The Who2 Blog

Did Edgar Allan Poe Die of Rabies?

Edgar Allan Poecelebrated author of horrifying tales like The Pit and the Pendulum and The Cask of Amontillado, suffered an equally creepy death: he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, wearing clothes that weren’t his own, in a delirium. He was taken to a local hospital but died four days later without regaining his right mind.

His death was described at the time as congestion of the brain — then a euphemism for “drunk as a skunk” — and for decades that’s how Poe’s demise has been remembered: the sad end of a massive bender.

However! In 1996, doctors at the University of Maryland took up the case as a teaching tool for a Clinical Pathologic Case Conference.  And there the doctors, led by cardiologist R. Michael Benitez, discovered another likely culprit:

Dr. Benitez says in the final stages of rabies, it is common for people to have periods of confusion that come and go, along with wide swings in pulse rate and other body functions, such as respiration and temperature. All of that occurred for Poe, according to medical records kept by Dr. John J. Moran who cared for Poe in his final days. In addition, the median length of survival after the onset of serious symptoms is four days, which is exactly the number of days Poe was hospitalized before his death.
Poe’s doctor also wrote that in the hospital, Poe refused alcohol he was offered and drank water only with great difficulty. Dr. Benitez says that seems to be a symptom of hydrophobia, a fear of water, which is a classic sign of rabies.
Call me dim, but I never realized that hydrophobia (or “the hydrophoby,” as Walter Brennan would say) was literally the fear of water. I always imagined it had something to do with foaming at the lips. Where Poe might have gotten rabies is also a mystery; the Maryland docs suggested an “unrecorded and most likely unrecognized animal exposure” before he got to Baltimore.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore. Photo by Andrew Horne, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edgar Allan Poe’s grave in Baltimore. (Photo by Andrew Horne, via Wikimedia Commons)

As Dr. Benitez himself pointed out in 1996, nobody can say for sure what Edgar Allan Poe died of. There was no autopsy after his death, and whatever medical records there were have disappeared or been destroyed. Besides alcohol and rabies, tuberculosis, diabetes, cholera and epilepsy have all been bandied about as possible causes.
But we like rabies, just because it’s a suitably strange way for Poe to go. Philip Mackowiak, a doctor who proposed the 1996 study, has more details today on the Oxford University Press blog… although he himself seems skeptical of the rabies solution. Killjoy.
Learn more about the author in our Edgar Allan Poe biography »

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