Genius, Gin and Glucose: The Death of E.A. Poe

A fictionalized account of the last days of Edgar Allan Poe (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Edgar_Allan_Poe), James McTeigue’s 2012 thriller The Raven finds Poe (John Cusack)  in pursuit of a killer who is inspired by the author’s own tales of terror. Certainly, McTeigue takes liberties with the facts of Poe’s life (and death), but as fantastical as the film’s premise may be, the real circumstances surrounding the poet’s final few days are even more intriguing and — as would be expected from Poe — bizarre. Exactly how did Edgar Allan Poe die?

“Ultima Thule” daguerreotype, 1848

Heartbroken following the death of his wife, Virginia, Poe was physically transformed after 1847. His health was clearly in marked decline following her passing; one need only compare Poe’s life portraits to see the dramatic change in countenance. When the six daguerreotypes taken during the last eighteen months of his life are viewed in sequence following all other known life portraits of Poe, the rapid decline is startling. The almost unrecognizable robust man in his early thirties becomes haggard and wan by age forty.

Could the physical characteristics apparent in just these eleven known life portraits shed some light on the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe?

The most famous image, the “Ultima Thule” daguerreotype of November 1848 (taken four days after a suicide attempt), shows a man beleaguered and beaten. We are familiar with the haunting eyes and solemn expression. But a closer examination of the face reveals three distinct features not seen in earlier images of Poe: 1) baggy eyelids; 2) a drooping of the left side of the face; and 3) possible temporal arteritis, a condition in some men over 40 that can lead to headache, malaise, fever, weight loss and visual disturbances. The basis of the disorder is an inflammation of the lining of the temporal artery (in the scalp over the temple).

Its causes are many, but among them are two of the more plausible causes of Poe’s death put forward over the last couple of decades (http://www NULL.poemuseum NULL.org/life-death NULL.php): diabetes (argued by David Sinclair, a Poe biographer, in 1977) and brain tumor (most recently put forth by Matthew Pearl, conducting research for his novel The Poe Shadow); this theory of a  tumor / possible brain cancer is based upon 1) a contemporary physician who concluded that Poe had “lesions on the brain” (http://www NULL.eapoe NULL.org/balt/poechh NULL.htm); and 2) eye-witness evidence of calcification of the brain following an exhumation of Poe’s body (http://www NULL.theguardian NULL.com/world/2007/oct/21/books NULL.booksnews) 26 years after his death).

Despite popular opinion — now and at the time of his death — Poe almost certainly didn’t die directly from alcohol poisoning; re-enforced by continued character assassination by both his own publishers and the many detractors who found Poe, the critic, less than kind with his reviews, that image has stuck. Contemporaries of Poe, however, while admitting that the man drank, did not find Poe to be someone who drank to excess. Yet consumption of even the smallest amount of alcohol resulted in apparent stupor and confusion. And in the weeks preceding his death, Poe had  joined a temperance movement.

This is not to say that Poe did not have his problems with alcohol.

In a letter to George Evelth, a medical student who wrote a fan letter to Poe in 1845, initiating a correspondence, Poe writes

“…I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” (January 4, 1848 (http://archive NULL.org/stream/lettersofedgaral008964mbp#page/n61/mode/2up/search/really+insane))

Later, the next month, on the wagon, Poe tells Evelth that

“I rise early, eat moderately, drink nothing but water, and take regular and abundant exercise in the open air.” (February 19, 1848)

This period of health was not to last, however; a year and a half later, writing to Maria Clemm, his mother-in-law, Poe says

“For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval, I imagined the most horrible calamities. All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced — an attack of mania-a-potu.” (July 19, 1849)

A violent alcohol intoxication without having had a drop? Poe was no doctor; he used the language he could to express his condition.  But clearly, barely three months before his death, some other malady was at play.

Earlier that year, in writing to Annie Richmond, a close friend, Poe writes that he

“…had a most distressing headache for the last two weeks.” (January 21, 1849)

Could the headaches and hallucinations have a common cause?

Certainly, a brain tumor could be responsible for these, and other symptoms. And while I won’t dispute the possibility of such a thing, a brain tumor would not explain years of sensitivity to alcohol nor would it normally result in the weight loss in his thirties then sudden weight gain evident in the daguerreotypes taken in Poe’s latter years. Excess cortisol in the blood, a result of stress (of which Poe had more than his share) can occur in both situations, but only diabetes can explain the sensitivity to alcohol throughout his life.

At the University of Virginia, for example, as early as 1826, Poe (as most young people do when away at college) may have overindulged. But curiously, one contemporary classmate, Thomas Goode Tucker, recalled that Poe

“. . . would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; but if not, he rarely returned to the charge” (Letter from Tucker to Douglas Sherly, April 5, 1880)

A lightweight, so to speak, Poe’s intolerance for alcohol may have been rooted in his blood sugar. Untreated, diabetes could, over time, progress to nephrotic syndrome and damage to the kidneys, resulting in acute confusion from hypoglycemia — or even contribute to and/or trigger severe depression. In the November 22, 2010 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, one study (http://archinte NULL.ama-assn NULL.org/cgi/content/full/170/21/1884) showed that psychiatric disorders can be a risk factor for, as well as a complication of, type 2 diabetes.

Few who read the man’s poems, fiction and letters would be surprised to find Poe suffered from depression. The death of his young bride Virginia two years before his own could definitely bring on stress that would lead any man to drink; but in Poe’s case, the stress may have aggravated by pre-existing medical conditions that ultimately lead to his mysterious last few days: missing in the streets of Baltimore, disoriented, and found in clothes not his known (mostly likely due to the practice of “cooping” (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Cooping), whereby unwilling participants, some mentally ill, some drunk and most vagrants, were forced to repeatedly vote, often after a change of clothes).

So many factors may have contributed to Poe’s death that an accurate differential diagnosis — based purely on letters, a few (questionable) eyewitness testimonies, and some physical evidence that may or may not be apparent in a few photographs — may forever be impossible. Comorbidity of a number of health problems is more likely than any single smoking gun (metaphorically speaking, as there are many a theory as to Poe being murdered!).

In the end, whatever his afflictions, the popular image of Poe as little more than tortured soul, hopeless romantic, and terminal drunk  is ever more confounding. He deserves more than caricature. His life was hard. His enemies were many.

One such detractor, writing in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1846, took a jab in a mock poem that questioned whether Poe’s so-called talent —a talent finally being recognized widely with the publication of “The Raven” the year before — was “excessive genius or excessive gin!”

I would argue it was all that and more. Excessive genius? To be sure. Excessive gin? Possibly. A touch. One drink would clearly intoxicate him. And to this, I add glucose. “Constitutionally sensitive,” Poe suffered from some medical condition — arguably type 2 diabetes — that, to the medical profession of his time, all but meant a death sentence.

Sad, then, that all that Poe may have needed in the hours before his death may have been a simple glass of fruit juice.

LIFE PORTRAITS OF POE (IN ORDER): 1842-1849

Look for yourself at the images of Poe made during his lifetime. See the dramatic changes in his appearance (and his apparent health) in the photographs linked below; they are presented in chronological order.

Note that where necessary, daguerreotypes have been “corrected” laterally. Daguerreotypes show laterally-reversed (or “flopped”) images. Everything in a daguerreotype was flipped: left was right and right was left. I have horizontally flipped images where necessary to show Poe’s face properly so that signs of age, stress and possible diabetes are oriented correctly — as if you were looking at the man.

For a complete visual study of the author in art and photography, see Michael Deas’ Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allen Poe (http://www NULL.eapoe NULL.org/papers/misc1921/deas00ca NULL.htm) (1989), presented online by the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore (http://www NULL.eapoe NULL.org/).

For the Letters of Edgar Allen Poe, courtesy of the Internet Archive, click here » » (http://archive NULL.org/stream/lettersofedgaral008964mbp#page/n5/mode/2up)

UPDATE: as of March 25, 2015 (a little shy of three years since posted) “Genius, Gin and Glucose” has received 425 Facebook likes and logged 5,000 unique pageviews. By far, it’s the most read piece of anything I’ve ever written. Thanks to all of the Edgar Allan Poe enthusiasts out there!

 

 

The Dead Will Not Lie Down: Towards An Understanding of Kinemortophobia

Get A Kit, Make A Plan, Be Prepared. emergency.cdc.gov (http://www NULL.cdc NULL.gov/phpr/zombies NULL.htm)

 

On May 31, 2012, The Centers for Disease Control made it official: Zombies do not exist.

Despite some emergency preparedness promotional materials that were always meant to be tongue-in-cheek (or in exposed jaw, as the case may be), the CDC came clean on its macabre campaign following the cannibalistic acts of one Rudy Eugene five days earlier (http://www NULL.miamiherald NULL.com/2012/05/26/2818832/naked-man-shot-killed-on-macarthur NULL.html), who, in what was first assumed to be a drug-induced delirium due to “bath salts” (which an autopsy has since disproven (http://www NULL.miamiherald NULL.com/2012/06/27/2871098/mes-report-eugene-had-no-drugs NULL.html)), gnawed off most of a homeless man’s face at a Miami parking garage.

Kinemortophobia, the fear of zombies, can be traced back millenia, to the very dawn of civilization. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, from approximately 13th to 10th century Mesopotamia, the Goddess Ishtar, spurned by the hero Gilgamesh  threatens to “knock down the Gates of the Netherworld” and “let the dead go up to eat the living!” (http://www NULL.ancienttexts NULL.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab6 NULL.htm) Emphatically, she adds that “the dead will outnumber the living!”

To some degree, most cultures throughout history have believed it possible for the dead to return. Not merely as non-corporeal ghosts returned to haunt the living or as vampiric entities possessed by demons, but revenants — animated corpses who have returned (as the name implies) to usually exact some revenge. Creatures of singular purpose as described in the works of William of Newburgh (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/William_of_Newburgh) (1136?-1198?) and the English Abbot of Burton, writing in 1090.

The Dance of Death
The Dance of Death

The medieval European revenant, however, seemed to be satisfied to work alone. At most, in pairs. Not, as Ishtar promised, where the dead would outnumber the living. And so centuries passed with the mythology of the dead  getting mixed up in the latter medieval Danse Macabre, a momento mori consisting of the dead or personified Death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave (see The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut to the right).

It would be the early twentieth century before the creole word ‘zombi’ — apparently derived from Nzambi, a north African Deity — would enter the language. Taken from Haiti to American shores via the pages of Magic Island, a little known travelogue by William Seabrook published in 1929, the zombie was unnerving.

“The eyes were the worst… They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression.” — William Seabrook, The Magic Island

Within three years, Hollywood was quick to capitalize on Seabrook’s discovery by casting Bela Lugosi in White Zombie as Murder Legendre, a Voodoo master with the power to turn men and women into zombie slaves, incapable of free will and under his complete control.

Similar themes would continue with Val Lewton’s atmospheric I Walked With a Zombie (1943) up through the glory days of Hammer Horror and 1965’s Plague of the Zombies where an English country gentleman who had spent some time in Haiti dabbles in voodoo and unleashes a scourge as the film’s title implies: an unstoppable force of re-animated corpses that, in many ways, culturally herald the endless parade of parasites to come in George Romero’s pivotal 1968 Night of the Living Dead.

In his small, independent black and white offering that few assumed would find distribution and ever be seen at all, George Romero changed the mythology of zombies forever. His visceral approach to the content, subversive social commentary, and deft removal of all references to the supernatural (no hearkening to Haiti… no mention of the word zombie at all) transforms the genre. No longer the occasional slave of a sadistic shaman, the resuscitated dead in Romero’s world are accidental creatures of science. A force beyond our ability to control, as what was once dead — long dead or recently buried — returns. In seemingly insurmountable numbers.

Mindless creatures of unending hunger that gather in droves like walking — or in the case of the infected from 2002’s 28 Days Later —running flesh-eating machines, zombies can’t be reasoned with, can’t be appeased, won’t stop (as they feel no fatigue or sense of defeat), and — perhaps worst of all — spread loathing and despair among those that remain alive. The underlying cause of whatever created the zombies is now coldly scientific, irrevocably biological — perhaps even introduced into the population by mankind itself.

It is this palpable despair that leads to desperation, and ultimately, the breakdown of civilized norms in the work of Robert Kirkman (writer) and Tony Moore (artist) in The Walking Dead from Image Comics (published since 2003). A hugely successfully television series on AMC recently renewed for a third season, The Walking Dead blurs the lines of morality in a post-apocalyptic world. The zombies are relentless. But man can be scheming. Cruel. More dangerous than the dead.

Zombie from The Walking Dead
AMC’s The Walking Dead

It is ultimately this notion of an apocalypse of some kind — the “zombie apocalypse” as the phrase has become popularly known, where man fights his fellow man and zombies alike — that has become cemented in popular culture, prompting everyone from the CDC to Miami news anchors to adopt the phrase. But it is in the word apocalypse that we can possibly find the black heart of the condition called kinemortophobia. It is not necessarily a fear of death. We all die, and the fear of death has been with us since the dawn of time.

Instead, it’s the fear of losing one’s identity to the zombie. A loss of dignity. Being able to live well and to die well. Not in a pile of clawing hands and gnashing teeth.

Is it something even simpler? The fear that comes with all monsters? The fear of The Other?

No, profound though the fear of the outré is, this goes deeper. Especially when so many monsters have been humanized to become the stuff of soap operas. Romantic vampires and sensitive werewolves. Tortured souls that lament their power over others. The zombie knows nothing of this, because the zombie knows nothing.

We look at the vampire and think therein lies the attractive power of  possessing another through the blood and its seduction. We behold the beast that is the werewolf and envy its sheer power and freedom from social norms. We can even sympathize with a spectral entity, a ghost traveling dimensions in an attempt to communicate. Each of these has humanity.

But a zombie? A zombie is the flesh and blood and bone and muscle that are the leftovers of every body. What remains when the soul has gone. A reminder that we are bags of meat.

Zombies move towards us for reasons we do not know in numbers we can’t possible count to do things to us too horrible to imagine.

They are an unstoppable force of nature, ready to wipe us from the planet, taking from us the very humanity we would learn to truly cherish in the moments before the bleak inevitability of our situation becomes clear: that death comes to all — some more violently than others.

 

 

I’d like to acknowledge Tom Hutchinson and Roy Pickard’s HORRORS (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Horrors-A-History-Horror-Movies/dp/0890097550) for the title “The Dead Will Not Lie Down,” the third chapter in their History of Horror Movies from 1983 — one of a small handful of treasures that introduced me to the wonderful world of horror movies.