Poor, poor, pitiful Poe. Oh, you know the story. Found drunk, delirious and trembling in the gutter in a town that was not his own, a pauper in a suit of rags, not a penny in his pocket that hadn't already been drunken and pissed back into the very same pocket. Poe, pitiful Poe, poet, author, detective story father, deranged madman, drunk.
This is what I was taught: that he died in the gutter. I wondered how he got up there. Then I learned a gutter was a curb. Made more sense. Wasn't as good. Euphemisms are built too tall on purpose because little pictures have big ears, but we all know what "in the gutter" means.
Recently I started asking people if they knew how Poe died. The same answer kept flying back: in the gutter.
Everybody knows that. It's like 1492. Or lather, rinse, repeat. Poe was a drunk, a marinated saturated overstewed wet brain, an ammonia trailing delusional lunatic. An ethylated epileptic. A sot.
They made him into a monster--and who doesn't love a monster? Edgar Allan Poe was the biggest draw at the 4th grade Book Fair. Blood and guts and the threat of blood and guts were splashed across every delicious page. Such a beating I took from The Tell-Tale Heart
. I never told anyone this, but the sound of that beating heart was mine.
One night at the dinner table, Hillbilly Casserole night, I mentioned Poe's name as a sort of test. My father raised his brow, narrowed his eyes, and spoke:
...to the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells--
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
My father believed great poetry was best admired when memorized and recited as events might require, generally right in the middle of a conversation. Those who have this ability shimmer with untouchable superiority, while those who don't shrink into awestruck dullards.
The tragedy of Poe's life is that it is framed through his death, and his death almost certainly did not occur as it's been described by physicians and witnesses who weren't there but were eager to sell their side of the facts. This is how a few lies became a mountain of lies that must have been true because, look, it's a mountain.
Edgar Allan Poe, the man and his works, became an object lesson for what happens to people who drink too much and then try to write. Every great writer since has pursued the bottom of a bottle with Promethean ambition: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Hunter S., et al. Throw a dart, Ed Al was their father.
It does no good to imagine what the world would be like without the Poe myth. But the closer truth provides a more shocking object lesson about the nature of evil, how efficiently it can kill a man and keep killing him by mangling his reputation.Reassembling Poe's Greatest Mystery
The story goes that Edgar Allan Poe was discovered lying in the street outside a Baltimore tavern the morning after a citywide election. A bar patron recognized his famous face. As people gathered, they could also see it was Poe, especially once they took off his Panama Leaf straw cowboy hat. If they squinted, and discounted his babbling and urine-stained rags, it was clearly the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe.
He was taken to Washington Hospital and personally attended by a physician whose bizarre conclusions were as speculative as anybody else's. That Poe was drunk when he came in was unquestionable. Clearly it killed him. There were only a few unasked questions.
Why was he wearing pauper's clothes? Why was he broke? Why was he buried so quickly, without an autopsy or even a death certificate, and in a city not his own? And why was there no subsequent inquiry?
Poe was sober the last decade of his life. After the death of his second wife (who was also his cousin)
, he embarked on a dangerous binge that brought him headlong to a sanitarium where he remained until he could come out and stay sober.
He achieved a lasting sobriety. The last ten years were the most productive of his life. He met a girl, fell in love, became engaged to be married; he was famous, and he'd earned it: he traveled widely, lectured, promoted, raised money for ambitious projects like his literary magazine The Stylus
. This last project brought him to Baltimore, the city of his death.
He arrived by boat, impeccably dressed as always, sober of course, pockets full of large bills, the result of subscriptions he was collecting to start up The Stylus
. Baltimore was the last stop of another long tour. He'd be home in three days, and was excited about it.
Home was Richmond, Virginia. It wasn't far by train, but it was a world apart from Baltimore, especially Baltimore on election day, when you're lost and alone and loaded with cash and worried, very worried, because it's election day
. From the train platform where he was last seen asking directions, Poe would have seen the throngs of voters pushing into the taverns, qualified voters, there to do their civic duty, to vote right and drink freely, courtesy of the pols who had the vision to put the voting booths right in the taverns.
Polling officials, called "thugs" every other day of the year, knew how to get the most out of voters, especially the paupers and drunks -- or anybody else that nobody'd miss if they got a little lost on election day, voting, voting, voting, voting, over and over and over again.
It was a process known as "cooping," and it took no brains to pull off. Coopers used booze and drugs to persuade alcoholics and drug addicts to hop on a wagon and ride around to different taverns and polling places to vote. Once they made a full round trip, they were cooped. Dozens would be jammed into a small room and forced to exchange clothes. Then they'd make another round trip; a routine that went on until the polls closed. Beatings became more frequent and severe as the day wore on, partly to keep the voters awake and motivated, and partly to ensure loss of memory.
If Edgar Allan Poe had been a victim of election day cooping, it would explain why he was dressed in rags and why he had no money. It would explain the cheap straw cowboy hat, which was not part of his image. It would explain his disguise. And why he smelled like booze.
Poe was known to have mild epilepsy. No proof exists he was intoxicated when he was admitted to Washington Hospital. If Poe had been cooped, he could have taken blows to the head, which could have prompted prolonged seizures that landed him in the gutter. But details such as this are lacking. There was no death certificate, although none was required. But given the unusual circumstances under which this celebrity died, it would seem a minimal duty.If Poe had been a victim of cooping, it would have been a major embarrassment to the City of Baltimore.
A cover-up would have occurred and it would come down from the top. A strong city government would have focused it efforts on deflecting attention away from cooping and onto the tragic life choices made by the drunken failure, Poe.
They call him the father of the modern detective story, and he left behind a good one. Baltimore buried him in Baltimore, exhumed him later to a more prominent area of the same cemetery. So there is precedent for digging him up. A third time would yield the tell-tale DNA that would have much to say about alcohol.
Yes, Poe was strange and his work was even stranger, but a certain strangeness has always been a requirement of celebrity, and anyway so what? What matters is what is alive, and what is alive is his work, which remains as throat-gripping as it was when I first read it with a flashlight.
It would be a wonderful thing to conclude this mystery. It would be macabre to bring the dead city fathers to trial, but it would be responsible.
It would be Poetic justice.