More Grist for the Poe Mill

As Baltimore and Philly duke it out for dibs on Edgar Allan Poe, Matthew Pearl – whose last novel, THE POE SHADOW, speculated on the circumstances of Poe’s mysterious death at the age of 40 in 1849 – reveals to the NY Observer his current theory: that Poe died of a brain tumor:

[O]ne 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

…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.

Even if Pearl’s theory proves to be the right one, he knows full well it can’t be conclusively proven. “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.”