The strangely similar deaths of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe


Okay, after having recently read Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde, and just finished Kenneth Silverman’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe, I’m getting a little tired of authors dying miserably in extremely squalid circumstances.

Oscar died poverty-stricken in a seedy, not so seedy now, Parisian hotel. Edgar died broke in hospital after having been rescued from a dive bar drunk or stoned/medicated out of his tree wearing someone else’s clothing. Oscar was diagnosed with encephalitic meningitis, probably brought on by syphilis contracted as a young man. Here’s Ellmann:

“At 5.30a.m., to the consternation of Ross and Turner, a loud, strong death rattle began, like the turning of a crank. Foam and blood came from his mouth during the morning, at ten minutes to two in the afternoon Wilde died…He had scarcely breathed his last breath when the body exploded with fluids from the ear, nose, mouth and other orifices The debris was appalling.”

And, from the epilogue:

“It was ostracism – more or less – by two groups, those who could not bear his homosexuality and those who could not bear his requests for money.” “English law had misdone him by punishment, and English society finished him off by ostracism”

According to Joseph Evans Snodgrass, the Baltimore editor and physician who rescued him from Gunner’s Hall tavern in Baltimore, “Poe was sitting in an armchair surrounded by onlookers”. As Silverman puts it “Poe had a look of “vacant stupidity. He wore neither vest nor tie, his dingy trousers fit badly, his shirt was crumpled, his cheap hat soiled. Snodgrass thought he must be wearing castoff clothing, having been robbed or cheated of his own.” A Dr. John J. Moran at the Washington Medical College hospital, to which Poe was driven, “diagnosed Poe’s condition as encephalitis, a brain inflammation, brought on by “exposure.” This explanation is consistent with the prematurely wintry weather at the time, with Snodgrass’s account of Poe’s partly clad condition, and with Elmira Shelton [a love interest]‘s recollection that on leaving Richmond Poe already had a fever. Both explanations may have been correct: Poe may have become too drunk to care about protecting himself against the wind and rain. Whatever the cause, the poet who above all others worshiped Poe also keenly sensed how much his death at the age of forty was demanded of him. “This death was almost a suicide,” Charles Baudelaire remarked, ” a suicide prepared for a long time.”

Both Oscar and Edgar were buried with fewer than 15 people attending each of their funerals. Today both graves receive the attention of thousands of literary pilgrims. I’m hoping the subject of the next literary biography I read wont end quite so tragically.

You can visit Oscar in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France, and Edgar in the Westminister Burying Grounds in Baltimore, MD, but watch out for the mysterious Poe Toaster.

For information on planning your trip to Paris, click here. Baltimore, here.

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