The life of poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe was infamously tumultuous and unfortunate. Shrouded in mystery, Edgar Allan Poe still remains one of the most famous American writers of all time. Drawing on his own difficult and dreary childhood, Edgar Allan Poe creates gory tales that mess with the mind of the reader, something other writers of his time would never do. September 28, 1849, Poe stepped off a ship in Baltimore, Maryland. On October 7, 1849, Poe died at the age of forty. What happened during the days in-between, no one quite knows. Poe seems to have gone missing for several days between his arrival in Baltimore and his death. 170 years later, the exact cause of Poe's death remains somewhat of a mystery. The topic of voter-fraud is well discussed and dissected today, but what could it have to do with the death of Edgar Allan Poe?
What we know about the circumstances surrounding Poe's death is that on Oct. 3, 1849, election night, a man named Joseph Walker was making his way to Gunner's Hall, the polling place for Baltimore's old 4th Ward. On his way there, Walker found a man lying in the gutter, confused, half-conscious, and seemingly under the influence of alcohol. The man was Edgar Allan Poe.
Slovenly dressed in someone else's clothing, Poe was in dire need of immediate medical attention. He was rushed to the Washington Medical College. There, he spent the next four days in and out of consciousness, delirious, and plagued by hallucinations. On October 7th he passed away. His official cause of death was stated vaguely as "congestion of the brain." He was buried with no autopsy.
Over the years there have been many theories about Poe's death. It is widely thought that he died from complications due to his history of alcohol abuse. But there is one theory that stands out from the rest, and could explain many of the mysteries surrounding his last days: a vicious form of voter fraud led to the death of Edgar Allan Poe.
Today, elections can get nasty, people will seemingly say and do whatever they need to get their candidate into office. However, elections in the 19th century were barely short of being anything but bloodsport. In nineteenth-century Baltimore, this was especially true. Baltimore in the 1800s was divided into twenty wards, each one had one polling place. Gangs and "campaigners" would gather at these locations to make sure people were casting the "right" vote.
Casting a vote was not private the way that it is now. Casting a ballot meant having to wait in line, surrounded by potentially hundreds of people, so that you could drop your distinctly marked ticket into a ballot box overseen by judges. Everyone knew who you had voted for. Cast the "correct" vote, and you would be rewarded with a beer. Vote the wrong way and you were subject to a beating, or worse.
Gangs were known to go to extreme lengths to ensure the success of their candidate. A particularly violent form of voter fraud, called "cooping," was known to occur in Baltimore. Some gangs were known to kidnap people, and hold them in a room, called the "coop." These people were then forced to go in and out of poll after poll, voting over and over again. They would be brought back to the coop and told to swap clothes to alter their appearance so they could vote again. The victims were forced to drink liquor and beaten to ensure they would be incoherent and compliant.
This theory suggests that Poe was a victim of cooping on that election day. This serves as a very plausible explanation for his state when he was discovered after being missing for days.
Poe was known to have an especially low tolerance to alcohol and also had intermittently struggled with alcohol abuse. If he had been forced to consume alcohol, it would have sent him over an edge and would account for why he had been seemingly so intoxicated after being sober for several years.
Being captive to a gang would also explain the reason he had been MIA for a period of time: he had been being held in a coop.
Poe was also known to be very well-dressed almost all of the time. Seeing him dressed so shabbily in someone else's clothes would have been very strange to Joseph Walker, who found him outside of the pub that election day. If he were a victim of cooping, however, it explains why he was wearing clothes that weren't his own.
Poe also appeared to have been beaten and was acting as if he had sustained a head injury, which he might have suffered at the hands of the gang who kidnapped him.
Finally, the last piece of evidence that points toward Poe being a victim of cooping is the location where he was found by Joseph Walker. He was lying in a ditch outside of Gunner's Hall, the polling place for Baltimore's 4th Ward. When the polls closed, his kidnappers would have turned him and the other victims loose, and Poe would have been in no state to make it very far. He was drunk, beaten, and weak. He would have stumbled away before passing out in the ditch right outside of the pub, where he would be found and rushed to the hospital.
Poe did indeed have a reputation for abusing alcohol, but the condition of his body at the time of death seemed to indicate recent physical trauma. These things combined with the lack of witnesses able to account for him for days at a time and the clothes he was wearing when he was found all points to gang-organized cooping.
We will never be able to know for certain what happened to Edgar Allan Poe in his final days or what led to his death. But it certainly is possible that a horrific form of voter fraud played a role.