Edgar Allan Poe: The final mystery

A portrait of Edgar Allan Poe.

In the corner of a small Baltimore cemetery, the wreath-bearing guests gathered round his grave the first Sunday of October to commemorate the 151st anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe. CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason reports for Sunday Morning.

Poe invented the detective story. But the author of Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mystery of Marie Roget himself died an abrupt and bizarre death that has confounded historians. They know when he died. What they can’t tell you is how.

“And the fever called living is conquered at last.”

”Nobody’s really given us the answer to Poe’s death,” says actor John Astin, who plays Poe in a one-man show, Once Upon a Midnight. “At the time of his death, there were a half dozen theories from the physicians who attended him. Nobody knew. It was brain fever, or alcoholism or exposure.”

Even information about Poe’s exact movements was murky. Just before his death, he vanished for more than five days. Then he turned up, drunk and delirious, in a Baltimore bar.

In the century and a half since, says Catherine Smith, curator of the Poe Museum in Richmond, Va., historians and doctors have offered plenty of theories: rabies, epilepsy, a diabetic coma and a beating from a band of hooligans.

”And just plain mystery. Plain mystery,” adds Smith.

While writing two books about Poe, the mystery kept haunting author John Evangelist Walsh. In his latest, Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, Walsh claims he has cracked the case.

At that time, says Walsh, “Poe was probably the best-known poet in America. And that was because of the publication of ‘The Raven.’”

”Open here I flung the shutter when with many a flutter in there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.”

Though he was paid a mere $11 for the poem, “The Raven” became an international sensation.

”Quoth the raven: ‘Nevermore.’”

Poe was just 40 as he arrived in Richmond and a widower for more than two years when he visited the home of Elmira Shelton, a woman he had once hoped to marry before her parents broke up the engagement.

”Elmira Shelton was Edgar Allan Poe’s first love,” Walsh explains. “Elmira was living (in Richmond) as a widow when he came back in 1849. And this is where he came to court her.”

One of Elmira Shelton’s attractions might have been her wealth.

”She was worth at least $100,000. That’s a lot of money in 1849,” notes Walsh. “And the whole thing just flared up again very easily. So it didn’t take long - couple a weeks; they were engaged.”

But Poe had some business in Philadelphia and New York first.

”On the evening of September 26th, 1849, Poe said goodbye to Elmira Shelton...at her doorstep,” says Walsh. “He had plans to catch an early morning boat to Baltimore. As she watched him walk down the steps and ito the night, Elmira had no way of knowing that she’d never see Poe again.”

Witnesses saw Poe head down to Rocket’s Landing along the James River. The boat he boarded would have brought him to Baltimore Harbor. But even Poe himself couldn’t explain where he’d been when he was finally found more than five days later.

”And he was found in a bar. And completely drunk,” says Walsh. He also was wearing somebody else’s tattered clothes. Poe’s condition was so poor that he was quickly taken to the Washington College Hospital.

When he got to the hospital, says Walsh, he was mostly hallucinating and was incoherent for four days. “Violent delirium,” the doctor called it in a letter to Poe’s aunt. Early on the fourth day, the doctor said, Poe suddenly uttered these words: “Lord, help my poor soul.” And then he died.

The key to the mystery, Walsh believes, can be found back in Richmond, with the woman Poe left behind. He says Elmira Shelton’s family was against the marriage, and she had three brothers. While Walsh is quick to say that they did not murder Poe, he does say that they are the ones who eventually caused his death.

The author believes that the brothers followed Poe to the boat in Richmond and on to Baltimore. They told him to go on to New York, not to come back, and never to be in touch with their sister again.

”Poe was no saint; let’s just face it,” says museum curator Smith. “His problems, according to some people, he was a womanizer; and to others, he was an alcoholic.”

Before leaving Richmond, Poe had taken a temperance pledge, swearing never to touch liquor again. “And, by the way, it was all in the newspapers. The fact that Poe took a pledge was in all the newspapers,” says Walsh.

Did Elmira Shelton’s brothers try to chase Poe away and then get him drunk to embarrass him? Walsh believes that’s just what they did.

Quite a few people disagree with Walsh’s theory, including Smith, who says, “I think it’s an interesting theory. I don’t know that I would agree wholeheartedly with it. But then I haven’t agreed wholeheartedly with any of them.”

”But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only that word. As if his soul in that one word he did outpour.”

And actor Astin concurs: “I don’t think I’ve heard a theory that is really the answer.”

”Then the bird said, ‘Nevermore.’”

So does Smith think this is a debate that will just never die?

”Oh, I think, after all this time, no, it won’t,” says Smith. “And that’s the mystery of Poe.”

A century and a half later, we are still tapping at the door, trying to unlock the mystery of Poe’s disappearance. How strange, that the creator of the detective story, in his death, left us without a clue.

”And my soul from out that shadow that is floating on the floor shall be lifted nevermore.”