Edgar Allan Poe was one of the greatest lights of not just American writing, but the literary world. His horror stories have remained popular for more than 150 years, including classics like The Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum. His poems remain studied today, with “The Bells” being most people’s first explanations of onomatopoeia and “The Raven” a Halloween standard.
Beyond that, he created the modern mystery story, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later cribbing heavily from the C. Auguste Dupin work when penning his first tales of Sherlock Holmes. And in The Mystery of Marie Roget, Poe created the first “true crime” fiction.
His association with mystery wasn’t exclusive to his writing, though. His death remains a mystery as well.
While it is well known that Poe died due to his alcoholism, that “knowledge” is false (and more on why that belief is commonly held in tomorrow’s Owl.) What did kill him is not certain, but the most likely cause was… election fraud.
That’s right. Election fraud.
Poe had been a drinker in his earlier days, but had not been an alcoholic; what he had been was a person with a tendency to humiliate himself in public and waste otherwise useful hours recovering. As a result, he joined the temperance movement a few months prior to his death. While it is true that he might have “fallen off the wagon”, chemical tests performed on some of his remaining hairs detected no indication of heavy drinking; if he had lapsed back into alcohol, it was a one-time event and would not explain his state.
His state was delirious, wounded, hallucinating, and wearing the wrong clothes. That’s correct; he was not wearing his own clothes when he was found in the streets and brought to the hospital for what would be a futile attempt at healing.
The date was October 3rd, and there was a city-wide election for sheriff going on. Poe had supposedly left the city almost a week before, but he was found that evening in his diminished capacity. And at the time, “cooping” was a common practice.
Cooping consisted of kidnapping someone, getting them blind drunk, and then escorting them from polling place to polling place to vote. Sometimes the people would be returned to a previous poll, but they’d have their clothes swapped out first and cheaply disguised (wigged, bruised, etc), so as to be less recognizable to the poll workers.
Poe was found wearing someone else’s clothes, smelling of cheap alcohol and beaten… exactly the sort of situation one might expect of someone who’d been “cooped”. His long history with public drinking, however, led some of his friends to assume he had merely gotten far too drunk once too often, probably as a result of his time “on the wagon”. By the time the details of the beating and the clothes came out, the police had already closed the case.
So much for election fraud being a victimless crime.
Question of the night: what’s your favorite Poe story?