My Thoughts on Election Day...

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Matt Geiger

It’s almost Election Day, and you know what that means: Every American needs to stop what they are doing, take a moment, and reflect seriously on the weird and mysterious way Edgar Allan Poe died. 

Oct. 3, 1849 was a rainy day in Baltimore. (Of course it was raining, because how could it possibly not be?) A guy who worked for a local newspaper was walking toward a pop-up polling site when he discovered a delirious little man, dressed in filthy second-hand clothes and lying senseless in a gutter. When he got closer, he was a little surprised to learn the man was a poet and critic who was very good at writing and very bad at life. When the man asked Poe if he needed help, the author asked for Joseph E. Snodgrass, who sounds like a character in a Dickens novel but was apparently a real person and a magazine editor. 

If I am ever dying in a ditch, please call a doctor. Not an editor of any kind. I will probably need medicine; not a lecture about the utility of the Oxford comma. 

Soon, Poe died. He was 40 years old, which I remember thinking was fairly ancient, many years ago, but which now seems tragically young, because he was one year younger than I am right now. 

There are many sinister theories about Poe’s death. One of the most common is that he was a victim of something called “cooping.” Voter fraud was incredibly common, and gangs of street thugs would kidnap unsuspecting people, get them drunk, and make them vote for the same candidate over and over again. In between each trip to the polls, they would completely change the voter’s clothing, applying a bit more brandy to keep the voter good and stewed. I still don’t completely understand how this worked, but apparently the poll workers would think, “This can’t be the same guy who voted for Taft half an hour ago, because this fellow is wearing a different pair of pants and he’s way more drunk!”

Poe was an alcoholic, but unlike some alcoholics, he was also a terrible drinker. Even a little wine would cause his mental and physical health to rapidly decline, and many people believe that he died as a result of too many costume changes, too many ballots cast, and too many drinks, all in a city where he did not currently live (he resided in New York at the time).  

The lesson is obvious: All things in moderation, including voting and alcohol. 

The coroner’s report at the time put the cause of death as phrenitis or swelling of the brain. There are many other theories, because no one really knows how or why Poe died, or even why he was in Baltimore at the time, because he had been missing for a week before he was found there. He was a mess of a person throughout his entire life, but he was one of the most brilliant and iconic writers America ever produced. Even if you don’t care a lick about poetry or dark fiction, you know at least one of his poems by heart. And just about every scary movie or book over the last 150 years has taken some form of inspiration from his work. There is something paradoxical about his legacy, because the general gist of his work is that very bad things happen to people, usually because people are wicked monsters, but you can tell, in nearly every one of his stories and poems, that the victims don’t really deserve it. In other words, most people are mostly good. Otherwise, if all the victims in his dark tales were terrible, you wouldn’t ever feel so bad for them. The moral of most of his work is essentially that people are capable of terrible evil, but people also are basically good and don’t deserve to have evil done to them. He also points out, time and time again, that we are often the ones who do evil to ourselves. 

There are many other popular theories about Poe’s demise. Some think he simply drank himself to death, a bit of a cliché for an author. Others thought his habit of making fun of people in his newspaper writing led someone to kill him. (This, incidentally, is how I hope to die.)

One public health researcher suggested he might have died from carbon monoxide poisoning from coal. Modern tests of his hair also showed high levels of toxic metals, including mercury, in his system, so perhaps he simply ate a thermometer and keeled over. Another modern doctor, when provided with Poe’s many symptoms (he was hallucinating and weak, among other things), said the cause of death was clear: rabies. Some have suggested it was simply a brain tumor that killed him, while others suggest he died after contracting the flu, which could have caused nearly all of his symptoms if it prompted pneumonia. 

The fact that he had a swollen brain could point to encephalitis or meningitis, both of which I vaguely remember having, but in truth we will never know.

One of the strangest things about Poe’s death is that the man who found him wrote a letter to Mr. Snodgrass, asking for help. If ever something called for a text message, this dying man was it. In his letter, the man said Poe was “rather worse for wear.” “He is in need of immediate assistance,” he wrote. Perhaps living 150 years too early to see the irony in his words, the man signed his snail mail letter, “Yours, in haste,” which is like dropping an anvil on your foot “in levity.”

Death must have come to Poe like an old friend, he was so well acquainted with it. His mother and his father died, both from tuberculosis, when he was just a small child. His brother later died, possibly from the same disease. So did his stepmother, probably. Most tragically, for Poe, his young wife died from tuberculosis as well. She was only 22 years old, and the story goes that she was singing to him in their shabby home one evening when she coughed, a mist of blood escaped from her lips, and he knew in that instant she would soon be cold and dead. (They had been married for nine years when she died. Feel free to run the math on that.)

Oh, and tuberculosis also killed his first cousin, because his wife was his first cousin. 

If you really want to freak out, look up some public health numbers regarding tuberculosis, also known as consumption. 

I had to get tested for it once, because I worked closely with Bactrian camels, and I guess they are a great way to contract TB. We tend to think of it as an exotic disease of the past, which claimed victims in a time before modern medicine could save us from everything. It killed Jane Austin, Anton Chekhov, Pocahontas, Eleanor Roosevelt, Doc Holliday and pretty much anyone Edgar Allan Poe ever even glanced at, apparently. But actually, get ready to be freaked out here, tuberculosis still kills nearly 1.5 million people each year. That’s more than almost any other disease. Consumption still kills more people annually than car accidents, and more people than have died of COVID-19 so far this year. It’s more people than die from terrorism, starvation, fires and natural disasters combined. It’s not really a piece of information I was seeking, but it came to me in the form of a PBS story about Poe’s legacy, and now I guess I know it forever, or at least until I get cooped and forget who or where I am entirely. 

Scary stuff.

Perhaps it is no accident that our Presidential Elections generally take place around Halloween, when our minds turn to death, and darkness, and all the things that haunt us in the world. 

Or maybe it’s not that. Maybe it is simply that we must remind ourselves, again and again, that we will soon be gone, devoured by our monsters, as Poe was devoured by his. If it is not consumption or cooping, it will be something else. And if we forget this, our lives will lose the very frantic urgency that gives them all their meaning, powerful and fleeting as it is.

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