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2009-10-21 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

by Joanne Anderson

Note: To mark Edgar Allan Poe’s 200th birthday, fans from around the world staged a grand funeral do-over in Baltimore this month to make up for the shabby burial the writer received in 1849. Therefore, as Halloween approaches, I would like to rerun a “strange” 2005 “Pets” about Mr. Poe:

Halloween twist: Did Edgar Allan Poe die of rabies? The master of the macabre’s death left a real life mystery that scholars have been trying to solve for over 150 years. TV “Forensic Files” coroners could have a field day. This rabies theory surfaced in 1996, and is one of many explanations for Poe’s bizarre demise.

Born in Boston in 1809, Poe had a tragic life that rivaled his vivid imagination for horrific detail. Left orphaned at three after the death of his actor parents, Poe was supported by the wealthy Allan family the next 15 years. He began writing poetry in his teens but his sulky nature, drinking and gambling caused friction with his foster father who broke up his engagement and disowned him many times. Still, Poe continued to use “Allan” as his middle name. Poe was expelled from the University of Virginia and then dishonorably discharged from West Point in 1831. Soon after he moved in with an aunt in Baltimore, and married her daughter- his 13 year old cousin Virginia Clemm-five years later.

Shown in photo, Edgar Afghan Poe dressed as Dracula. Shown in photo, Edgar Afghan Poe dressed as Dracula. Despite Poe’s talent and prolific writing, he was little known in his lifetime. The Raven brought him his greatest success but only $20. He and his Clemm relatives moved around quite a bit as he took low paying jobs with various magazines. In 1842, Virginia became an invalid until her death from TB five years later. Many think that Virginia’s passing inspired his poem Annabel Lee. Poe lost his struggle with drink and (possibly) drugs after that. He suffered from bouts of madness and depression, attempting suicide in 1848. The next year brought his much-debated death. (Some biographers say that Poe’s system could not tolerate alcohol at all and that this drunkenness was fabricated by a jealous critic to disparage him.)

On Sept. 27, 1849 Poe proposed to his childhood sweetheart, the same beau his foster father forbade, and then traveled to Baltimore. He was supposed to continue to Philadelphia to edit a poetry book. Instead the next day he was found outside a Baltimore tavern semiconscious and oddly dressed. Another speculation is that his clothes were stolen and he had been given liquor by unscrupulous politicians and dragged to the polls to vote over and over, an illegal practice called “cooping”.

Poe was taken to a local hospital where he passed from ranting delirium to unconsciousness for several days. For reasons unknown, he began calling for someone named “Reynolds”. On the fourth day, he breathed a simple prayer and died. Extensive records describe his condition and state; Poe had abstained from alcohol for at least six months. Without an autopsy, his cause of death was listed as “congestion of the brain”- disputed 147 years later in a 9/96 medical journal by a cardiologist at the University of Maryland. This doctor, R. Michael Benitez, practices medicine a block away from Poe’s grave. He said Poe’s last days were a classic case of rabies. Here’s why:

Benitez said that it is unusual for patients in alcohol withdrawal to become acutely ill, recover for a brief time, and then worsen and die. He also thinks Poe’s symptoms were not the scenario for opiate withdrawal either. The doctor further states that in the final stages of rabies, it is common for the patient to have intermittent periods of confusion along with wide swings in pulse, respiration and temperature like Poe. His worst symptoms lasted four days, the median time for end-stage rabies, plus he presented with the infamous hydrophobia. Poe refused all liquids including alcohol, because it was painful to swallow. Keep in mind that rabies was rampant in Poe’s time. Pasteur didn’t develop a vaccine until 1885.

Critics argued that there was no sign of a bite or scratch but Benitez rebutted saying that CDC rabies data for the last 20 years cite only 25% of the human victims who could recall animal exposure. He concluded that Poe was not drunk. He had encephalitic rabies.

If you want to believe that Stephen King’s predecessor met a Cujo-style end, then what bit him? It wasn’t his beloved cat Caterina. Rabies can have an incubation period of up to a year in humans if the virus enters via an extremity. The further from the brain, the longer it takes to rear its ugly head. Caterina, uninfected, died of starvation months after Poe’s death when the literary master’s mother-in-law/aunt abandoned her in their Bronx cottage.

Footnote: Originally the Poe postmortem was presented to Dr. Benitez as part of a weekly pathology seminar to sharpen the staff’s diagnostic skills. He had no idea that this case study was Edgar Allan Poe.

Meanwhile, my Edgar Afghan Poe named for the talented author has reason to celebrate. Edgar, shown here dressed as Dracula, is “Mr. October” in the 2010 Afghan Hound Club of America Rescue calendar ( You may recall that Edgar was one of 67 Afghans seized from a New Mexico hoarder last year. I had the privilege of editing the national calendar sold to generate funds for rescue.

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (643- 9270): “Teddy” a stout Retriever mix in Cage 6 is disguised for Halloween, too. Next to him is a female, flamepoint Siamese mix with extra toes in C-8. There are also two white Pomeranians. The shelter is located at 51 Lamar St., W. Babylon.

Female: “Roxy”-brindle mix Cage 25; “Serena” Cage 36 & “Hallie” Cage 38- from the Pit collection.

Male: black Corgi/Lab Cage 3; “Bernie”- Shep. mix Cage 8; “Winston”- outgoing black cat.

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