Did Voter Fraud Kill Edgar Allan Poe? The 'Cooping' Theory

By Grace Taylor

American short story writer, poet, and critic Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), circa 1840. (MPI/Getty Images)

The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are filled with fantastic terrors and macabre wonders, but out of all his sordid tales, perhaps none is so mysterious and disturbing as the real-life story of the illustrious poet's demise. Though Poe experienced his fair share of tragedy in his life, including the death of his wife two years earlier and a lifelong struggle with alcoholism, he seemed to be on the upswing in 1849. He had become reacquainted with and engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Elmira Royster, and he was believed to have been on the wagon after receiving numerous warnings from his doctor about the deterioration of his health caused by his heavy drinking.

Poe's Fateful Journey

On September 27, he left his home in New York City to arrange a possible publishing gig in Philadelphia, but he never made it there. No one heard from him for the next week. On October 3, he was found in his hometown of Baltimore, lying unconscious in a gutter next to a polling location on Election Day. He was wearing torn, ill-fitting clothing and a peculiar straw hat, a notably different aesthetic from his usually dark, reserved, and tailored style.

John Tenniel illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." (John Tenniel/Wikimedia Commons)

Poe's Death

Joseph Walker, a writer at the Baltimore Sun, recognized Poe and contacted his relatives. They took him to Washington Medical College, where he seemed trapped in a hallucinatory haze, unable to communicate or answer questions. His only verbal expression was muttering the name "Reynolds" over and over. No one has ever determined who or what Reynolds was or what they might have to do with Poe's disappearance.

Edgar Allan Poe died after four days at the hospital of phrenitis, or swelling of the brain, a kind of catch-all diagnosis that was sometimes used as a code for alcohol-related deaths. It is possible that alcoholism killed Poe, either by overdose or the shock of going cold turkey, which can result in seizures and death. Indeed, Poe seemed to be unusually sensitive to the stuff, considering his fondness for it, sometimes appearing stumbling drunk after only one glass of wine. However, this doesn't explain his bizarre clothing, the mysterious Reynolds, or how he wound up in the street in front of a polling location in Baltimore on Election Day.

Edgar Allan Poe's monument/gravestone in Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, July 2, 2010. (Andrew Horne/Wikimedia Commons)

Theories About Poe's Death

One theory about Poe's strange behavior prior to his death is that he was suffering from a brain tumor, which could have led him to do things he normally wouldn't and eventually manifested as the hallucinations he experienced in the hospital. This theory is supported by testimony from 1875, when his unmarked grave was exhumed by the University of Virginia to give the famous poet a more appropriate burial, but in true Poe fashion, the coffin broke and the scribe's skull disconnected from his body. His brain was reported to have "rattled around inside [the skull] just like a lump of mud," but the human brain is usually one of the first parts of the body to decompose, leading later forensic pathologists to theorize that the sound heard was not his brain but the calcified remains of a rather sizable tumor, which was much more likely to have survived 20 years after his death.

A more interesting theory, known as the "cooping theory," is that Poe was kidnapped by corrupt "election gangs" and left in the street to die after the scheme was done. Back in the 1800s, voter intimidation and election violence was rampant, and some activists weren't above kidnapping individuals and forcing them to vote for a certain candidate multiple times at different venues, often changing their clothes in between. These victims were first "cooped up" in an undisclosed location, where they were sometimes beaten, drugged, or forced to drink to render them compliant. It was also a common practice at the time to offer voters a celebratory shot of liquor in lieu of today's considerably less fun stickers, which may explain Poe's terrible state, given his lightweight disposition, as well as the location where he was found. We may never know for sure: Despite extensive investigations by numerous historians over the years, we still don't know all the facts behinds this legendary storyteller's demise, but at least he'd probably be happy to have left behind one more morbid mystery.

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Grace Taylor