One of the greatest Edgar Allan Poe mysteries that the author didn’t write but may have orchestrated was his own death. Poe died under strange and mysterious circumstances at the age of 40 on October 7, 1849, and his official cause of death is unknown due to the lack of an autopsy or a death certificate. Leaving it open to speculation, there have been a wide variety of theories about why a young man found “in great distress, and… in need of immediate assistance” and not wearing his own clothes could not be nursed back to health and instead died four days after being brought to the Washington Medical College in Baltimore. One popular theory is that Poe was suffering from severe depression and slowly but ultimately successfully took his own life with a drug overdose. According to new computer-aided research into the author’s writing, that theory is probably nevermore.
“Today, we have tools that can measure a person’s psychology from the words they use in everyday life.”
In a paper published in the Journal of Affective Disorders and summarized in The Conversation, Ryan Boyd, Assistant Professor in Behavioural Analytics at Lancaster University, describes how he and co-author Hannah J. Dean from The University of Texas used computer language analysis to search 309 of Poe’s personal letters, 49 poems, and 63 short stories for words and phrases that showed signs of depression and suicidal thinking, especially in his final months. Those signs included the use of negative words (bad, angry), lack of positive words (happy, good) and more first-person singular pronouns over plural ones (I and me instead of us and we). They then plotted spikes in these words against a timeline of major events, both positive and negative, in Poe’s life. The results surprised them.
“Significant, consistent patterns of depression were not found and do not support suicide as a cause of death. However, linguistic evidence was found suggesting the presence of several potential depressive episodes over the course of Poe’s life – these episodes were the most pronounced during years of Poe’s greatest success, as well as those following the death of his late wife. Our analyses suggest that he struggled deeply with success, with linguistic markers of depression peaking during the times of his greatest fame and popularity in 1843, 1845 and 1849.”
So, Poe’s language showed he was depressed by the death of his wife in 1847 – not a surprise – but also had a difficult time dealing with his writing successes throughout his life. Even more surprising, there was not a noticeable increase in usage of depression words and phrases in the final months of his life. Even though Poe tried to take his own life a year before his actual death using laudanum (a tincture of opium containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight), the computer analysis of his last writings showed no climb to a peak depression that would push him to take his own life.
The authors point out that they can’t be as definitive as Poe’s raven is stating that Poe’s suicide theory should be discussed ‘nevermore’, but they admit that the computer analysis doesn’t help pinpoint his real cause of death either.
“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.”
Quoth the raven, “Keep looking.”