Black and white photo of Edgar Allan Poe
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly 174 years after Edgar Allan Poe died at the ripe old age of 40, his cause of death remains a mystery.

The poet and storyteller’s gothic, spooky style made him the perfect character for an enigmatic end. He was found delirious, wearing someone else’s clothes in a street near what is now Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood. Poe’s doctor reported that the only words the horror writer spoke were in the hospital, repeatedly, “Reynolds! Reynolds!” before his alleged final words: “Lord help my poor soul.”

“The Death of Poe,” a film that explores Poe’s last days and his death, will kick off the International Poe Festival Weekend (which will take place Oct. 7 and 8). The screening is sponsored by the National Edgar Allan Poe Theater and Poe Baltimore, and will take place at Harbor East Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. The film “mixes the events of Poe’s last days with imagery from his stories to create a dreamlike chronicle of Edgar Allan Poe’s final journey into madness and fear.”

“This was a film that was written, produced and actually starred in by a local Baltimore filmmaker, an actor and radio dramatist named Mark Redfield,” said Alex Zavistovich, founder and artistic director of the National Edgar Allan Poe Theater. “It also features some fairly well-known theater and film actors in Baltimore proper, including Tony Tsendeas, who’s pretty well known for his impersonations of Edgar Allan Poe.”

Zavistovich explained he will moderate a panel discussion after the movie featuring Redfield and David Gaylen, who is president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society in Baltimore. They’ll discuss the circumstances of Poe’s death and explore some of the theories surrounding it.

Poe was found “[o]utside of a polling station, there was an election that day,… completely delirious, wearing someone else’s clothing. He never fully regained consciousness. He was taken to the hospital where he lapsed in and out of sort of a semi lucid state, continually according to claims, calling out one name, which was the name Reynolds,” Zavistovich said. “So obviously, with no definitive explanation to why, a lot of different theories have cropped up. Everything from rabies… to alcohol toxicity.”

Zavistovich explained that Poe was an alcoholic and had heightened sensitivity to the effects of alcohol.

The theory that carries most weight with him, however, involves — wait for it — voter fraud.

“My particular theory of choice is what was called ‘cooping,’ which was a very early form of voter fraud, where people were shanghaied in public houses or bars, things of that nature, either drugged or highly intoxicated. Then thrown in with a bunch of other people in these tiny rooms like chickens in coops, which is where the ‘cooping’ came from. Then they were literally taken from one location to another to vote to place fraudulent votes,” Zavistovich said.

He asserts it’s a theory supported by primary source material, pointing to a Baltimore Sun article from the 100th anniversary of Poe’s death by James H. Bready.

“The Baltimore Sun discovered that on the occasion of the actual election for sheriff, so October 3, 1849, the Baltimore Sun ran on the front page, a listing of all of the different wards where voting was taking place, and the voting judges there,” Zavistovich said. “And the Fourth Ward judge, which is where Poe was found delirious, the Fourth Ward judge was a guy named Henry Reynolds.”

Zavistovich believes this supports the cooping theory, because if one is going to commit voter fraud, who better to have in one’s camp than the voting judge?

Cooping was common practice, according to Zavistovich, who noted there’s a reason Baltimore was nicknamed “Mobtown.” There was plenty of organized crime, and this was one of the forms it took. Poe may have been in the wrong bar at the wrong time and gotten caught up in the group they were trying to hustle from one polling place to another. This would also have explained his wearing clothes that weren’t his, if they attempted to disguise the people who were voting in more than one place by putting them in different clothes.

“It was just the common practice. …They would either intoxicate someone or drug them or in some way incapacitate them very often, blatantly, right in a bar. And you get to the point where you’re stumbling around and someone says, ‘Hey, we’ll take him home,’ you know, carry him out,” Zavistovich explained. “But next thing you know, you’re sitting in a room with a dozen other people, waiting to be dragged from one polling place to another. It was easy to do that because at the time, when you are going in to vote, they gave you colored cards to indicate the group that you went in, you didn’t even show any identification. So it would be very easy for someone to just sort of pass through the door, especially if someone involved in the polling was complicit in what was happening.”

He acknowledged it’s just speculation, but the potential connections could tie up the loose ends.

Gaylen is also an expert and has his own theories. Zavistovich laughed, “I’m not going to try to eclipse his position.”

There will be many theories discussed at the panel after the film screening, and Zavistovich assured that more than just the three mentioned here will be included.

Tickets to “The Death of Poe” movie night are $25 and available by clicking this link.

The screening is on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, at 8 p.m.

Harbor East Cinemas is located at 645 S. President Street.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for covering this fascinating story!

    This movie screening is the evening before the opening of The International Edgar Allan Poe Festival, as a kickoff event for attendees to the festival.

  2. As a certified Baltimore Tour Guide who has given a few Poe tours and have had conversations with the former and current staff of the Poe House, I want to correct the idea that Poe’s last words were “Lord help my poor soul.” The only source for this statement is the attending Dr. Moran. Moran who wrote a biography of Poe decades after his death in response to the character assassination the first biography of Poe (1850) written by Rufus Griswold. Griswold stated Poe was a person of very poor character and writing ability.
    Part of the rehabilitation was to include Poe saying Lord help my poor soul. Since Poe was not known to be religious, indeed while at West Point Poe received demerits for not attending chapel, this statement is now considered to be questionable.

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