Edgar Allan Poe Psychopathology and Mystery

Alexander Pearson

Edgar Allan Poe is for many the best horror and mystery writer of the 19th century. Like so many other authors, his work was not recognized in life. He suffered financial hardships and led a miserable life. He suffered from mental disorders, which had a decisive influence on his work. His poem "The Raven" and some of his stories such as "The black cat", "The well and the pendulum" or "The fall of the House of Usher" are considered masterpieces of the horror genre. Edgar Allan Poe is the standard-bearer of the Gothic subcultural movement.


  • Childhood
  • Youth: An Unstable Character
  • Happiness does not last long
  • A mysterious death
  • Alcohol in Poe's Life
  • Was Edgar Allan Poe epileptic?
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Theories about his death


Little could David Poe and his young wife Elisabeth Arnold suppose that the baby who had just been born would be considered by generations to come as a master of the horror literary genre.

The young parents were fans of the theater. They represented "King Lear" by William Shakespeare, in a Boston theater. For this reason, that cold January 19, 1809, they did not hesitate for a moment to put the creature that had just been born, under the sign of Capricorn, the name of one of the protagonists of the work: Edgar.

Years later, the great French poet Baudelaire wrote that Edgar Allan Poe was born with the sign of misfortune engraved on his forehead. A year after he was born, his father abandoned the family. Soon after, his mother died of tuberculosis. Edgar was orphaned, along with his two brothers. The older brother was adopted by his grandparents in Baltimore. Edgar moved in with John Alan and Frances, a married couple from Richmond. These were friends from another marriage, who welcomed their little sister.

In this family, he spent the best years of his life. Although they welcomed him, they did not adopt him. They did give him his last name and he was renamed Edgar Allan Poe. At the age of six Edgar moved with his new family to England. He lived first in Scotland and later in London. At age 11 he returned to the United States again. There he received an education in the best schools.

"The black cat" one of his most famous stories

Youth: An Unstable Character

In the various boarding schools he went through, he soon showed his qualities as a writer. He also exhibited a strong impulsive character. He was unstable in his mood, irritable and prone to excessive alcohol consumption.

Alcohol caused him many problems and was one of the reasons why he broke off relations with his stepfather, after being expelled from a college and the West Point Military Academy. His mother became seriously ill, but his stepfather, angry with him, did not notify him of the death until after the funeral. Poe came to his stepmother's grave and fell swoon with grief.

He went to live with an aunt, fell in love with his cousin, Virginia Clemm, and secretly married her, falsifying the documentation, since his cousin was only 13 years old. At twenty-two, he was already writing short stories steeped in terror and fantasy. His inconstancy at work, his fondness for drinking caused him frequent dismissals and jobs followed in different newspapers and magazines. He lived with financial hardship, as his work had very little acceptance.

Reviewing the letters he wrote at that time, it can be seen how his humor was tinged with a deep sadness, which he claimed to carry from his time in Scotland and England, and which he apparently shared with his stepmother. He blamed his depressive states on economic scarcity and job insecurity.

However, he himself recognized an abnormal fluctuation in his mood, being able to go in seconds from the deepest depression to elation and exaltation. He described how in those moments of immense joy, his creativity was overflowing, he felt inexhaustible and he could spend hours writing in a frenzy.

Another of his most famous stories: "The fall of the House of Usher"

Happiness does not last long

Despite the scarcity of financial resources, he and Virginia enjoyed some years of marital happiness and happiness. In 1845 he published his famous poem "El Cuervo", which for some is the most beautiful poem in American literature. Thanks to the success of the poem, he achieved some social renown, although he barely made a few dollars for his work. But again fate played a trick on him and tuberculosis, which had already caused the death of his natural mother, took hold of his wife, who died in 1847 at 24 years of age..

This tragic experience plunged him into a severe depression, where he only found comfort in alcohol. But soon, even the ethyl fumes were not enough to mitigate his grief, and he fell into a new addiction: laudanum, which is high in opium..

Edgar, 38, spent several months devastated by grief. She sought comfort in alcohol, opium, and other women such as Sara Whitmann, Marie Louise Shew, and Ana Heywood. Despite his pain and disorderly life, he did not stop writing and published the poem "Ulalume" and his latest book "Eureka." Shortly after, in 1848, he attempted suicide with a massive ingestion of laudanum, but the emetic effects of the syrup saved him from a death from opiate poisoning..

A mysterious death

The writer, recovered from his unsuccessful suicide attempt, returned to Richmond, where he met Sara Elmira Royster, with whom he had been in love in his youth. He proposed to her and she accepted, on the condition that she give up alcohol and her chaotic life.

They set the date of the marriage for October 19, 1849 and for a few days he was seen exulting with happiness on the streets of Richmond. A few days later, he lost his track and appeared in Baltimore, in a dazed state, in clothes that were not his, delirious and in intense anguish and agitation. He was admitted to a hospital in Baltimore and on October 7, with twelve days to go before the wedding, he died. His death, today, remains a mystery. The last words that came out of his lips were: "May God have mercy on my poor soul".

Alcohol in Poe's Life

Although many authors have considered Poe as an alcoholic writer, everything seems to indicate that he was not an alcoholic. At least, in the sense that we give it today: a person dependent on drink, who needs to drink daily to calm their anxiety. Some authors, such as Pearl, among others, seem to confirm that Poe suffered from what is known in medicine as pathological drunkenness. This is a medical condition, where the subject, when ingesting small doses of alcohol, experiences profound mood swings, psychomotor disturbances and even delusional conditions. Well, according to Pearl, in the case of Edgar Allan Poe, the intake of a small glass of wine was enough for him to go from depression to manic excitement, although sometimes the opposite could happen..

Poe drawing based on a daguerreotype of the time

Edgar's father was a chronic alcoholic, and the effects of alcohol, in addition to strongly affecting his personality, are reflected in all his work. Thus we see how in "The Black Cat", the protagonist, under the influence of alcohol, commits horrible crimes.

His mother's tuberculosis hemoptysis, and his early death, when he was just a baby, must have left a deep and painful mark on the writer's mind. Thus, when his wife fell ill with tuberculosis, the vomiting of blood rekindled the childhood traumas. Poe himself, confesses in a letter, that he went mad with pain and gave himself up to drink. His enemies blamed his insanity on excessive drinking. Poe says they were wrong because it was madness that drove him to drink.

Was Edgar Allan Poe epileptic?

In Poe's time, known epilepsy was what we now call grand mal seizures, where the individual suffers from generalized seizures, loss of consciousness, and sphincter incontinence. However, the epilepsy that we know today as temporary epilepsy, was not known until years later when, in 1981, it was described by the English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson.

In temporal lobe epilepsy, focused motor automatisms appear, which may be followed by periods of clouding, and sometimes visual hallucinations..

Apparently, a doctor treating his wife told her that she might have epilepsy. Poe had a marked facial asymmetry, which could be explained by fetal distress during childbirth. At that time the death of the child or the mother, during childbirth, was not a rarity.

It is not surprising that a child, the fruit of a complicated delivery, had also suffered some brain damage. This could explain the asymmetry in the face due to possible facial paralysis. Likewise, a temporal lobe injury would not be unlikely. In Poe's case, alcohol intake could act as a trigger for seizures.

This could explain the masterful descriptions of pathologies that we have in his works. Poe perfectly describes and reflects the symptoms that appear in some forms of temporary epilepsy. This is how we see it in his story "The Well and the Pendulum", where the protagonist is tortured by the Inquisition. During the torment he suffers a picture of complex visual hallucinations, which ends with a loss of consciousness. In his poem "Berenice" the protagonists suffer from epilepsy. In the work a clear epileptic picture is described, followed by a later amnesia.

Bipolar disorder

It seems clear from his own writing that Poe suffered from bipolar disorder. The disorder was manifested, especially when consuming alcohol. Poe had a tendency to depressive states, which in his words was brought from Scotland. Faced with feelings of loneliness, hopelessness and vital sadness, Poe resorted to alcohol. A small dose was enough to go from depression to manic state, with verbiage and hyperactivity. Both major depression and bipolar disorder are frequently associated with alcoholism and the abuse of other drugs.

Theories about his death

There is no unanimity on the cause of his mysterious death, after appearing dazed and delirious through the streets of Baltimore. For his detractors a relapse in his alcoholic habits was the cause of his sorry situation. Against this thesis is the fact that he had not drunk for months. In addition, he had joined a teetotaler's club in Baltimore. The doctor who treated him, shortly before he died, stated that he did not present ethyl breath. In fact, they offered him a glass of wine, thinking that he was suffering from a picture of "deliriun tremens" due to alcoholic deprivation. Poe, though in a confused state, refused to drink.

The other thesis that is being considered, as more likely, is that of a hallucinatory state of clouding, supervening after a temporary epilepsy crisis. Nor can it be ruled out that he suffered a head trauma, the product of a fall (due to alcohol or epilepsy) and this would have caused an intracranial hematoma. This could condition a very serious status epilepticus that ended his life.

Many years have passed since his death and there is no certainty about the cause of death. On the contrary, there is absolute unanimity about the genius of his work.

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