Poe’s Last Words
We are indebted to Edgar Allan Poe for the detective story, which he invented. But Poe also bequeathed to us a real-life mystery—that of his deathbed cries.
He had been found, intoxicated and delirious, on a Baltimore street, and taken to a hospital. There, according to Dr. Moran, the attending physician: “This state [of delirium] continued until Saturday evening...when he commenced calling for one ‘Reynolds,’ which he did through the night until three on Sunday morning.”
Who was Reynolds? And why would Poe, in his final hours, have called for him?
The standard view among Poe’s biographers is that he was calling for Jeremiah Reynolds (although Henry Reynolds, a carpenter who lived nearby, has also been suggested). Jeremiah Reynolds was an advocate for polar exploration. His theory of a polar opening—an abyss at the South Pole into which the ocean flowed—had figured in two of Poe’s works: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “MS. Found in a Bottle.” (At the conclusion of both tales, a vessel is drawn into the abyss.) Poe also reviewed a pamphlet, about a proposed expedition, that Reynolds had written; the review praised Reynolds as “the active, the intelligent, the indomitable advocate of the enterprise.” And Poe may have known him while living in New York.
So why would Poe, on his deathbed, have called out for Reynolds? One biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, offers this explanation:
“On Saturday night he began to call loudly for ‘Reynolds!’ Perhaps to his dim and tortured brain, he seemed to be on the brink of a great descending circle sweeping down like the phantom ship in the ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’ into ‘darkness and the distance.’”
And Robert Almy offers a similar explanation:
“Is it not likely, therefore, that in his last illness, when Poe called to Reynolds, he was calling from the verge of that polar chasm whose shadow was as the shadow of death and whose concentric circles led downward to the incommunicable?”
Perhaps. Yet such speculation makes an assumption: that Dr. Moran correctly transcribed what he heard. But what if the doctor was mistaken? What if Poe had called out, not “Reynolds!” but some other word?
What might that word have been?
Poe had a problem with alcohol. But a month prior to his death, he had joined the Sons of Temperance and taken the oath of abstinence. (He had gotten engaged to a woman in Richmond; and a precondition to the marriage may have been that he swear off alcohol.) Commonly, the oath of abstinence was worded thus: “I am now fully determined to renounce this destructive beverage, from this day, to the day of my death. Yes, I do renounce it, fully, totally.” (emphasis added)
He seems to have adhered to the pledge—until a fateful day in October. As described by J. P. Kennedy, a friend in Baltimore:
“On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the hospital from the effects of a debauch....He fell in with some companion here who seduced him to the bottle, which it was said he had renounced [emphasis added] some time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and madness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the hospital. Poor Poe!...A bright but unsteady light has been awfully quenched.”
Poe—susceptible to the worst effects of alcohol—was dying and delirious. Yet surely he was aware of the lapse that had caused his condition. And as if possessed by the voice of Temperance, he had cried out: “Renounce! Renounce!”
Alas, it was too late. That same morning he uttered his very last words—“Lord help my poor soul!”—and expired.
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