- Historic Sites
Old-style politics and the death of Edgar Allan Poe
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
Many have speculated that Poe wandered, a few sheets to the wind, into the vicinity of a Whig club.
One of the more enduring machine tactics was voting “repeaters”—that is, voting the same individuals over and over again. Names could always be obtained from, say, the local graveyard, but what then about opposition poll-watchers, who demanded to see live bodies? Such necessities could be obtained in a variety of ways, often with the aid of a few dollars or a little whiskey. Winos were often prized candidates; “Bathhouse John” Coughlin of Chicago earned his sobriquet by keeping bathhouses that the down-and-out could frequent, making them easily available to do their patriotic duty at the polls.
Indeed, the practice of using repeaters became so widespread and blatant that it led to a sardonic rally cry—“Vote early and often!” One of America’s first and foremost literary lights may even have fallen victim to this tactic. By the fall of 1849, Edgar Allan Poe was in the midst of a long downhill slide. His cousin and child-bride, Virginia, a perennial invalid, had died from tuberculosis in early 1847. After that his behavior and general mental state, always erratic, had deteriorated noticeably.
For more than two years he had lived a peripatetic existence, searching constantly for, in no particular order, work, backers for a literary journal he hoped would make him the arbiter of all American letters, and a new wife. His adventures along these lines tended to be pathetic when they weren’t simply ludicrous. The adamantly melancholic poet floundered in and out of engagements to one wealthy widow after another, exchanged regular dueling challenges with other writers and editors, and fell into extended drunks and laudanum binges. He also churned out some of his best short stories and poems, delivered lectures on just about everything, and recited “The Raven” in many an obliging barroom.
The exact events of Poe’s last days remain obscure even now, but he probably arrived in Baltimore from Richmond on September 29, 1849. He had managed to make another engagement and had lined up a promising backer for his journal, but it all seems to have left him more morose than ever. As his biographer Hervey Allen writes, “Like all his great dreams, he preferred to have [them] remain where they could be perfect, i.e., in the realms of the imagination.”
He had come to a city where men of a more pragmatic nature were hoping to immediately realize their dreams concerning an election for the U.S. Congress and the Maryland legislature. Baltimore at the time had as lawless a political culture as any place in America, and while no one knows for sure just what happened, many have speculated that Poe wandered, a few sheets to the wind, into the vicinity of the Whig Fourth Ward Club.
The club was located in a fire station, volunteer fire companies then commonly serving as the nucleus of political organizations. This particular enginehouse seems to have been a Whig “coop”—that is, a place where men were taken and held for days, with the aid of drugs and liquor, until they could vote as repeaters.
This particular coop was estimated at the time to have held 130 to 140 electoral pigeons. We cannot be sure that Poe was among them, but as a slight man in poor health and easily overmatched by drink, he would have been easy pickings. All we know for sure is that he was found on election day, October 3, in a nearby tavern that also served as a polling place, all but unable to move and, Alien reports, “surrounded by ruffians.”
Attempts to find out from the poet himself what had happened were useless. When discovered by an old friend, he was incoherent, his body unwashed and his whole appearance disheveled. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but he only intermittently regained consciousness and reason. Tormented by dreams, visions, and possibly delirium tremens, he died early in the morning of Sunday, October 7, 1849. The master of the murder mystery had left an insoluble mystery in his own demise, though most clues pointed to Baltimore’s firemen.
Marauding fire companies, the practice of drugging voters with whiskey, and even the Whigs have long since followed Edgar Allan Poe to their reward. Which means that you no longer have any excuse not to get down to your local polling place and vote—even if you do need to stop for a drink afterward.