The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

No aspect of his life has so fascinated Poe’s readers as his death. Unfortunately, what is known is confusing and  baffling. Shrouded in opinion and contradiction, the essential details of Poe’s final days present more questions than answers. The facts surrounding Poe’s death must, probably, after more than 160 years, remain a mystery — but it is a puzzle that still teases and entices those who find Poe’s writings and life enigmatic and incomprehensible. The Poe Shadow is a terrific depiction of this mystery and of Poe’s fate.

 Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the Washington College Hospital in Baltimore. The events surrounding his death have remained an enigma. In the early morning hours of October 7, Poe calmly breathed a simple prayer, “Lord, help my poor soul,” and died. His cause of death was ascribed to “congestion of the brain.” No autopsy was performed, and the author was buried two days later. In dying under such mysterious circumstances, the father of the detective story has left us with a real-life mystery which Poe scholars, medical professionals, and others have been trying to solve for over 150 years. The Poe Shadow constructs “an intriguing chain of theories” (The New York Times) using new and definitive evidence in a rational, convincing, and enthusiastic theory of Poe’s last days.

 The Poe Shadow reveals, deliberates, and evaluates existing circumstances and evidence as well as new information that has not been known until this books. In the weeks before his death, Poe asked his aunt Maria Clemm to send him a letter to Philadelphia addressed to “E. S. T. Grey,” precisely at the same time a letter from Maria Clemm addressed to Poe under that name would have arrived at the post office. This was likely the last letter sent to Poe in his lifetime. The existence of this waiting letter has never before been known, and this list is reprinted for the first time  in The Poe Shadow, where its implications are explored and the reasons why Poe used this alias in this final days are finally revealed.

 Poe had plans to Philadelphia to edit a book of poems by a writer named Maurgerite St. Leon Loud. Poe died, but Loud ultimately did publish her poetry book in 1851, two years after Poe’s death. Identified for the first time in The Poe Shadow, “The Stranger’s Doom” may be the first poem ever written about Poe’s funeral. What it reveals about Poe’s death is uncovered in The Poe Shadow.

 All we know is that on October 3, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore , “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance”, according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died at 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.

 Much of the  information that we have had about the last few days of Poe’s life came from the doctor who tended him during his last days, Dr. John Joseph Moran, though his credibility is questionable. Theories as to what caused Poe’s death include suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis, influenza, and that Poe was a victim of cooping,  a practice in which unwilling participants were forced to vote, often several times over, for a particular candidate in an election. given alcohol or drugs in order for them to comply. If they refused to cooperate, they would be beaten or even killed.

 What is known is that on September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia, on his way home to New York. His whereabouts between that day until a week later on October 3 are unknown, when he was found delirious in Baltimore. He was cared for by Dr. Moran at the Washington College Hospital.  He was denied any visitors and was confined in a prison-like room with barred windows in a section of the building reserved for drunk people. Moran claimed he attempted to cheer Poe up during one of the few times Poe was awake. When Moran told his patient that he would soon be enjoying the company of friends, Poe allegedly replied that “the best thing his friend could do would be to blow out his brains with a pistol.”

 Shortly after his death, an obituary which disparaged Poe’s reputation appeared in the New York Tribune signed “Ludwig,” and was soon published throughout the country. The piece began, “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.” The author was Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an editor and critic who had borne a grudge against Poe since 1842. Griswold somehow became Poe’s literary executor and, in a campaign to destroy his  reputation after his death, Griswold depicted Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman. Much of the evidence for this image of Poe is believed to have been forged by Griswold, and though friends of Poe denounced it, this interpretation had lasting impact.

 One theory as to the cause of Poe’s death was reached through an analysis almost 147 years after his death. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center believe that Edgar Allan Poe may have died as a result of rabies, not from complications of alcoholism. Poe’s medical case was reviewed by R. Michael Benitez, M. D., a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. His review is published in the September 1996 issue of Maryland Medical Journal.

 “No one can say conclusively that Poe died of rabies, since there was no autopsy after his death,” says Dr. Benitez, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “But the historical accounts of Poe’s condition in the hospital a few days before his death point to a strong possibility that he had rabies.” “Poe’s death is one of the most mysterious deaths in literary history, and it provided us with an interesting case in which to discuss many principles of medicine,” says Dr. Mackowiak of the weekly Clinical Pathologic Conference at the medical center.

 The Poe Shadow is a novel written by Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club. It tells the story of the quest of Quentin Hobson Clark, a Baltimore young lawyer, to solve the mystery of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.  It is a work of historical and literary fiction, in which some previously unpublished details about the last days of Poe, as mentioned.

 Quentin, a Poe admirer, witnesses a somber, simple funeral on October 8, 1849. When he learns it Edgar Allan Poe’s, with whom he had previously exchanged letters about providing legal support for a new journal, The Stylus, Clark feels obliged to look into the circumstances leading to Poe’s death, despite protests from his fiancée Hattie Blum and his friend Peter Stuart.

 Quentin’s search for the truth takes him to Paris to find the real-life inspiration for Poe’s character C. August Dupin, a man of intellect who could help unravel the mystery, just as he did The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter. If the situation weren’t already complicated, Quentin meets Baron C.A. Dupin, a famed lawyer in Paris, and a lone detective with a similar name: Auguste Duponte. After a confrontational encounter with the Baron Dupin and his companion, Bonjour, Quentin realizes that the Baron is not quite what he claims to be and that Auguste Duponte, with his approach to problem-solving through ratiocination, was the real inspired character in the stories.

 The two go back to Baltimore to investigate the final days of Poe before his death, only to find that the Baron and Bonjour have been on the same track, if not ahead, of solving the same investigation. The two pairs interview  the funeral attendants, witnesses, and secretly rummage Henry Reynolds, a funeral attendant, who obtained a written letter from Poe the day he was found in the streets of Baltimore. Other mysteries unfold through Clark’s mission to clear Poe’s name from disgrace continue on to a surprising judgment on the death of Poe, possibly the most important Gothic fiction writer of American literature.

 Auguste Duponte and Baron Claude Dupin can be seen as doubles or doppelgangers, and the book discusses Poe’s use of doubles in works such as “William Wilson,” a tale that features two identical characters with the same names. The word “shadow” is used in many different ways in the novel. Clark tells us, “Poe once wrote in a tale about the conflict between the substance and the shadow inside of us. The substance, what we know we should do, and the shadow, the dangerous and giggling Imp of the Perverse, the dark knowledge of what we must or will do or secretly want. The shadow always prevails.”

 Back in Baltimore, Quentin finds that the Baron and Bonjour have followed Auguste and himself from Paris and are promoting the Baron as the true Dupin. Quentin finds himself entangled in ominous intrigues involving political agents,  the corrupt Baltimore slave trade, and the lost secrets of Poe’s final hours. With his own life in danger, Quentin Clark must turn master detective to uncover the threat against his now jeopardized destiny.

Following his phenomenal debut novel, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl has once again crossed created a literary history with inventive mystery to create a cunningly plotted tale of suspense. Pearl’s pioneering research which uncovered documented material never published before opens a new window on the truth behind Poe’s demise. The resulting novel does honor to Poe himself through Pearl’s skillful craftsmanship, sly humor, and crafty plot zigzags.

 A final note on Poe – His funeral was a simple one with few people attending the ceremony. Poe’s uncle, Henry Herring, provided a simple mahogany coffin, and a cousin, Neilson Poe, supplied the hearse. Moran’s wife made his shroud. The funeral was presided over by the Reverend W. T. D. Clemm, cousin of Poe’s wife, Virginia. The entire ceremony lasted only three minutes in the cold, damp weather. Reverend Clemm decided not to bother with a sermon because the crowd was too small. One attendee  wrote of the weather: “It was a dark and gloomy day, not raining but just kind of raw and threatening.” Poe was buried in a cheap coffin that lacked handles, a nameplate, cloth lining, or a cushion for his head.

 Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17. His original burial spot was marked with a large stone donated by Orin C. Painter, though it was originally placed in the wrong spot. Walt Whitman was the only poet to attend. Alfred Lord Tennyson contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:

Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.

Death Theories

The following is an annotated  list of some of the theories of Poe’s cause of death that have been published over the years:

  • Beating (1857)
    The United States Magazine Vol.II (1857): 268.
  • Epilepsy (1875)
    Scribner’s Monthly Vo1. 10 (1875): 691.
  • Dipsomania (1921)
    Robertson, John W. Edgar A. Poe A Study. Brough, 1921: 134, 379.
  • Heart (1926)
    Allan, Hervey. Israfel. Doubleday, 1926: Chapt. XXVII, 670.
  • Toxic Disorder (1970)
    Studia Philo1ogica Vol. 16 (1970): 41-42.
  • Hypoglycemia (1979)
    Artes Literatus (1979) Vol. 5: 7-19.
  • Diabetes (1977)
    Sinclair, David. Edgar Allan Poe. Roman & Litt1efield, 1977: 151-152.
  • Alcohol Dehydrogenase (1984)
    Arno Karlen. Napo1eon’s Glands. Little Brown, 1984: 92.
  • Porphryia (1989)
    JMAMA Feb. 10, 1989: 863-864.
  • Delerium Tremens (1992)
    Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar A1lan Poe. Charles Scribner, 1992: 255.
  • Rabies (1996)
    Maryland Medical Journal Sept. 1996: 765-769.
  • Heart (1997)
    Scientific Sleuthing Review Summer 1997: 1-4.
  • Murder (1998)
    Walsh, John E., Midnight Dreary. Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998: 119-120.
  • Epilepsy (1999)
    Archives of Neurology June 1999: 646, 740.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (1999)
    Albert Donnay

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, History, Mystery

2 responses to “The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl

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