Last year, the writer Matthew Pearl published a novel called The Poe Shadow, in which a young lawyer sets out to solve one of the great enduring mysteries of American literary history: What killed Edgar Allan Poe? Like his protagonist, Mr. Pearl was fascinated by the question, which has vexed scholars ever since the great man died in 1849 at the age of 40, in a Baltimore hospital after being discovered, distraught and incoherent, in a local tavern.
Mr. Pearl had wanted to write a novel exploring the mystery. But he never expected to uncover actual evidence that could help solve it.
There are numerous competing theories about Mr. Poe’s death—the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, even has an exhibit dedicated to all of them. Some Poe experts believe it was the result of drink. Others think he had rabies. A few argue he was poisoned by corrupt political operatives. But Mr. Pearl—a 32-year-old graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, whose 2003 debut, the international best seller The Dante Club, prompted Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown to declare him, “the new star of literary fiction”—told The Observer recently that he has unearthed new information that suggests a less sensational answer: Mr. Poe, it seems, may have died of a brain tumor.
The immediate circumstances of Mr. Poe’s death are not in dispute. He had been missing for several days when a man named Snodgrass found him on the night of Oct. 3, 1849, barely conscious and wearing clothes that did not fit, and brought him to Washington College Hospital for treatment. “At the hospital he kind of ranted and raved,” Mr. Pearl said. Three days later, he was dead.
Very little information remains from Mr. Poe’s short hospital stay, and John Moran, the doctor who oversaw his treatment, obscured the record even further by delivering a series of paid lectures many years later in which he retroactively made up all kinds of details about Mr. Poe’s behavior that he hadn’t initially reported.
But one night during the summer of 2006, while sitting in a Midwestern hotel room—he says he can’t remember whether it was in Milwaukee or Iowa City—Mr. Pearl had a revelation. At the time, he was on the road doing readings to promote The Poe Shadow, and fans kept asking him why Mr. Poe’s body could not simply be exhumed from its Baltimore grave and examined so as to settle the matter of his death for good. Each time, Mr. Pearl patiently explained that an exhumation would be impossible, because it would require destroying the large marble monument atop Mr. Poe’s grave, which is one of Baltimore’s most popular tourist sites.
But that night in his hotel room, Mr. Pearl remembered some old newspaper articles that he’d come across, in the archives of the University of Virginia and Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, while conducting research for the book. When he went back and looked at them, the articles confirmed that Mr. Poe’s body had been exhumed, 26 years after his death, so that his coffin could be moved to a more prominent place at the front of the cemetery.
More to the point, a few of the articles suggested that the great man’s brain had been visible to onlookers during the procedure.
The first of these was an undated letter to the editor of The Baltimore Gazette, which claimed that “a medical gentleman” had seen “that the brain of the poet Poe, on the opening of his grave … was in an almost perfect state of preservation,” and that “the cerebral mass, as seen through the base of the skull, evidenced no signs of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished in size.”
The second was an 1878 article in the St. Louis Republican, noting that “the sexton who attended to the removal of the poet’s body” had lifted the head during the exhumation and reported seeing the brain “[rattling] around inside just like a lump of mud.” The sexton reportedly thought that “the brain had dried and hardened in the skull.”
“What I realized was, if that was the case, it would be the only physical evidence we have of what Poe’s condition was at his time of death,” Mr. Pearl said.
Intrigued, Mr. Pearl asked a coroner for an expert opinion. “I read her the description,” Mr. Pearl said, “and she said, ‘Well, that person is just wrong. Unless you embalm the body, the brain is the first thing to liquefy. There’s no way it would still be there 25 years later.’”
But a tumor, the coroner said, can calcify while the rest of the body decomposes. Perhaps that’s what the witnesses were describing, she suggested. Sure enough, when Mr. Pearl looked up photographs of brain tumors, he saw that some of them really did look like shrunken brains.
Next, Mr. Pearl ran his theory by some experts. One was Hal Poe, a descendant of the writer who serves on the board of the Poe Museum, and who told Pearl that he had “stumbled onto something quite important.” Mr. Pearl then went to Poe scholar James Hutchisson, who had advanced the tumor theory a year earlier in a Poe biography, based on other evidence, including the fact that Dr. Moran initially reported the cause of death as “congestion of the brain.”
Despite the enthusiasm with which experts like Mr. Hutchisson have greeted his findings, Mr. Pearl isn’t claiming to have solved the mystery once and for all. But he’s excited to have found a concrete lead amid the tangle of unsubstantiated theories: “At least [the tumor theory] has some evidence and some trails that you can follow that … It’s not just throwing the word ‘rabies’ out there and thinking, ‘That sounds good!’…I’d hope in this case someone picks up the scent and finds more on this.”
Still, he went on, the case will probably never be closed. “Poe’s death is one of the biggest literary mysteries, period,” Mr. Pearl said. “People don’t grow tired of it. It’s sort of like the J.F.K. assassination.”