MIDNIGHT DREARY: THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, by John Evangelist Walsh, Rutgers University Press, 180 pages, $23.
It seems only fitting that the demise of nineteenth-century writer, poet, and critic Edgar Allan Poe–the man who was so instrumental in creating mystery fiction as we know it today–should be shrouded in mystery.
The bare facts of the case are these: in the fall of 1849, Poe, then 40 years old, left Richmond, Virginia, for his home in New York City. He had been in Richmond on a lecture tour, but was also visiting the widow Elmira Shelton, a childhood friend he planned to marry. Only his need to complete a minor editorial commission and retrieve an elderly guest for the wedding had sent him from Elmira’s embrace back to New York. He was expected to be gone a couple of weeks, returning in plenty of time to complete the nuptial preparations.
Yet he never made it back. In fact, after Poe left Richmond, he disappeared. Only a week later did Poe resurface in Baltimore, in “shocking condition”–dressed shabbily and suffering from severe inebriation. He died a few days later, after periods of “violent delirium,” never saying where he’d been since he started north…or with whom.
For the last 150 years, it’s been thought that Poe perished from complications of an alcoholic debauch (despite a sworn promise to his fiancée that he would remain sober). Or, more incredibly, that he’d been drugged by political thugs and forced to vote at multiple Baltimore polling booths in a congressional election, then abandoned to overexposure. However, literary sleuth John Evangelist Walsh, author of the award-winning Poe the Detective, thoroughly plumbs the scant documentation available to arrive at an unexpected–but well articulated–solution, one that blames both Poe and others for the writer’s fate. Though Walsh must make a few leaps of faith to fill in the evidentiary gaps of his investigation, Midnight Dreary is a fine piece of scholarship, with twists and turns enough to keep even veteran whodunit readers enthralled.
J. Kingston Pierce is the author of several popular history books and the crime fiction editor of the online literary magazine, January (www.januarymagazine.com).