Notes on the Death of Edgar Allan Poe

By Barton Cockey

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The death of Edgar Allan Poe is still a dark mystery. I am indebted to John Evangelist Walsh for his well-researched and informative book Midnight Dreary. His investigation into the circumstances of Poe’s death suggests that Poe was murdered by the brothers of his fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton. Her family had prevented him from marrying her more than twenty years earlier, and the poem Annabel Lee alludes to her “highborn kinsmen” who “bore her away from me.” In his morbid way, he describes himself lying down by the side of the dead Annabel Lee “in her sepulcher there by the sea.” There can be no better indication of Poe’s bizarre cast of mind than that he apparently thought the poem a fit tribute to his impending marriage. As recounted in The Sacred Fury, he really did hand the poem, on a rolled-up piece of paper, to John Reuben Thompson just before leaving on his fatal journey through Baltimore. 

Here follows a chronology of relevant events:

  • January 19, 1809- Birth of Edgar Poe, in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • 1811- Edgar’s father, David Poe, deserts his wife Elizabeth and his two children. Elizabeth dies of tuberculosis, and the orphaned Edgar is taken in as a foster child by John Allan, a merchant from Scotland, who gives him the middle name “Allan.”
  • 1826- Poe leaves Richmond for college, having pledged to marry his 15-year-old sweetheart Elmira. He writes letters to her, all of which are intercepted and destroyed by her father.
  • December, 1828- Elmira marries the wealthy merchant Alexander Shelton, under pressure from her parents.
  • 1836- Poe returns to Richmond, marries his cousin Virginia Clemm, and goes to work as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger, a position he holds for only a year.
  • 1844- Alexander Shelton dies of pneumonia.
  • January 29, 1845- Publication of The Raven makes Poe famous but does not improve his finances.
  • January 30, 1847- Virginia Clemm Poe dies of tuberculosis in the impoverished couple’s chilly little cottage in Fordham, New York.
  • 1848- Poe publishes his cosmological essay Eureka: A Prose Poem.
  • August 27, 1849- Poe joins a temperance society and becomes engaged to Elmira a few days later. The couple selects October 17 as the wedding date.
  • September 26, 1849- Poe concludes his business in Richmond and hands the manuscript of Annabel Lee to John R. Thompson, before departing for his home in New York, where he plans to wrap up his affairs and collect his mother-in-law Mrs. Maria Clemm, who is to attend the wedding. On the way to New York, he intends to stop in Philadelphia to edit a book of poems for a Mrs. Loud, for a fee of a hundred dollars.
  • September 27, 1849- Poe leaves Richmond by steamer for Baltimore, then presumably takes the train for Philadelphia the next morning.
  • Mysterious gap.
  • October 3, 1849- Poe is found at Ryan’s Tavern in Baltimore, shabbily attired and in a stupor.
  • October 7, 1849- Poe dies at Washington Medical College (later Church Home and Hospital) and is buried in an unmarked grave in the lot purchased by his grandfather David Poe, Sr., in the Presbyterian cemetery.
  • 1852- Westminster Presbyterian Church is built over the cemetery.
  • 1860- Cousin Neilson Poe orders a marble headstone from Hugh Sisson, but before it can be erected, a freight train inexplicably runs off the Northern Central track and through Sisson’s yard, demolishing the stone. (Apparently the ghost of Poe was not satisfied with the quality of the memorial.)
  • November 17, 1875- Poe is reinterred, and a fine marble monument is dedicated, thanks to Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, who collected many small contributions, and Mr. George W. Childs, who put up half the cost. George A. Frederick (architect of Baltimore’s City Hall) designed the memorial, and Hugh Sisson carved the stone. Maria Clemm’s remains are laid in the same grave. 
  • 1882- Friedrich Nietzsche announces the death of God.
  • 1885- The bones of Virginia Clemm are brought down from New York and buried next to those of her husband.
  • 1977- The Presbytery of Baltimore announces the death of the Westminster Presbyterian congregation, and the newly-created non-profit Westminster Preservation Trust takes over the care of the secularized “Westminster Hall.”