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Doctor Believes Macabre Writer Died Of Rabies

Thu., Sept. 12, 1996

Edgar Allan Poe didn’t die drunk in a Baltimore gutter, according to the first scientific study of the writer’s final days. The telltale facts suggest rabies instead.

Dr. R. Michael Benitez, who practices medicine only a block from the writer’s grave, says it’s true Poe was seen in a bar on Lombard Street on an election day dreary in October 1849, delirious and possibly wearing somebody else’s soiled clothes. But Poe wasn’t drunk.

“I think Poe is much maligned in that respect,” said Benitez, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

He describes Poe’s last days in a medical horror story as dramatic as the writer’s most gruesome tales.

The author of “The Raven” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” entered a hospital comatose, but by the next day was perspiring heavily, hallucinating and shouting at imaginary companions. The day after that, he seemed better but couldn’t remember falling ill. On his fourth day at Washington College Hospital, Poe again grew confused and belligerent, then quieted down and died.

That’s a classic case of rabies, said Benitez, whose diagnosis appears in the September issue of the Maryland Medical Journal.

And there are other clues, too.

During the brief period when he was calm and awake, Poe refused alcohol and could drink water only with great difficulty. Rabies victims frequently exhibit hydrophobia, or fear of water, because it’s painful for them to swallow.

Although there’s no evidence that a rabid animal bit Poe in the days before he succumbed, that doesn’t cast much doubt on Benitez’ theory. About a quarter of rabies victims can’t remember being bitten at all. And once a person is infected, the symptoms of rabies can take up to a year to appear.

But once the symptoms do show up, rabies is a swift and brutal killer. Most patients die within a few days.

Poe “had all the features of encephalitic rabies,” said Dr. Henry Wilde, who frequently treats rabies at Chulalongkorn University Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.

Although it has been well-established that Poe died in the hospital, legend has it he succumbed in the gutter, a victim of his debauched ways. The legend may have been fostered by his doctor, who in later years became a temperance advocate and changed the details to make an object lesson of Poe’s death.

Poe scholars welcomed the diagnosis as the first scientifically valid assessment of Poe’s death. Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, said he has heard dozens of wild tales, but “almost everyone who has come forth with a theory has offered no proof.”

Some versions have him lying unconscious under the steps of the Baltimore Museum before being taken to the hospital. Others put his prostrate form on planks suspended between two barrels outside a Lombard Street tavern.

In most versions of the story, Poe is wearing someone else’s grimy clothes, having been robbed of his own fine white suit.

Whatever the facts, Poe almost certainly didn’t die of alcohol poisoning or withdrawal, Jerome said.

The writer was so sensitive to alcohol that a glass of wine would make him violently ill for days. Poe may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man, Jerome said, but by the time of his death at 40 the author almost always stayed clear of the bottle.

Benitez took on Poe’s case as part of a clinical pathologic conference, a common exercise at academic hospitals. Doctors are presented with a hypothetical patient and a description of the person’s symptoms, then are asked to diagnose the patient and present their findings.

Benitez didn’t know at first that he’d been assigned Poe because his patient was described only as “E.P., a writer from Richmond.” But by the time he was scheduled to present his findings a few weeks later, he’d figured it out.

“There was a conspicuous lack in this report of things like CT scans and MRIs,” Benitez said. “I started to say to myself, this doesn’t look like it’s from the 1990s. … Then it dawned on me that E.P. was Edgar Poe.”

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