“Who had a motive?”
“Who didn’t?” Dr. John Moran responded to Detective Allan Pinkerton’s query about who might have wished to kill Edgar Allan Poe. Moran had been the attending physician during Poe’s last hours. A Scottish immigrant, Pinkerton had migrated to America in 1842, seven years prior to Poe’s demise. He’d been a fan of Poe’s work, especially the stories featuring French detective August Dupin. Pinkerton had studied the methods of Poe’s famous investigator. Ironically, Pinkerton would employ those strategies in attempting to solve the mystery of Poe’s death. “I can’t thank you enough,” John Moran said, “For agreeing to discuss my concerns.”
“What leads you to suspect that Poe was killed?” Allan Pinkerton asked; “From the newspapers, I gathered that you thought he died from a swelling of the brain.”
“A speculative diagnosis, at best,” Dr. Moran replied; “I was never comfortable with my assessment but began to suspect foul play within days of Poe’s interment.”
“Why was that?” Pinkerton asked.
“Call it intuition, I suppose. But what shocked me after his death were the venomous character assassinations by his so-called friends depicting Poe as a depraved, drunk, drug-addled madman.”
“Are you referring to the so-called ‘Ludwig’ obituary appearing in the New York Tribune on the day of Poe’s burial?”
“Written by none other than Rufus Griswold, a man of jealous and aggressive temperament who envied Poe’s talent and hated the poet for pursuing Griswold’s love interest, a woman named Sarah Helen Whitman. She herself discounted Griswold’s accusations as libelous, but the damage was already done, and dead men possess scarce opportunity for reclaiming their reputations.”
The two men sat quietly for a moment in their respective chairs in front of the fireplace of Dr. Moran’s Baltimore apartment. In the interlude, Allan Pinkerton leaned forward to warm his hands. It was December and snow fell outside. Dr. Moran sought the comfort of a meerschaum pipe on the small table beside him. He puffed without benefit of a flame. The gesture was soothing, nonetheless. “So you think Poe may have been murdered over a woman,” Allan Pinkerton said matter-of-factly.
“Is there any other reason for a man to be murdered?”
“I see your point,” said Pinkerton; “Thousands of men were slaughtered over Helen of Troy.”
“Are you aware,” Dr. Moran asked, “That Poe wrote a poem called, ‘To Helen’?”
“Yes,” said Pinkerton, who’d read everything published by the author; “Let’s see if I can recall the middle stanza. That’s my favorite part.” In a mellifluous voice surprising Moran, Detective Pinkerton recited Poe’s verses:
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
In response to Pinkerton’s recitation, Dr. Moran belted out a hearty “Bravo!”
“Leave it to Poe,” said Pinkerton, “To memorialize yet another dead woman. Nor should we ignore the possibility that one of Poe’s ladies dispatched him to the hereafter.”
“Or more than one,” Dr. Moran ventured; “Maybe a cabal of his star-crossed loves.”
“Can you tell me anything about Poe’s alleged liaisons?”
“Only hearsay and what the gossip columns printed about them.”
“Start there,” Pinkerton urged.
Dr. Moran withdrew a card with handwriting on it from his vest pocket. Closer inspection revealed names, all women’s. “The rumor mongers believe that each of these ladies had a motive for killing Poe,” Moran said, handing the card to Pinkerton who spent a moment studying it, his preparatory research uncovering some of the names already.
“Was Poe involved with all these women at one time or another?” Pinkerton asked.
“Some at the same time,” Moran said.
“I didn’t know that Poe was such a rogue and scoundrel,” the detective acknowledged.
“According to all reports, he was a womanizer who spared no efforts being promiscuous in the extreme,” Dr. Moran explained.
“So he not only inflamed women’s desires but also ignited their rage.”
“The most common weapon in a woman’s arsenal is poison. Tell me, Dr. Moran. What symptoms did the author display when you first examined him?”
“He was distressed, disoriented, and vacant-eyed.”
“Could you tell whether he’d been imbibing spirits?”
“He had not the slightest odor upon his breath or person.”
“Then Griswold’s obituary was a thinly-veiled hatchet job?” Pinkerton asked.
“I’m certain,” Moran said; “Given that Poe bested him in literature and love, do you consider Griswold a prime suspect in Poe’s slaying?”
“Ordinarily, I’d say so. Killing Poe would bump a superior writer out of the literary limelight, and with Poe out of the way, Griswold would have a clear path to pursue Sarah Helen Whitman. However, I don’t think that’s what happened.”
“Why not?” Moran asked.
“For the reason you gave a moment ago,” Pinkerton said; “Griswold would hesitate to call attention to himself if he’d killed Poe. The obituary was spiteful and self-serving, revealing much about Griswold’s character and temperament. He may be a noxious fellow but no killer, I think. Griswold would have been too proud of killing Poe not to celebrate. Maybe Poe’s being murdered by someone else deprived Griswold of the opportunity. Maybe that’s why he’s so bitter.”
“Then we’re back to the women.”
“So it would seem. All of the women on your list were in love with Poe. Perhaps you can describe them so we can determine and weigh any motives they might have had.”
“All I know is what I’ve heard,” Dr. Moran said tentatively.
“That’s all anyone can know.”
“Poe apparently was seeing several women at once – on the sly, as it were.”
“Quite the lothario,” Pinkerton said; “Poe’s dalliances alone provide sufficient motivation for riling the women enough to kill him. My apologies for the interruption. Proceed, Dr. Moran.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Moran. “I was simply going to suggest that you may wish to interview the women in question rather than listening to the bits and snippets that I’ve gleaned about them.”
Allan Pinkerton nodded his head in the negative.
“That won’t be necessary,” Pinkerton said; “We’ll not get any additional information from them. Women are tight-lipped about their affairs, especially if they’ve been jilted or publicly humiliated. Besides, I prefer, like Auguste Dupin, to sit in my chair and make my deductions. It’s more satisfying that way.”
“As you wish,” said Dr. Moran; “I’ll tell you what I know. First, there’s Annie Richmond. Poe was passionately in love with her, but she was unavailable owing to the fact she was married.”
“Forbidden fruit is always the most tempting,” Pinkerton allowed.
“Next is Sarah Osgood, also known as ‘Fanny’ Osgood, and she’s an incorrigible flirt, a coquette, in fact.”
“Sounds as if she may have toyed with Poe’s affections and not the other way around,” Allan Pinkerton conjectured.
“Perhaps Poe’s most enduring love was Sarah Elmira Royster Whitman. Poe courted her when the couple was in their teen years. However, at the insistence of Sarah’s father, she quit seeing Poe. Rumor has it that he recently tried to re-kindle the amorous spark between them but was thwarted when Whitman’s mother learned that Poe was pursuing both Annie Richmond and Fanny Osgood while wooing Whitman’s daughter, Sarah. Gossip has it that Sarah’s family was so enraged that her brothers threatened to kill Poe if he came round again.”
“Most likely Poe didn’t go round again knowing that Sarah knew of his flagrant entreaties to other women.” Pinkerton reasoned; “Also, in my experience it’s rare when someone carries out threats like those made by Sarah’s brothers, especially if the threat achieves its desired effect. There were no signs Poe had been beaten, were there?”
“None,” Dr. Moran assured him; “The only anomaly was his dress.”
“Explain,” Pinkerton urged.
“By all accounts, Poe was a dapper dresser. When I came to him, he was clad in dirty, disheveled clothing that the family later said didn’t belong to him.”
Allan Pinkerton sank in the chair, staring at an invisible point in space, his gaze focused for a long moment before he spoke, “This much is clear. Whatever the enterprise consuming Poe, he didn’t wish to be recognized. He obviously donned a disguise.”
“Why?” Moran asked.
“I’m speculating that he wanted to move about incognito. Remember that August Dupin was a master of disguise. Poe was the character’s creator. If the author suspected someone was out to kill him, maybe he conducted an investigation of his own to debunk or determine the seriousness of the threats against him.”
“Or maybe he didn’t want to be spotted by one of the women he’d treated so scandalously.”
“That brings me to the next point,” Pinkerton said; “There’s one woman we’ve omitted from consideration who may point us directly to the killer.”
“Who’s that?” Dr. Moran asked in surprise.
“Poe’s cousin and child bride, Virginia Clemm.”
“How is that possible?” Moran asked; “Virginia Clemm has been dead for two years. She can’t possibly have had anything to do with Poe’s murder if he, in fact, was murdered.”
“Oh, but she could,” Allan Pinkerton insisted. “I recall a statement by one of Poe’s severest chroniclers saying that if Poe loved Virginia Clemm, then he certainly had a strange way of showing it.”
“It’s common knowledge that Poe carried on affairs while married to Virginia. Undoubtedly, she knew of his philanderings. Either she didn’t care or wore a false face to disguise her distress.”
“I can’t imagine a woman not caring that her husband was making a spectacle of himself in public by being seen in the company of other women;” Pinkerton noted, “For that reason, Virginia may have had an indirect influence on Poe’s death.”
“How?” the doctor asked.
“By inspiring Virginia’s mother and Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to become the agent of Virginia’s revenge.”
Moran sat stunned, silently retracing Pinkerton’s circuitous route in arriving at the conclusion that Poe’s aunt and mother-in-law was Poe’s killer. “Let’s ask ourselves a question,” Pinkerton interjected; “Who has the greater motive for revenge: a lover who experiences the indignity of rejection or a mother who grieves the untimely death of a child while withstanding rumors of her son-in-law’s philanderings. I’d argue that vindication by a mother trumps the need to get even with a lover in every circumstance.”
Moran was shocked by Pinkerton’s speculations, “But almost everyone who knew them,” Moran challenged, “Remarked on the great affection Poe had for his aunt.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Pinkerton agreed.
“He even wrote a poem dedicated to her,” Moran added.
“Yes,” Pinkerton said; “In one line he addresses her with the salutation: ‘You who are more than mother unto me.’”
Moran was a little surprised at Pinkerton’s familiarity with Poe’s oeuvre; “My understanding is that he trusted her implicitly. She was the closest person he had to a confidant,” Moran added.
“A fact providing her with a perfect alibi,” said Pinkerton. “No one suspects the beloved aunt or even wishes to subscribe a motive to her.”
“But isn’t your evidence circumstantial?” Moran asked.
“Yes,” Allan Pinkerton answered, “But for one small and inexplicable detail.”
“What’s that?” Moran asked.
“I read in the papers that Maria Clemm deposited all of Poe’s manuscripts into the hand of Rufus Griswold – this following the scathing obituary of Poe penned by Griswold and published in the New York Tribune.”
“It is puzzling that she would do that; I must admit,” said Moran.
“Maybe not so puzzling if we consider that the desired outcome was to paint a picture of Poe in broad strokes as an unfaithful scoundrel. Maria Clemm gave her consent to that portrait of the poet, not offering a murmur of protest at the public airing of his transgressions. How it must have galled Mrs. Clemm to know that her daughter was forced to experience shame at Poe’s unsavory behavior and betrayal of her.”
“But there’s no evidence that Poe’s aunt was anywhere near him when he died.”
“The effects of poison can linger for months.”
“Do you suspect he was poisoned?”
“It’s a good possibility,” Pinkerton said; “In our correspondence, you mentioned that Poe experienced hallucinations in his final hours, a characteristic symptom of having been poisoned.”
“Given the case you’ve made,” Moran said; “Will you confront Mrs. Clemm with your suspicions?”
“Oh my, no,” Pinkerton said, to Moran’s surprise; “She would never confess, and I would be viewed as the detestable outsider who badgered a matron to confess that she’d murdered a member of her family. Even if she admitted killing Poe, public opinion would concur that he deserved it.”
“If that’s true, then Poe will be deprived of justice forever,” Moran remarked.
“Forever is a long time, Dr. Moran. The narrator in Poe’s, “The Cask of Amontillado” confessed his perfidy fifty years after committing the crime.”
“I wonder what it would be like to harbor a secret sin revealed to no one else for fifty years?”
“We can only imagine, Dr. Moran. We can only imagine.”