock in the afternoon — the hour of his admission — until three next morning. This was on the 3d October.

To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy but not violent or active delirium — constant talking — and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration. We were unable to induce tranquillity before the second day after his admission.

Having left orders with the nurses to that effect, I was summoned to his bedside so soon as consciousness supervened, and questioned him in reference to his family, place of residence, relatives, etc. But his answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory. He told me, however, he had a wife in Richmond (which I have since learned was not the fact), that he did not know when he left that city, or what had become of his trunk of clothing. Wishing to rally and sustain his now fast sinking hopes, [page 336:] I told him I hoped that in a few days he would be able to enjoy the society of his friends here, and I would be most happy to contribute in every possible way to his ease and comfort. At this he broke out with much energy, and said the best thing his best friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol — that when he beheld his degradation, he was ready to sink into the earth, etc. Shortly after giving expression to these words, Mr. Poe seemed to doze, and I left him for a short time. When I returned I found him in a violent delirium, resisting the efforts of two nurses to keep him in bed. This state continued until Saturday evening (he was admitted on Wednesday), when he commenced calling for one “Reynolds,”(1) which he did through the night until three on Sunday morning. At this time a very decided change began to affect him. Having become enfeebled from exertion, he became quiet, and seemed to rest for a short time; then gently moving his head, he said, “Lord help my poor soul!” and expired.

This, Madam, is as faithful an account as I am able to furnish from the Record of his case.

... His remains were visited by some of the first individuals of the city, many of them anxious to have a lock of his hair. ...

Respectfully yours,  
J. J. MORAN, Res. Phys.(2)

His relatives, Judge Neilson Poe and Mr. Henry Herring, took charge of the remains, which were buried Monday afternoon in the churchyard attached to Westminster Presbyterian Church, corner of Fayette and Greene Streets, the Rev. W. T. D. Clemm [page 337:] reading the burial service of the Methodist Episcopal church. Only a few friends witnessed the solemn rites, among them his class-mate at the University of Virginia, Hon. Z. Collins Lee, Poe’s cousin, Edmund Smith, Dr. Snodgrass, the officiating clergyman, and Mr. N. Poe.

His trunk and clothes were sought in vain: they had most probably been stolen.

The writer is enabled to supplement these statements by the following interesting recollections of Mrs. J. J. Moran, furnished him by her nephew, Mr. J. B. Green, of the University of Virginia:

“Mrs. Mary O. Moran, wife of the physician in charge of Washington College Hospital, Baltimore, where Poe died, made substantially the following statement as to his last hours. ‘When the young man was brought into the hospital in a stupor, it was supposed he was overcome by drink. It was election time, and the city was very disorderly. We soon saw he was a gentleman; and as our family lived in a wing of the college building, the doctor had him taken to a room easily reached by a passage from our wing. I helped to nurse him here, and during an interval of consciousness he asked if there was any hope for him. Thinking he referred to his physical condition, I said, “My husband thinks you are very ill, and if you have any directions to give regarding your affairs I will write them down.” He replied, “I meant, hope for a wretch like me, beyond this life.” I assured him that the Great Physician said there was. I then read him the fourteenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, gave him a quieting draught, wiped the beads of perspiration from his face, smoothed his pillow, and left him. Not long afterwards they [page 338:] brought me a message that he was dead. I made his shroud and helped to prepare his body for burial.’ ”

“It is impossible,” says Mr. Ingram, in concluding his sympathetic Memoir — the fullest and best of the biographies of Poe — “to conceive the horror and heart-rending grief of Mrs. Clemm when the intelligence of Poe’s death was conveyed to her. She was awaiting his arrival, to bear her away to her native South, and instead of welcoming an affectionate son — happy in the prospect of an anticipated marriage and a prosperous fume — she received the tidings of his terrible and mysterious death. In the first moments of her loneliness and anguish she wrote to her best friend, for sympathy, in these terms:

Oct. 8, 1849.

Annie, my Eddy is dead. He died in Baltimore yesterday. Annie! pray for me, your desolate friend. My senses will leave me. I will write the moment I hear the particulars. I have written to Baltimore. Write and advise me what to do.

Your distracted friend,  
M. C.

“Writing again on the 13th of October to the same faithful friend, Mrs. Clemm says:

“MY OWN DEAREST ANNIE, — I am not deceived in you. You still wish your poor desolate friend to come to you. ... I have written to poor Elmira [Mrs. Shelton], and have to wait for her answer. They are already making arrangements to publish the works of my darling lost one. I have been waited on by several gentlemen, and have finally arranged with Mr. Griswold to arrange and bring them out, and he wishes it done immediately. Mr. Willis is to share with him this labor of [page 339:] love. They say that I am to have the entire proceeds, so you see, Annie, I will not be entirely destitute. I have had many letters of condolence, and one which has, indeed, comforted me. Neilson Poe, of Baltimore, has written to me, and says he died in the Washington Medical College, not the Hospital, and of congestion of the brain, and not of what the vile, vile papers accuse him. He had many kind friends with him, and was attended to his grave by the literati of Baltimore, and many friends. Severe excitement (and no doubt some imprudence) brought this on; he never had one interval of reason. ... Never, oh, never, will I see those dear lovely eyes. I feel so desolate, so wretched, friendless, and alone.’ ”(1)

The poor old woman, now advanced in years, became literally a wanderer on the face of the earth, accepting, first, the hospitality of “Annie,” at Lowell, Mass., with whom she resided for a few months (“years,” says Ingram), and then staying with “Stella,” in Brooklyn, until 1858,(2) when she removed to Baltimore. There she died in “the Church Home and Infirmary,” February 16, 1871, more than 80 years of age — the very place where her “Eddy” had died.

At Poe’s death a few papers and articles of a miscellaneous nature were found in the hands of publishers and editors, and two of his most striking poems — “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” — came suddenly to the surface, drawn thither by the solemn reverberation of the news of the poet’s death. “Sartain’s Union Magazine” for November contained the final version of “The Bells,” the design of which, [page 340:] as he informed the poet Thompson, was “to express in language the exact sounds of bells to the ear”; and the “Southern Literary Messenger” for November contained “Annabel Lee,” prefaced by the following words:

“The day before he [Poe] left Richmond, he placed in our hands for publication in the ‘Messenger’ the MS. of his last poem, which has since found its way (through a correspondent of a northern paper with whom Mr. Poe had left a copy) into the newspaper press, and been extensively circulated. As it was designed for this magazine, however, we publish it, even though all of our readers may have seen it before.”(1)

It seems strange that this tender and beautiful ballad should appear in “The Tribune” for Oct. 9, 1849, almost side by side with the attack on Poe’s memory now known to have been written by Griswold — a poem in every line refuting the anonymous assault whose “intense energy of delineation” is pronounced “a piece of writing that has the power of genius and cannot be forgotten while his memory lives.”

In “Graham’s” for January, 1850, appeared a paper “On Critics and Criticism,” and this was followed in October by “The Poetic Principle,” in “Sartain’s Union Magazine”; completing the tally of Poe’s works which, even after death, streamed forth in these puissant channels and taught the world not only what he conceived to be the true theory of poetry but exemplified it in two wondrous poems. “The singular and exquisite genius of Poe,” as Swinburne calls it, was thus singular and exquisite to the last breath.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 328:]

1.  Kindly lent the author by Miss A. F. Poe, of Baltimore.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 332:]

1.  A Defence of Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Character, and Dying Declarations of the Poet: An Official Account of his Death by his Attending Physician, John J. Moran, M.D., Washington, D.C.: 1885.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 336:]

1.  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 doubtless gave him ideas for “Arthur Gordon Pym.”

2.  Miss A. F. Poe, MS.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 339:]

1.  Ingram, II. p. 239

2.  Edgar Allan Poe: A Memorial Volume: 1875: p. 86.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 340:]

1.  So. Lit. Mess. The Late Edgar A. Poe: Nov. 1849, p. 697.





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