On October 3 1849, the famed American horror and mystery author Edgar Allan Poe was found in a complete state of delirium – incoherent, dishevelled and wearing a stranger’s clothes. Four days later, he died in a hospital. His final words were “Lord, help my poor soul”.
The nature of Poe’s untimely demise at the age of 40 remains a mystery today, having baffled scholars for over 170 years. Dozens of possible causes of death have been suggested — from rabies to syphilis. Some suggest Poe was victimised in a form of voter fraud known as a cooping scheme, in which gangs working for corrupt politicians would sometimes beat unwilling bystanders to make them vote repeatedly for a certain candidate.
Others have suggested suicide. Poe’s contemporary, Charles Baudelaire — a French poet who also translated Poe’s works — suggested that the incident was “almost a suicide, a suicide prepared for a long time”.
At first, the suicide hypothesis may seem a touch dramatic. The idea of an author whose works were famously dark and gruesome being so disturbed as to take his own life almost sounds like a bad cliché. However, there may be something to this theory.
Poe’s personal life was a complex blend of factors that are reliably associated with an above-average risk for depression and death by suicide. He was male, often felt overwhelming hopelessness, had a history of alcohol and substance abuse, and repeatedly lost loved ones. Critically, Poe had made previous suicide attempts — having tried to overdose on laudanum a year before his death.
All possible causes of Poe’s death have, to date, been purely speculative. He received no autopsy, and no medical records of the event have survived (if they ever existed). Yet even in the absence of medical data, we are now able to examine Poe’s life and death through an objective lens.
Today, we have tools that can measure a person’s psychology from the words they use in everyday life. My colleagues and I have used text-analytic methods to better understand everything from the emotional underpinnings of political ideology to entrepreneurial personality profiles to the psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse.
Language and depression
The links between language, depression and suicidal behaviour are well established. Researchers consistently find that depressed people use language differently than their non-depressed peers.
People who are depressed tend to use more negative language. They also use language consistent with social withdrawal, including more self-referential words (“me” words) and fewer collective pronouns (“we” words). Depressed people also typically use more “working through” language – also called “cognitive processing” words – which includes “think”, “suppose” and “understand”.
Research has found that people who died by suicide can be identified by such language patterns. For example, they consistently use more “me” words and fewer “we” words. Importantly, these patterns tend to increase drastically as they get closer to suicide. Analyses of the language patterns in Marilyn Monroe’s Fragments and the diaries of explorer Henry Hellyer have been used to support the case for each of their suicides.
Building on this past research, our research team created an index of depression language. We then used it to assess whether Poe’s language showed signs of recurrent depression or feelings of suicide. We analysed over 400 stories, poems and personal letters written by Poe throughout his life. Accounting for his own unique linguistic patterns, we identified any prolonged spikes that signalled likely periods of major depression:
Throughout Poe’s life, nearly 20 texts scored abnormally high on our depression index, half of which were written in 1843, 1845 and 1849 — the year of his death. Poe’s depression scores were most pronounced in his personal letters, which are often the best reflection of one’s “authentic self”. They are largely absent from his professional writings. Notable exceptions include The Light-House, which scored extremely high on our depression index and was still a work in progress at the time of his death.
Looking deeper, we explored the events of Poe’s life during his most depressed periods. Surprisingly, 1843 and 1845 were two of his most successful years. Poe earned overnight fame for The Gold-Bug (1843) and The Raven (1845). Both were reprinted dozens of times to keep up with popular demand. Yet Poe’s relationship with his newfound fame was complicated. He earned practically nothing from his accomplishments. He deeply resented his own poverty, and fame likely betrayed his expectations.
Was it suicide?
From our analyses, we can conclude that Poe’s final months were indeed quite dark. This was primarily evident within his personal life. For example, Poe’s personal letter that scored highest on our depression index was one written to his mother-in-law in July 1849, where he wrote about the poor state of his health, finances and clothes.
Although our analyses reveal that Poe was spiralling into a depression at the end of his life, we can’t say for sure whether his death was a suicide. Considering his rather high suicide risk from a clinical perspective, paired with our objective analysis of his mental states, it remains a real possibility that he did kill himself. Following our analyses, the suicide hypothesis currently stands as the only cause of death that has objective evidence behind it.
We cannot definitively rule out other theories of Poe’s death. Given the less consistent results from his professional writings, and that suicide is often influenced by numerous factors simultaneously, a more complex picture emerges. At the very least, his mounting depression could have played some role in his judgement and decision-making leading up to his death. Ultimately, the nature of Poe’s death remains a mystery quite befitting the master of the macabre.