Edgar Allan Poe had a long problem with alcohol and said the stress and pain of his wife’s illness was the cause of both his alcoholism and his “insanity.” He joined a temperance movement in 1849, a year before he died at age 40. Theorists have blamed Poe’s death on everything from carbon monoxide poisoning, to rabies (??), to murder, but it’s often accredited to alcohol withdrawal.

Poe was famously prone to alcoholic sprees during the 1840s, and his “enemies” (as he calls them) thought that his irregular behavior was due to his drinking. In 1842 Poe wrote a letter to his publishers, pleading with them to buy his work and apologising for a drunken encounter. Poe blamed fellow poet, William Ross Wallace, for making him drink too many juleps during a visit to New York.

“Will you be so kind enough to put the best possible interpretation upon my behaviour while in N-York? You must have conceived a queer idea of me – but the simple truth is that Wallace would insist upon the juleps, and I knew not what I was either doing or saying.” He included an article with his letter which he hoped they would publish. He admitted that he was “desperately pushed for money”, adding: “I set no price – leaving all to your own liberality”. He signed off with the hope that they might meet again “under better auspices”. But either the publishers didn’t like the article or Poe had been very, very drunk, as they returned the article unpublished.

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Months before his death, Poe became a vocal member of the temperance movement, eschewing alcohol, which he’d struggled with all his life. Biographer Susan Archer Talley Weiss recalls, in her biography “The Last Days of Edgar A. Poe,” an event, toward the end of Poe’s time in Richmond, that might be relevant to theorists that prefer a “death by drinking” demise for Poe. Poe had fallen ill in Richmond, and after making a somewhat miraculous recovery, was told by his attending physician that “another such attack would prove fatal.” According to Weiss, Poe replied that “if people would not tempt him, he would not fall,” suggesting that the first illness was brought on by a bout of drinking.

Those around Poe during his finals days seem convinced that the author did, indeed, fall into that temptation, drinking himself to death. As his close friend J. P. Kennedy wrote on October 10, 1949: “On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch. . . . He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe! . . . A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched.”

 


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