Poe’s final days are as mysterious as the best of his Gothic tales. He was found in the streets of Baltimore, delirious and disturbed before dying the following week in a state of distress.
Many theories have been suggested as to what caused his confusion and eventual death, from poisoning, to a suicide attempt, to syphilis.
The Observer has an article on a new theory by Matthew Pearl, author of a new book on Poe’s death, suggesting his condition may be explained by brain cancer, owing to a curious finding when his body was exhumed some years later.
But Pearl has now discovered evidence that Poe died of brain cancer, which may explain why he had suffered from hallucinations and delusions. Pearl’s evidence came in the form of several old newspaper stories written about the exhumation of Poe’s body 26 years after his death. Poe’s coffin was being moved to a more prominent spot in the cemetery and the onlookers were amazed to see that his shrunken brain was still visible inside his skull. It was described as being ‘dried and hardened in the skull’ in an 1878 article in the St Louis Republican newspaper, whereas a letter in the Baltimore Gazette claimed that: ‘The cerebral mass… evidenced no sign of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished.’
Pearl contacted a friend’s wife who worked as a forensic pathologist. She pointed out that the descriptions could not possibly have been of a brain, as it is one of the first parts of a corpse to rot after death. But she said some forms of brain tumours can calcify after death and leave a hardened mass. One account described the brain as almost rattling around inside Poe’s head. Pearl also looked up pictures of calcified tumours and discovered that some resembled shrunken brains.
It’s an interesting theory, but one that will have to remain speculative – unless Poe’s body is ever exhumed again.