One of Poe’s killers, a cousin and Baltimore journalist, Neilson Poe. Note the arrogant sneer. Neilson kept watch for days while Poe died, notifying no one.
We do not claim to have solved the murder of Edgar A. Poe. The mystery has baffled everyone and lies under many layers. We have reached a point in Poe history, however, where the drinking binge, the ‘cooping’ theory, the rabies death, and other absurdities have been disproven. The field lies open before us at last; a real investigatin of the facts seems, for the first time, possible.
We assume murder in Poe’s case. The manner of Poe’s end was violent and secretive. Accidents tend to come to light but murders do not. Poe’s murderers not only covered their tracks, but a story grew over the victim replicating perfectly in death the slander which dogged his life. Since slander is a kind of murder, libel a kind of killing, especially among those with literary reputations, the key to solving Poe’s murder is to follow the thead of those who told the story of his death.
The most helpful person in chasing away the fog of rumor is undoubtedly John Evangelist Walsh, whose book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Poe, St Martin’s, 2000, is the first treatment of Poe’s death which actually succeeds as a piece of detective work.
Walsh was not satisfied to itemize the rumors of Poe’s death and then add his own vague speculation. Walsh chased down the origin of the rumors themselves. For too long the stories have distracted us from the story-tellers.
Let us begin by quoting three prophetic letters written by Poe: 1) pertaining to the city of Baltimore—where Poe met his end, 2) the journalism scene in Baltimore and 3) Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, who was in charge of Poe’s imprisonment and death. Two of the letters are to Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, a Batlimore physician, poet, essayist and editor, who traded some literary favors with Poe and managed to elicit many private confessions from him. Studying the correspondnce, which was hot and heavy between Poe and Snodgrass in 1839 and then trails off to end for good in 1842, just after Poe left his editorship at Graham’s—succeeded by Griswold—we can see that Snodgrass is playing Poe, attempting to elicit as much private opinion from the great poet as he can. Poe pleads too much to the man; clearly they are not friends, though Snodgrass held out that possibility. The two men had a common enemy in Burton, of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a kind of Ricky Gervais figure from England; Burton was pushing the ‘drunk’ slander hard against Poe and it was to Snodgrass that Poe made his famous defense on that count: “My sole drink is water.” In that same letter Poe writes to Snodgrass, who will eventually turn into a Griswold figure, “You are a physician, and I presume no physician can have difficulty in detecting the drunkard at a glance.” A bit ironic that it is this very Snodgrass who becomes the one man to describe to the world Poe’s condition when Poe is found, helpless, by some odd coincidence, close to Snodgrass’s residence. If Snodgrass were a friend, our guess is that Poe would not have felt the need to argue his case as he does. In the final letter which exists between the two men, Poe gives vent to his negative feelings for Griswold. The “friendship” between Snodgrass and Poe quickly fades away and Snodgrass suddenly appears, five years later, an assassin, to libel and entomb.
These excerpts from three letters in 1839 require no preface; they speak much of the literary life in which Poe lived:
The reception of the paper convinced me that you, of whom I have long thought highly, had no share in the feelings of ill will toward me, which are somewhat prevalent (God only knows why) in Baltimore –Poe to Snodgrass, Sept. 11, 1839
It is always desirable to know who are our enemies, and what are the nature of their attacks. I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down (excuse the pun) and I am not aware that there is any one in Baltimore whom I have particular reason to fear in a regular set-to. I would take it as a great favor if you would let me know who edits the “Sun” –also who the editors of the other papers attacking me–and should be thankful for any other similar information. –Poe to Beauchamp Jones Aug. 8, 1839 [The “Sun” is the Baltimore Sun]
I felt that N. Poe, would not insert the article editorially. In your private ear, I believe him to be the bitterest enemy I have in the world. He is the more despicable in this, since he makes loud professions of friendship. Was it “relationship etc” which prevented him saying any thing at all of the 2 or 3 last Nos. of the Gentleman’s Mag? I cannot account for his hostility except in being vain enough to imagine him jealous of the little literary reputation I have, of late years, obtained. But enought of the little dog. –Poe to Snodgrass, Oct. 7, 1839 on his cousin, Neilson Poe
Dr. Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore is perhaps even more important than Neilson Poe in the case of America’s greatest literary murder case. Snodgrass is not only the recipient of Poe’s letter which calls N. Poe my “bitterest enemy,” Snodgrass, with Neilson and Henry Herring— uncle by marriage to Edgar and Neilson and also ill-disposed to the poet—stole away, essentially imprisoned, and after his death, buried in secret haste, the great poet before the world knew what had occured. Snodgrass, a doctor, and Herring, a relation and a wealthy man, rather than taking Poe into their homes, put him unconsious into a carriage to be taken to a little bare room with iron bars. What Poe’s actual condition was when found, what happened to him before he was found, and what happened to him after he was found, is unknown. Dr. Snodgrass and Dr. Moran completely contradict each other on Poe’s condition, so it’s safe to say no one “helping” Poe during his last days can be said to be reliable in the least.
Poe urged two things on thinkers: be detectives and don’t overlook the obvious. Herring, a man who disliked Poe and refused to allow the poet in his home, showed up at Ryan’s where Poe was found on Oct. 3 at the same time as Snodgrass. Who summoned Herring? Snodgrass was summoned (supposedly…or was he?)
All Poe biography through the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, relies on a crackpot ‘cooping’ theory employed initially by a few men, a theory Walsh explodes by reading newspaper accounts of the actual electn during which this supposed election ‘cooping’ took place and also by tracing the theory itself to an editor in Richmond, John Thompson, who originally bought into the ‘drunken debauch’ theory before he changed his mind, years later, after prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith published her theory that Poe was assaulted, and came up with—out of the blue, and well after the fact—his absurd ‘cooping’ idea.
The ‘cooping’ theory states that Poe was captured by ruffians, beaten and drugged in order to vote various times, a theory without witnesses that such a thing happened to Poe, or that such a thing occured—at all—to anyone.
The testimony of Snodgrass gets into print, like the ‘cooping’ theory, years after Poe’s death. According to Snodgrass, Poe was found in Baltimore by a Joseph Walker.
Poe scholar John Evangelist Walsh believes the ‘cooping’ idea was invented in reaction to the prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s assault charge, which she published on three separate occasions over 20 years.
Snodgrass went to press with his story twice, ten years apart, and only in the second article mentions the mysterious Walker, a type-setter acquaintance, who sent Snodgrass the note that Poe was asking for Snodgrass—who was conveniently located just around the corner from where Poe was discovered wholly by accident in Baltimore. Walker had died in a drowning accident by the time Snodgrass felt the need to mention the note from Walker summoning him (Snodgrass) to Poe’s dying side, and Snodgrass embellishes the note to say “beastly intoxication” where it actually said “worse for wear.” We know this because the note itself was found among Snodgrass’s papers in 1881, after Snodgrass died in 1880. Snodgrass refutes Oakes Smith expliticly in his second article in Beadle’s Monthly.
John Walsh writes in his book, “Midnight Dreary,”
Surprisingly,—even, it can be said, incredibly—more than six years were to pass before a fuller picture of Poe’s last days and hours became available. In May 1856, a New York City periodical, Life Illustrated, carried an article by Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore, an old friend and journalist colleague of the poet. It revealed Snodgrass to be the one who transported the inebriated Poe from tavern to hospital, and much else of interest besides. —Walsh, “Midnight Dreary”
We share, as should we all, Walsh’s incredulity at the six years passing, but Walsh manages to overlook what every Poe biographer has—the significant role of Snodgrass in Poe’s manufactured debauchery death, as Walsh blithely refers to Walsh as a “friend,” shutting the door on a world of interest. Nor does Walsh stop to acknowledge that “inebriated” is a description based on one witness and one witness alone—Joseph Snodgrass—who altered a note in his possession he chose to share with the world—16 years after Poe’s death, and after the death of the note’s author, a misquotation from “worse for wear” (Walker) to “beastly intoxication” (Snodgrass).
Poe was not “among friends” during his last days.
Here is the trail to solving Poe’s murder, and it lies wide open.
Joseph Snodgrass, Henry Herring and Neilson Poe saw to it that Poe was imprisoned with a lunatic named Dr. Moran, on record as the attending physician at the “hospital” where Poe rotted for four days, another unreliable witness who waited 25 years before going public with what he knew, to bask in the spotlight as Poe’s posthumous fame and curiosity about his death grew, supplying all sorts of hyperbolic “literary” quotes from the dying poet which Poe obviously never uttered. No autopsy, no death certificate, no communication with the outside world while Poe succumbed in slow agony, a hasty burial attended by Herring, N. Poe and Snodgrass, a minister to say a quick last rites and then 24 hours later, Rufus Griswold’s “Ludwig” article in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.
The manner of Poe’s death fits in perfectly with the actions of a cabal drawing a curtain quickly over his life, and killing him in such a way that even in death he found no martyrdom or honor, but was seen by the world to die as a drunkard, the slander of drink used as a trowel to bury him.
The length of time it took the one real witness to come forward, the odd relationship of the invisible Joseph Walker and the altered content of his note to the one witness, the “bitterest enemy” keeping public watch over the victim in his last few days with the knowledge of fellow Baltimorean Snodgrass, Poe’s slow death occuring before any of Poe’s friends or loved ones were aware of his fate, his mother-in-law, his fiance, desperately worried and wondering where he was, kept, with the whole world, in utter darkness even as Poe was being buried and Griswold was in New York penning his libelous notice—if this doesn’t stink to high heaven, nothing does.