Death by voter fraud?

Article Highlights

  • Many scholars believe Edgar Allan Poe may have died due to voter fraud.

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  • Voter fraud was once common in our history – and sometimes deadly.

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  • We may never know if voter fraud caused Poe's death, but we can be thankful that violent voter fraud will occur "nevermore"

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Edgar Allan Poe's great stories -- "The Raven" to "The Tell-Tale Heart" to "The Masque of the Red Death" -- are especially haunting at this time of year. But what people may not know about this American storyteller is that many scholars believe he may have died due to voter fraud. And therein lies a mysterious and spooky tale worthy of Poe.

Poe's death in 1849 at age 40 is shrouded in mystery, and everything from alcohol poisoning to tuberculosis to heart disease to rabies has been mentioned as a potential cause of death. But one of the most compelling explanations -- and one that is increasingly accepted by Poe scholars -- is "cooping." In the mid-1800s, "cooping," a form of voter fraud in which backers of a candidate would force strangers to vote multiple times for their candidate by dressing up in disguises, was fairly common.

What supports the theory that Poe was a victim of cooping? Poe was found incoherent in the street outside of a saloon on Oct. 3, 1849, outside of a Baltimore tavern and died four days later. Not only was Oct. 3 an Election Day in Baltimore (a city rife with voter fraud in this time period), but the tavern was also a polling place. Additionally, Poe was found wearing clothes that were not his own; Poe had been a fastidious dresser, but he was instead wearing inexpensive, ill-fitting and dirty clothes. The out-of-character clothing suggests that Poe may have been forced to change his garments in order to cast multiple votes.

Poe's delirium has a few possible explanations in a voting context. First, voters in that era were often given alcoholic drinks as a reward, so Poe was possibility inebriated. Second, victims of cooping were often beaten to force them to commit voter fraud. The only specific cause of death ever listed for Poe appeared in the Baltimore Clipper newspaper, which claimed that he died from "congestion of the brain." A beating could explain such a brain injury.

Yet another theory, which English professor and Maryland historian William Hand Browne asserted in an 1874 letter to Poe biographer John Henry Ingram, suggests Poe had been kidnapped and forced to commit voter fraud: "The general belief here is, that Poe was seized by one of these gangs, (his death happening just at election-time; an election for sheriff took place on Oct. 4th), 'cooped,' stupefied with liquor, dragged out and voted, and then turned adrift to die."

Voter fraud was once common in our history -- and sometimes deadly. We may never know if Edgar Allan Poe's premature death was due to voter fraud, but we can be thankful that such violent voter fraud will occur "nevermore."

Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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