Edgar Allan Poe was never one to underestimate the power of a good secret, and his death was no exception. Rarely have the details of someone’s final days caused such a stir in the annals of dark history. Just like the spine-tingling tales he wrote, much of Poe’s personal and professional life was shrouded in mystery, which seemed destined to follow him at every turn. Because much of his career was spent crafting the art of the detective story, the irony of his inexplicable death has been well noted. As if he lapsed out of reality and straight into the pages of his very own writing, Poe left behind a legacy of unanswered questions. As a man, he had battled the demons of a tragic childhood and the desire to find a legitimate place in the literary world, vacillating between his private cosmos of Gothic memory and the proper society that seemed unable to accept him. He was an eccentric, an imp, a bully, a nonconformist, an escapist, and yet—no matter what he did, he was always an outsider in the bright light of the default world. When tucked into his private dimension of dark romance, he was omnipotent and complete, but as soon as he emerged from this cocoon, he found himself wandering a landscape of questionable ambition. He seemed surrounded by strangers who resembled friends. Poe struggled against this internal and external tide all of his life—from his scarred beginnings to his miserable end—and eventually became caught in the chasm between the romantic realm he sought and the corrupted world he must face. And it was in this trange void that he met his final days.
All drama aside, Poe was a respectable, 40-year old man at the time of his death—albeit prone to bouts of drinking and depression—who dressed impeccably and maintained a strict professional code. He had recently moved to New York City and become engaged to a woman named Elmira Shelton, with whom he seemed quite happy. Although his health was never the best and he seemed chronically in debt, the couple had agreed to start a new life together by moving back to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Despite his troubles, Edgar Allen Poe was a celebrated poet and a Gothic writer of the highest order—he had a future and something to live for. So when he turned up delirious and incoherent on a strange Baltimore street in 1849, there was no logic to his condition. And when he died just four days later, confused and alone behind the barred windows of a nearby hospital, the mystery surrounding his final days came into even sharper focus. Uttering the tragic words, “Lord help my poor soul” on his deathbed, Poe passed from the world, without the support of his family or the ability to tell anyone about his frightful experience.
With such an odd and dramatic departure from life, the romantic side of Poe’s story is firmly in place—but what about the political one? Many scholars and sleuths have labored over the details of Poe’s final days, but no one in all their struggles has been able to ascertain the truth of it. Through a combination of poor records, contradictory statements, and good old-fashioned lack of evidence, the story of how the raven king died is still a puzzle. Beyond the absurd assertions of some experts, a fair amount of reliable information suggests he was actually the victim of something even weirder—a strange form of voter fraud known as “cooping.” Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the United States became victim to this new breed of political crime, which used armed thugs to sway the vote. “Election gangs” roamed the streets, grabbing innocents and unwitting immigrants to be used as voting dummies. People were tricked, coerced, and forcibly dragged to hidden basements and abandoned buildings around the city and thrown into “coops” where they would be beaten and abused until they acquiesced to the kidnapper’s demands. And strange demands they were—to get out there and cast as many votes as possible before being recognized. The hope was to sway the election in favor of a certain outcome. And if the captives refused, they were beaten with fists or clubs and even killed.
Sometimes these election thugs, also known as “Roughskins,” were paid by corrupt candidates in need of a win, and other times they were just pushing their own agenda. Either way, their tactics were always harsh, violent, and oddly effective. Like dreadful political pirates, they employed criminal tactics to influence the electoral process by kidnapping voters; force-feeding them drugs and alcohol; and threatening them with bodily harm until they voted as instructed. While the idea of snatching someone in broad daylight, beating them senseless, and plying them with booze before sending them out to vote may sound outlandish and even comical, it was, in fact, a very real part of American history. And a considerable amount of evidence points to the idea that dear Mr. Poe was ensnared in this nefarious web while visiting the city of Baltimore, Maryland—then one of the most notorious cooping locations in the country.
The practice of cooping was rampant in 1849 when Poe visited Baltimore, as is proven by several mentions in the local paper, The Republican and Argus. The publication warned people to “beware of the Whig tricks” that would secure illegal votes by any means necessary, even death. Other papers like the Washington-based Weekly Globe warned that the presidential election now includes all sorts of deceptions, from bullying to kidnapping to bribes to murder. Another article even claimed 300 voters had, in fact, been shipped off to different countries to keep them from voting locally. According to historical records, Poe had taken the train to Baltimore that week and was seen by the conductor, Capt. George W. Rollins, who noted two men seemed to be following the writer. And, in keeping with this scenario, Poe was found by a bypasser on October 3rd of that year—the exact day of the election—outside a tavern known as Gunner’s Hall, which was being used as a voting place for the city’s Fourth Ward. It was here that a local printer by the name of Joseph Walker happened upon a disheveled man lying in the street who identified himself as Poe and requested his local friend with medical training, Dr. Snodgrass, be contacted. Once admitted to the hospital, Poe lapsed in and out of consciousness, providing only half-answers to the myriad questions of the medical staff. Due to his “excitability” and confused state, his family and friends were strictly forbidden from visiting him—a decision that made his final hours particularly lonely and harrowing.
Although Poe was unable to verify anything about his condition, many things about his person that day suggest foul play. One of the main methods used in cooping was to alter the voter’s appearance several times to ensure the person would not be recognized by poll officials. Sometimes the victims would be forced to wear disguises such as wigs, false mustaches, or odd hats to hide their identity, which is compatible with the cooping theory. When found lying in the gutter, Poe was not wearing his usual black woolen suit but rather, a cheap gabardine one with a tattered straw hat. Poe’s outfit was noticeably out of character, ill-fitting, and dirty, suggesting he may have been forced to change his garments while casting multiple votes under duress. His shoes were run down at the heels and made from a coarse material, yet the tread did not appear blackened from walking. He was without a vest or neck scarf, and the front of his shirt was rumpled and badly stained, while his pants were clearly the wrong size.
According to the testimony of J. Justus Ritzman, a famous cooping victim from the 1859 presidential election in Baltimore, there was much to fear during this time of political corruption. As Ritzman told it, he was approached by a member of the local street gang, Pug Ugly, who offered to buy him and his friend a drink down the street at a local pub. Not thinking much of it, the three men wandered in and started downing ale. Once fully inebriated, the thug came up with a reason to lead the two men into a nearby warehouse, where they encountered six more men, all equipped with various weapons. Ritzman was robbed, punched him in the head, kicked with heavy boots, and forced to drink grain alcohol, after which his captors made him swear on the Bible that he would not snitch. But Ritzman couldn’t be sure what he was agreeing to, as he had yet to experience the whole of his abuse. It was just Saturday—still four days away from the election.
By Wednesday morning, Ritzman had been hit in the face with a billy club and shoved through a hole in the wall which conveniently led to another room set up beforehand to hold captives. Ritzman had landed in the “coop” and over a period of several days, it filled up with close to 90 men. During that time, the captors brought up buckets of alcohol and very little food, leaving the men sick and weak. When the morning of the election rolled around, voters were taken out six at a time; handed election tickets; and told to vote the American ticket—or die. It was that simple. Because Ritzman was an immigrant, he reminded them he could not vote, but they only struck him in the head again and told him to get moving. After voting 16 times that day, he was sent home.
If this all sounds terribly unlikely, it’s worth remembering how political fraud has evolved over the years. In the 19th century, polling places were not the polite, organized stations of today—they were rowdy, loud, and mildly frightening venues with no accountability or process. Because all official ballots were handed out beforehand, it was impossible to know who had voted where and how many times. In general, elections were rife with fraud, and political parties were more like exclusive clubs willing to do anything to gain members. At the time, the Whigs were a political party who opposed President Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. In general, they supported the supremacy of Congress over the presidential office in favor of more modern economic practices. Like their predecessors, the 18th-century American Whigs, they considered their fight to be one of independence and the “sovereignty of the people.” Members included notable men like Daniel Webster and Zachary Taylor. In this way, the Whigs were a type of rebel, or revolutionary, looking to protect the interests of minorities and prevent the tyranny of the existing power structure. While this was not a terrible platform, the Whigs often faced cooping allegations during this time and were accused of using the despicable practice to find success.
But truth be told, both Democrats and Republics were outed during an investigation into the false use of African American names at the polls, a racial group who had only earned the right to vote in 1870. In truth, European immigrants were streaming in by the thousands, and they became major targets for cooping because they did not understand the lay of the land. Ironically, their “votes” were used as a way to pass more anti-immigrant legislation. And when that didn’t work, political thugs would utilize other tactics like “blood tubbing,” which involved dragging a bucket of animal blood from the butcher to the polls and squeezing a big sponge full of red gore over the heads of immigrants to discourage them from voting. The practice was pervasive, continuing throughout the end of the 19th century, and not even the public’s awareness of cooping was not enough to end it.
So, if Ritzman was able to walk away from his cooping nightmare with nary a permanent scratch, why was Poe so unlucky? A number of reasons, the first being he was a notoriously poor drinker with a weak constitution. He battled some degree of sickness most of his life. Although Poe was known to over-imbibe on occasion, biographers agree he was typically drunk after just one glass of wine and had a low tolerance for such things. Even more, Poe had stopped drinking altogether a month before his death after joining the Sons of Temperance, a brotherhood of men who relied on mutual support to resist the consumption of alcohol. This abstinence from intoxication had always been a goal for Poe, mostly because the worst version of himself was always drunk. This commitment was intended to right him from periodic spells of misbehavior, and he even told his acquaintance Dr. Thomas Chivers before his death that he was forever done with “any artificial stimulus.”
Because Poe’s writings were so imaginative and darkly suggestive, many people—including his haters—felt sure he must be an opium-eating alcoholic. How else could he envision such madness? Dr. Thomas Dunn English, a bitter enemy of Poe, even spread rumors after his death that he had been found “gloriously drunk in the street after nightfall” on more than one occasion, but there was no proof of it. If Poe had been forced to imbibe strong ale, alcohol, or even drugs during a cooping campaign, it stands to reason he would have reacted badly and been unable to protect himself. Poe’s friend who watched over him in the hospital, Dr. Snodgrass, agreed the writer had been “in a state of beastly intoxication” and “repulsively” haggard in appearance. Perhaps this was why Poe had been placed in a prison-like area of the hospital reserved for drunks and denied family visitation.
If the strange clothing and delirium were not enough to prove Poe had been a victim of a deadly political plot, there is the matter of his head. After his death, Victorian doctors offered the classically imprecise prognosis of “brain congestion” and left it at that. After all, he was a Gothic poet. Beatings were common practice among cooping thugs, and it’s entirely possible Poe was lying in the street with something akin to a concussion. His weak heart and sensitive nature would never have been able to withstand such physical abuse, and he could very well have died from the effects of a sound beating. While historians have suggested everything from tuberculosis to rabies, a famous New York Doctor who reviewed Poe’s case in 1847 agreed the man had some sort of brain lesion when he died, possibly incurred through injury, disease, or exposure to certain chemicals.
Although the eminent Poe scholar, Dr. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, dismissed the cooping theory as “twaddle,” there are many who believe in the possibility of cooping, including a scholar who found a letter written by a respectable man from San Francisco claiming to have seen Poe in a coop on that fateful day. But because the letter was penned somewhat anonymously, no historical veracity has ever been established. When stepping back and viewing the situation in the light of these conflicting accounts, it’s easy to see how Poe’s death has become such an inscrutable mystery over the years. No one, no matter how close to the situation, has been able to agree. Biographer Jeffrey Meyers says Poe died of hypoglycemia, while historian John Evangelist Walsh asserts it was a murder conspiracy. One author named Matthew Pearl believes Poe had a brain tumor, while another writer named Elizabeth Oakes Smith says he was assaulted. Other experts on the subject have proposed diabetes, syphilis, epilepsy, or the never-ending lust for drink as possible reasons. Despite its obvious truths, many continue to poo-poo the cooping theory and insist upon their own version of Poe’s mysterious end.
These various accounts put forth by doctors, historians, biographers, scholars, and literary devotees all prove one thing—many people believed they knew the enigmatic figure of Edgar Allan Poe and understood what made him tick, but this belief was only confounded by their lack of understanding about his final days. And in an egotistical and professional attempt to rectify that reality, they tripped all over themselves—and eachother— to offer some unique claim about his death.Through solving his death, many people seemed to think they could “solve” him as a man. But the truth is Poe was unsolvable—down to his very last moment— and inclined to hide the inner workings of his strange and wondrous mind from translation. His strange tales provided one of the few places where anyone could truly gain entrance to his world. His life suggests he had very few real relationships and was not among friends during his final hours. There was no autopsy, no death certificate, and no communication with the outside world while he was in the hospital. His burial was hasty and attended only by two doctors and a notoriously nasty cousin. When asked on his deathbed if he wanted to see any friends, some say he answered, “Friends!… My best friend would be he who would take a pistol and blow out these damned wretched brains,” a sign that Poe was more concerned with shielding people from his psyche than sharing it with them. A dark romantic to the end, others say his response to this final question was far more poetic. When asked if he would care to see a friend before he died, he simply said, “Nevermore.”
And the rest is history.