Category Archives: books

All things for the bibliophile.

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

A fictionalized account of the last days of 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 the poet’s life (and death), but as fantastical as the film’s premise may be, the real circumstances surrounding his final few days are even more intriguing and — as would be expected from him — 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: 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 he had “lesions on the brain”; and 2) eye-witness evidence of calcification of the brain following an exhumation of the body 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. His contemporaries, 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 the poet 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)

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 (mania-a-potu) without having had a drop? Delirium tremens? Poe was no doctor; he used the language he could to express his condition.  But clearly, barely three months before his death, some affliction 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 diabetes can certainly 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 showed that psychiatric disorders can be a risk factor for, as well as a complication of, type 2 diabetes. Perhaps his melancholy contributed to developing the disease.

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”, 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.


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 (1989), presented online by the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore.

For the Letters of Edgar Allen Poe, courtesy of the Internet Archive, click here » »

UPDATE: this post has been edited a few times for accuracy and argument over the years. As of January 1, 2023, “Genius, Gin and Glucose” has logged 30,000 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!



DRACULA (the 1902 Edition)

One of the only books never to be out of print since its first publication in 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has appeared in hundreds of editions worldwide. To the collector, early editions are highly sought-after, not only for their antiquarian book value at auction, but oftentimes, for the peculiar details of the edition itself: from the color of its binding to the illustrations or designs on the cover boards. But a study of the physical evolution of the editions themselves can reveal popular culture’s changing attitudes toward the character of Dracula.

Confusion abounds as to the true first edition, and many people, even seasoned collectors, are often fooled by reprints that carry only the 1897 date (like the 1927 “Stageplay edition”).

My concern is not with the authenticity of early editions or even their value, but of the early illustrations that appeared on the cover of these books. From the black and white line illustration of Dracula scaling the walls of his castle from the relatively rare 1901 edition, to the modern printings that include works of artists like Edward Gorey and Greg Hildebrandt, the depictions of Dracula on the covers and within the pages of the many editions that have appeared over the years are quite telling as they provide a glimpse into changing attitudes toward the infamous Count.

Of particular interest to me (mostly because I own it) is the Second American Edition of Dracula published by Doubleday, Page and Co. in 1902.

[note: the following information about images available online was true in 2012, but as time has passed, more sellers have come online and the red cloth cover (destination of updated link below) is now part of wikimedia commons!]

It is curious that the red cloth cover to a 1902 / 1903 reprint of the second American Edition is the only image like it readily found online. But an image of the green cloth binding of the first printing of the second American edition, to my knowledge, has never been readily available, either as a scan posted by a secondhand bookseller or a Dracula historian.

[again, the above was true in 2012!]

More interesting is that even when covers of the red cloth edition are available, the illustration on the book’s cover, a pasted down Count Dracula with a bat over his shoulder and wolf at his side, has never been made available large enough for study in great detail. Until now.

The image below (click on it or here for greater detail) shows an image of the Count, horse whip in hand, with a bat over his shoulder and a wolf at his feet.

Is the illustration (restored from my copy’s damaged paste-down [courtesy of the magic of PhotoShop]) accurate?

Certainly, Dracula assumes the forms of both bat and wolf in the novel. But it is the description of Dracula himself by which we can best judge the illustration.

From Harker’s journal dated May 5 (Chapter 2):

“His face was a strong-a very strong-aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”

Of course, it is the more youthful Dracula Harker discovers in the vampire’s coffin, one “looking as if his youth had been half restored. For the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey” (Harker’s Journal, June 30 [Chapter 4]) that the illustrator depicts, but other than the “lofty domed forehead and hair growing scantily around the temples” could one say this is an accurate illustration of Stoker’s creation?

What is most curious about the 1902 edition’s cover illustration, however, is the horse whip in Dracula’s hand. Is this image that of the Count as mysterious coachman who picks up Harker at the Borgo Pass?

From Harker’s journal of May 3 (Chapter 1):

“[The horses] were driven by a tall man, with a long brown beard and a great black hat, which seemed to hide his face from us. I could only see the gleam of a pair of very bright eyes, which seemed red in the lamplight, as he turned to us.” Once aboard the coach, Harker records in his journal that “the driver cracked his whip and called to his horses.”

Further along into the Carpathians, he hears the howling of wolves. Harker sees his coach soon surrounded by the creatures. The caleche had stopped, and the coachman had disappeared into the woods. But upon Harker’s call, the coachman re-appears. And “as he swept his long arms, as though brushing aside some impalpable obstacle, the wolves fell back and back further still.”

The Second American Edition of Dracula is unique in its cover depiction of Dracula — not as the bat-like creature scaling the castle walls or the “distinguished and polished” Eastern-European nobleman as would be later described in the Hamilton Deane and John Balderston stageplay of the late 1920s — but as the coachman that serves as Charon to Harker’s Aeneas, ferrying the hero to an underworld as terrifying as Hades.

A strange choice for the cover? Perhaps oddly appropriate as the journey into Dracula’s world was being introduced to an even wider American audience who, like Harker, didn’t know what terrors awaited them.