Edgar Allan Poe, Drugs, and Alcohol


The twin notions that Poe was a user of opium and a chronic alcoholic have been an unfortunate obsession with his fans and detractors alike for over one hundred years. The accusations are, however, best discussed individually.


Poe and Drugs

Poe’s use of drugs is, for the most part, purely a literary device. For some of Poe’s more fantastic story lines, his narrators admit the use of opium, but one should carefully note that it is Poe’s narrators who use drugs, not Poe himself. Poe’s stories are often written in the first person. Since they were printed over his name, many of his readers have failed to distinguish the actual writer from the fictional writer. This understandable confusion began with the publication of Poe’s Tales (1845), which more than one critic dismissed as “the strange outpourings of an opium eater” (The Daily Cincinnati Gazette, July 30, quoted in The Poe Log, p. 555). Although some wondered if Poe’s wild imagination was fired by drugs, no one seems to have seriously accused him of this habit during his lifetime. Even Poe’s bitter enemy Dr. Thomas Dunn English was willing to admit “Had Poe the opium habit when I knew him, I should, both as a physician and a man of observation, have discovered it in his frequent visits to my rooms, my visits to his house, and our meetings elsewhere. I saw no signs of it.” (The Independent, October 15, 1896). In 1884, Dr. John Carter, who knew and examined Poe, wrote to G. E. Woodberry, “Poe never used opium in any instance that I am aware of. . . . I never heard it hinted at before, and if he had contracted the habit, it would have accompanied him to Richmond” (Woodberry, Life of Poe, 1909, p. 430). Following this excerpt from Dr. Carter, Woodberry states his own opinion that “I incline to the view that Poe began the use of drugs in Baltimore, that his periods of abstinence from liquor were periods of at least moderate indulgence in opium, . . . “ As he never even met Poe, and offers no evidence to support his position, Woodberry’s conjecture may best be ignored. Unfortunately, in his 1926 and 1934 biography Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe, Hervey Allen mistakenly quoted Woodberry’s note as if it were part of John Carter’s letter (Allen, Israfel, 1934, p. 299). This episode is an enlightening example of how even a competent scholar is capable of making an embarrassingly simple error. The implication in this case can be very serious as most readers accept what they see at face value and are unlikely to try to verify the original sources. The reader of Allen’s Israfel is left with the strong but false impression that Poe has been labeled an opium user by a medically trained first hand witness.

The single instance of Poe claiming a use of opium is in a letter to Annie Richmond of November 16, 1848 (Ostrom, Letters, pp. 400-403 ). In a series of rambling sentences, he tells Mrs. Richmond of his purported suicide attempt using laudanum. (If true, his lapsing into unconsciousness before he could take the full dose is likely an argument that his body was not accustomed to the drug. Also possible is the assertion that the whole episode is too wildly romantic to be anything more than one of Poe’s fanciful fabrications, created to impress his friend with the depth of his despair.)

It is reasonable to presume that Poe did use some opium medically as it was a common pharmaceutical ingredient his day, but that is all. In short, it can be said with confidence that Poe was not a drug user.


Poe and Alcohol

From a purely medical perspective, it might be fair to say that Poe was an alcoholic. Unfortunately, the common use of this term carries more than its merely clinical meaning. First, it suggests that Poe’s life was one long series of drunken sprees, which is both unkind and inaccurate. Secondly, it is used to dismiss Poe as a writer, as if his poems and stories are better or worse depending on his personal habits. (The fact that Richard Wagner was, by most accounts, a rather despicable anti-Semite does not make his music any more or less beautiful.) It is reasonable to say that none of Poe’s stories or poems were inspired by or written under the influence of alcohol. The proof of this statement is self-evident. Imagine reading, let alone writing, one of Poe’s long, flowing and carefully constructed sentences while anything less than sober. At the very least, it seems that high-minded (and often hypocritical) moral indignation should give way to sympathy and understanding.

We must be careful accepting every statement about Poe’s drinking at face value. Poe’s enemies, and others who should know better, often attributed any reference to Poe being ill as another occasion of drinking. Although it appears that more than one or two drinks made Poe very ill, it is unreasonable to assume that he was never ill from other, and more commonplace, causes. One must also be careful not to count every repetition of a single event as an independent incident. There are also such obvious questions as the character of the witness and, as recollections were often recorded more than a decade after the events described, the reliability of teller’s memory. Second hand accounts may generally be dismissed as hearsay.

Certainly, Poe drank and often drank more than was good for him, even after he had promised himself to stay away from alcohol. It also seems likely that Poe’s father (David Poe, Jr.) and brother (Henry Poe) were hard-core drinkers. On August 10, 1829, Poe wrote to John Allan, “. . . Henry is entirely given up to drink & unable to help himself” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 29). Such familial ties to drinking may suggest a genetic predisposition, which is certainly consistent with our modern understanding of alcoholism. Poe’s own repeated, and often failed, promises that he was “done with drinking forever” must also be acknowledged as a familiar echo of many an alcoholic.

Poe’s flirtation with alcohol, however, was mostly intermittent — a few days of drinking followed by months or even years of abstinence. In April of 1841, Poe wrote to Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass defending himself against W. E. Burton’s accusations, “. . . I am temperate even to rigor. . . . At no period of my life was I ever what men call intemperate. . . . My sensitive temperament could not stand an excitement which was an everyday matter to my companions. In short, it sometimes happened that I was completely intoxicated. For some days after each excess I was invariably confined to bed. But it is now quite four years since I have abandoned every kind of alcoholic drink — four years, with the exception of a single deviation . . . when I was induced to resort to the occasional use of cider, with the hope of relieving a nervous attack” (Ostrom, Letters, pp. 155-157). Poe’s admission of “a single deviation” speaks in favor of his honesty in this letter.

Prior to 1841, there is little documentation about Poe and alcohol. Most of what exists is only from recollections written long after the facts they purport to record. His first introduction to drinking appears to have been in 1826, when he attended the University of Virginia. Away for the first time from the control and influence of their parents, many of the young men there quickly fell under the spell of wild living. Drinking, gambling and even pistol fights became common problems. Poe was not immune from these temptations. In 1880, one of Poe’s classmates, Thomas Goode Tucker, recalled that Poe “. . . would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; but if not, he rarely returned to the charge” (Letter from Tucker to Douglas Sherly, April 5, 1880, quoted in Woodberry, 1909, vol 1, p. 33 and The Poe Log, p. 70). How much and how often Poe drank while at the University may be disputed. In 1868, William Wertenbaker noted that “I often saw him [Poe] in the Lecture room and in the library, but never in the slightest degree under the influence of intoxicating liquors. Among the Professors he had the reputation of being a sober, quiet and orderly young man” (The Poe Log, p. 76). Poe seems to have stayed away from drinking for some time after leaving the University. When he left the army in 1829, he was given three letters of recommendation. Lieutenant J. Howard noted “His habits are good, and intirely [sic] free from drinking.” Captain H. B. Griswold said more simply that Poe was “exemplary in his deportment” and Lt. Colonel W. J. Worth that Poe “appears to be free from bad habits” (The Poe Log, pp. 90-91). By some accounts, he began drinking again once he entered West Point. Timothy P. Jones recalled that Poe “was certainly given to extreme dissipation within a very short time after he entered school.” Thomas W. Gibson gives the somewhat self-contradictory statement in 1867 that “I don‘t think he was ever intoxicated while at the Academy, but he had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.” Neither Jones nor Gibson are completely reliable witnesses as both were court-martialed and dismissed from West Point by 1832, Jones for gross neglect of his academic and military duties, and Gibson for setting fire to a building near the barracks (The Poe Log, pp. 108-109). It should also be noted that Jones recorded his recollections in 1903, over seventy years after their days at West Point.

The next record we have of Poe drinking is in Baltimore in 1832. His friend Lambert A. Wilmer recalled in 1866 “On one occasion, when I visited him at his lodgings, he produced a decanter of Jamaica spirits, in conformity with a practice which was very common in those days. . . . Poe made a moderate use of the liquor; and this is the only time that I ever saw him drink ardent spirits. On another occasion I was present when his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, scolded him with some severity for coming home intoxicated the preceding evening. . . . I judged from the conversation between Mrs. Clemm and Poe, that the fault for which she reproved him was of rare occurrence, and I never afterwards heard him charged with a repetition of the offense” (Lambert A. Wilmer, “Recollections of Edgar A. Poe,” the Daily Commercial (Baltimore), May 23, 1866, p. 1. Reprinted by T. O. Mabbott, Merlin, p. 30). In 1860, Wilmer included a reference to Poe in Our Press Gang: “I have been in company with him every day for many months together; and, within a period of twelve years, I did not seen him inebriated; no, not in a single instance” (Reprinted by Mabbott, Merlin, p. 27).

The first certain reference to Poe’s drinking occurs in Richmond in 1835. On September 8, 1835, T. H. White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote to Lucian Minor, “Poe is now in my employ — not as Editor. He is unfortunately rather dissipated, — and therefore I can place very little reliance upon him. His disposition is quite amiable. He will be of some assistance to me in proof-reading — at least I hope so . . .” (Jackson, Poe and the SLM, 1934, p. 98. Also The Poe Log, p. 167.) Poe did not fulfill this hope and White was forced to let him go only a few weeks later. By the end of September, Poe asked to be reinstated, promising to avoid drinking. On December 25, 1835, White wrote again to Lucian Minor, “Poe . . . I rejoice to tell you, still keeps from the Bottle” (Jackson, Poe and the SLM, p. 107. Also The Poe Log, p. 185). On January 22, 1836, Poe wrote to J. P. Kennedy, “Although I have never yet acknowledged the receipt of your kind letter of advice some months ago, it was not without great influence upon me. I have, since then, fought the enemy manfully, and am now, in every respect, comfortable and Happy” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 81). By the end of 1836, however, Poe seems to have lapsed and White was forced to give him notice. In 1875, R. M. T. Hunter, who had known Poe at the University of Virginia, recalled “Here [in Richmond] his [Poe’s] habits were bad. . . . Poe was the only man on White’s staff capable of doing this [proofing classical quotations] and when occasionally drinking (the habit was not constant) he was incapacitated for work” (The Poe Log, p. 237). Poe himself admitted to his failings during this time. In his April 1841 letter to J. E. Snodgrass, Poe notes “. . . for a brief period, while I resided in Richmond, and edited the Messenger, I certainly did give way, at long intervals, to the temptation held out on all sides by the spirit of Southern conviviality” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 156).

Having left Richmond, Poe and his family moved to New York, where they shared a floor with William Gowans. In 1870, Gowans recalled, “For eight months, or more, ‘one house contained us, us one table fed.’ During that time I saw much of him . . . and I must say I never saw him the least affected with liquor, nor even descend to any known vice. . .” (Gowans, Catalogue of American Books, No. 28, 1870, p. 11, quoted by A. H. Quinn in Edgar Allan Poe, p. 267). On July 19, 1838, Poe wrote to James Kirke Paulding, “Intemperance, with me, has never amounted to a habit. . . . I have been fully awakened to the impolicy and degradation of the course hitherto pursued, and have abandoned the vice altogether, and without struggle” (Ostrom, Letters, pp. 517-518). In 1896, Dr. Thomas Dunn English recalled finding Poe intoxicated in 1839, “I was passing along the street one night on my way homeward, when I saw some one struggling in a vain attempt to raise himself from the gutter. . . . To my utter astonishment I found it was Poe. He recognized me, and . . . I volunteered to see him home. . . . Three days after when I saw Poe — for if I remember rightly the next two days he was not at the office — he was heartily ashamed of the matter, and said that it was an unusual thing with him, and would never occur again. . . . It was several weeks before I observed any other aberration. Then I heard through two or three persons that Poe had been found gloriously drunk in the street after nightfall, and had been helped home” (The Poe Log, pp. 263-264). It should be noted that after 1845, Poe and English were bitter enemies, and that the second incident given here is merely hearsay.

Late in January of 1842, began the long and serious illness that would eventually cause Virginia’s early death in 1847. The emotional strain of her illness, with its intermittent improvements and relapses, drove Poe to fits of depression and excessive drinking. “During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife” (Poe to George W. Eveleth, January 4, 1848, Ostrom, Letters, pp. 354-357). This letter confirms that of other reports, that the five-year period of January 1842-January 1847 contains the most serious incidents of Poe’s drinking. On May 20, 1843, Lambert A. Wilmer wrote to John Tomlin, “Edgar A. Poe . . . has become the strangest of our literati. He and I are old friends — have known each other from boyhood and it gives me inexpressible pain to notice the vagaries to which he has lately become subject. Poor Fellow! — he is not a teetotaler by any means and I fear he is going headlong to destruction, moral, physical, and intellectual” (Mabbott, Merlin, p. 37). Poe heard of this letter and wrote angrily to Tomlin on August 28, 1843, “he [Wilmer] has returned my good offices by slander behind my back” (Ostrom, Letters, pp. 235-236).

On March 16, 1843, Poe wrote to his friends F. W. Thomas and Jesse E. Dow, “Please express my regret to Mr Fuller for making such a fool of myself in his house, and say to him (if you think it necessary) that I should not have got half so drunk on his excellent Port but for the rummy coffee with which I was forced to wash it down” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 229). To Maria Clemm, on April 87, 1844, Poe wrote, “I feel in excellent spirits & have‘nt drank a drop — so I hope so to get out of trouble” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 252). To Dr. Thomas H. Chivers, Poe wrote a letter on August 29, 1845, including the postscript “I have not touched a drop of the ‘ashes’ since you left N.Y. — & I am resolved not to touch a drop as long as I live” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 296). On July 22, 1846, Poe wrote again to Chivers, “There is one think you will be glad to learn: — It has been a long while since any artificial stimulus has passed my lips. . . . I am done forever with drink — depend upon that — but there is much more in this matter than meets the eye” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 326).

Alexander Crane, an office boy for the Broadway Journal, recalled in 1902 an occasion of Poe’s drinking in April of 1845. Poe was scheduled to deliver a lecture, which was canceled due to bad weather and low turnout. The next morning, Poe came to the office “leaning on the arm of a friend, intoxicated with wine” (The Poe Log, p. 526). James Russell Lowell recalled, in 1879, visiting Poe at his lodgings in May of 1845 and of finding “him a little tipsy, as if he were recovering from a fit of drunkenness” (The Poe Log, p. 536). Lowell’s account is verified by a letter from C. F. Briggs, July 16, 1845. To Lowell, Briggs wrote, “Poe’s mother in law told me that he was quite tipsy the day you called upon him, and that he acted very strangely, but I perceived nothing of it when I saw him in the morning.” Briggs then adds, “He was to have delivered a poem before the societies of the New York University, a few weeks since, but drunkenness prevented him. I believe that he had not drunk anything for more than 18 months until within the last 3 months, but in this time he has been very frequently carried home in a wretched condition” (The Poe Log, p. 551). The last story seems to come from an item Dr. English printed in the Morning Telegraph for June 23, 1846: “Mr. Poe accepted an invitation to deliver a poem before a society of the New York University . . . [but] he could not write the poem . . . [and] as he always does when troubled — drank until intoxicated; and remained in a state of intoxication during the week” (The Poe Log, p 540).

Poe’s October 16, 1845 misadventure at the Boston Lyceum would prove to be one of the most unfortunate of his public appearances, providing great fodder for his enemies in the press. Poe had accepted an invitation to read a poem, with the understanding that it would be an original piece written expressly for the occasion. He was paid $50 as an honorarium. As the time approached, Poe found the pressure of the deadline quieting his muse. Unable to produce a new poem, Poe read instead “Al Aaraaf,” retitled as “The Messenger Star of Tycho Brahe.” At the reception that followed, he privately admitted the humble nature of the poem, apparently thinking it a great hoax on the self-important snobs of the Lyceum. The news spread quickly and the Frogpondians (as Poe called the Boston literati) did not take kindly to a joke at their expense. The Boston papers were indignant and spared nothing in denouncing his performance. About November 15, the New England Washingtonian added a new accusation to the debate: “he [Poe] should bow down his head with shame at the thought that he, in this day of light, presented himself before a moral and intelligent audience intoxicated!” (The Poe Log, p. 590). Poe’s defiant response to this attack was ill-considered and did him no credit “we are perfectly willing to admit that we were drunk — in the face of at least eleven or twelve hundred Frogpondians [Bostonians] who will be willing to take an oath that we were not. . . . We shall get drunk when we please. As for the editor of the ‘Jefferson Teetotaler’ (or whatever it is) we advise her to get drunk, too, as soon as possible” (Pollin, ed, The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe , Volume 3 - Writings in the Broadway Journal, Part 1, The Text, p. 315). Poe may have had a glass of wine or some champagne at the reception. The fact that even the most negative commentary over the next few weeks made no claim that he was drunk strongly suggests that he was not. Once the charge had been made, however, it became an indelible part of the myth of Poe as a drunkard and would haunt him to his grave.

Had Poe never taken another drop of alcohol for the rest of his life the accusations probably would not have gone away. Regrettably, Poe appears to have continued his occasional lapses. Robert D‘Unger recalled, in 1899, that in the Spring of 1846 he had seen Poe in Baltimore. “As Mr. Poe stood up to the ‘Bar’ and drank off a big whiskey, (I believe this was his favorite tipple) . . . I formed the opinion that the poet had, in his time, seen many a barkeeper’s countenance. . .” (The Poe Log, p. 628). D‘Unger also claimed that in 1847, Poe and William M. Smith visited the house of Mary Nelson with a bottle of champagne (Mabbott, Poems, p. 570). As with a number of those who provided recollections about Poe, D‘Unger’s trustworthiness has often been questioned, though never expressly disproved.

Replying to Poe’s comments about him in “The Literati,” Dr. English published an item in the Morning Telegraph (June 23, 1846) in which he accused Poe of “having been guilty of some most ungentlemanly conduct, while in a state of intoxication . . .” and included a charge of forgery (The Poe Log, pp. 647-648). English’s article was copied in the New York Mirror and this literary battle escalated. Eventually, Poe took the matter to court, although he sued the Mirror rather than Dr. English, presumably because the Mirror had deeper pockets. On February 17, 1847, the case was heard. Dr. English had fled to Washington D. C. and the defense presented no witnesses. Testifying for Poe, Freeman Hunt and Mordecai M. Noah stated that they “Never heard anything against him except that he is occasionally addicted to intoxication” (The Poe Log, p. 689). Poe won the suit and was awarded the sum of $225.06 in damages (Moss, Literary Battles, p 238). He felt vindicated, but the “addicted to intoxication” statement was widely repeated by Hiram Fuller, one of the owners of the Mirror, and the whole episode merely encouraged Poe’s enemies to outdo one another in satirical depictions of him.

On August 6, 1847, Louis A. Godey (of Godey’s Lady’s Book) wrote to George W. Eveleth, noting that he had seen Poe “quite sober,” but had “heard from him elsewhere when he was not” (Mabbott, Poems, p. 563). On February 29, 1848, Poe wrote to George W. Eveleth, “I rise early, eat moderately, drink nothing but water, and take abundant and regular exercise in the open air. . . . the causes which maddened me to the drinking point are no more, and I am done drinking, forever” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 360).
In 1848, Poe called on his fiancee, Sarah H. Whitman, after breaking his promise to her that he would not drink. Within a few months, she called off the wedding plans, but never spoke ill of him.

On July 7, 1849, Poe wrote to Maria Clemm from Philadelphia, “I have been taken to prison once since I came here for getting drunk; but then I was not. It was about Virginia” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 452). From Richmond, Poe wrote again to Maria Clemm, “For more than ten days I was totally deranged, although I was not drinking one drop; and during this interval I imagined the most horrible calamities. . . . All was hallucination, arising from an attack which I had never before experienced. . . . I have not drank anything since Friday morning, and then only a little Port wine. If possible, dearest Mother, I will extricate myself from this difficulty for your dear, dear sake. So keep up heart” (Ostrom, Letters, p. 455). This admission has often been interpreted as a case of delirium tremens, induced by alcohol withdrawal.

Late in August of 1849, Poe was initiated into the Sons of Temperance, Shockoe Hill Division, in Richmond (The Poe Log, p. 829.) In 1900, W. J. Glenn, formerly an officer of the Sons of Temperance, reported to James A. Harrison that “the statement was made and too busily circulated that his death was the result of a spree commenced as soon as he reached Baltimore. We of the temperance order to which he belonged exerted ourselves to get at the facts, and the consensus of opinion was that he had not been drinking, but had been drugged” (Harrison, Complete Works, vol I, p. 321). One of those who said that Poe had strayed from his pledge was Bishop O. P. Fitzgerald, who claimed that Poe attended a birthday party in Baltimore and, out of courtesy, could not refuse the drink a toast to the hostess (Mabbott, Poems, p. 568). Whether or not alcohol was involved with his death has been hotly debated, but as all witnesses for both sides have shown themselves willing to modify the facts, no certain conclusion can be reached.

In addition to the specific cases related above, there are general comments about Poe’s drinking, mostly from his literary enemies. As one example, the Knickerbocker Magazine for November of 1846 carried a satire on Poe which ended with the lines: “The crusty critic, all conjecture shames;/ Nor shall the world know which the mortal sin,/ Excessive genius or excessive gin!” (The Poe Log, p. 669). As another example, Dr. English savagely attacked Poe by casting him as a drunken and dissolute character named Hammerhead in a sixteen part serial carried in the New York Mirror (The Poe Log, p. 670). These incidents, however, do not depict actual events and only reflect the hostility of the writers. It would hardly be reasonable to use them to build a case against Poe.

That, then, is the sum of our information about Poe and alcohol. Whether or not it is fair to call him an alcoholic will have to rely on your own judgment.


Poe and Absinthe

A new myth has been added to the story of Poe’s troubles with alcohol, namely that he was an early dabbler with absinthe, a bright green liqueur made from wormwood. In addition to its attractive color, absinthe boasted a very high alcohol content and contained thujone, a chemical similar in nature to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In its early use, it brought a state of hallucinogenic reverie, and as such was much favored by artistic and literary lions in the later half of the 19th century, from Charles Baudelaire to Oscar Wilde. Extended use brought more dire consequences, including madness.

This claim about Poe appears to have gained attention chiefly from its publication by Barnaby Conrad III in his book Absinthe: History in a Bottle (San Franciso: Chronicle Books, 1988). On page 98, Conrad reproduces a photograph of Poe and accompanies it with the following caption: “Edgar Allen [sic] Poe, 1848. Poe and his friend Henry Beck Hirst, a lawyer interested in international copyright records and ornithology, regularly visited the Philadelphia offices of publisher John Sartain, a well-known absinthe drinker. Here Poe and Hirst learned to drink what must have been a nearly fatal mixture of absinthe and brandy. After imbibing, Hirst, with his passion for birds, would morosely urge Poe to recite, once again, ‘The Raven.’ Poe’s drinking brought an early death, but Baudelaire, who translated Poe into French, felt that alcohol was essential for Poe’s writing, ‘a magic conveyance that transported him to the enchanted spaces of the unreal.’ ” Unfortunately, not a single shred of documenation, nor even the suggestion of a source, is given in support of this elaborate story about Poe.

Part of this is guilt by associaton, and in the case of Baudelaire a very distant association. Poe never met or even heard the name of Baudelaire, and Baudelaire, while he came to adopt Poe as a kind of divine inspiration, never met or corresponded with Poe. Any information Baudelarie might have left us about Poe, then, is merely his own interpretation or speculation.

A more important probable source, at least indirectly, is a book by John Sartain, although it has apparently been grossly misinterpreted. In his Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, Sartain gives several brief but detailed accounts of his dealings with Poe, including the strange episode in Philadelphia in 1849 when Sartain was asked to shave off Poe’s mustache so that he could avoid being recognized by men he felt were following him with the intent on doing him harm (pp. 199-217). Unmentioned in any of this discussion, however, is so much as a hint of absinthe. Where the infamous “Green Muse” seems to make its entrace is in the subsequent chapter, where Sartain writes about Henry Beck Hirst, who Sartain introduces as “a rollicking companion of Poe’s” (p. 224). Sartain describes “a series called Rhein Wein, Flagon First, and so on,” which Hirst contributed beginning in May 1852. “The Poems were brilliant till the fourth, which showed a sudden breaking down, and he soon gave marked signs of a complete decay of his faculties. Hirst’s office was within a stone’s throw of my house in Sansom Street, and he would come in on me two or three times every day. Sometimes he would insist on dragging me off to drink absinthe with him, but he succeeded twice only. I then resolutely stopped, for I knew the evil of it. He did not stop, and the end is well known. Every time he left my office he said, ‘Eau reservoir,’ with a wave of his hand, and seemed proud of the witticism” (p. 224). A few pages later, Sartain continues: “In his broken-down condition, result doubtless of the absinthe habit, Hirst would come to see me often and stay until late in the night. Seated beside me he would attempt to write poetry. Purring like a cat and swaying his body to and fro to the rhythm he was trying, he would jot down words here and there with intervals left to be filled up. Sometimes I would suggest an appropriate word, when down it would go with ‘That’s it, that’s just it.’ He was in such a diplapidated state physically and mentally that I continued in dread that he might die on my hands then and there” (p. 226).

Although the statement that Poe and Hirst were “rollicking companions” suggests that they were inclined to go out drinking together, Sartain’s references to absinthe are in regard to Hirst, not Poe, and all suggest a date after Poe’s death in 1849. As is widely repeated, modern use of absinthe dates back to 1792, when it was invented or rediscovered by a French doctor named Pierre Ordinaire, but it was only after French troops began to return from years of battle in Algiers (1844-1847) that it became a part of Parisian night life (see, Conrad, Absinthe, pp. 87 and 90). It was just entering use in the United States as Poe was about to die, and he would have had scant opportunity to acquire the habit. (It might also be noted that Poe had moved to New York in 1844, while Hirst and Sartain remained in Philadelphia, severely reducing the possibility of socializing.) In any case, there is no indication in Sartain’s accounts of Poe that the great writer had any direct connection with absinthe, and in the absence of such evidence the foul charge must be dismissed, no matter how appealing the idea might be to fans of absinthe. Poe’s name, at least, may safely be removed from the list of writers who sought inspiration in the bitter embrace of the “Green Fairy.”



  • Conrad, Barnaby, III, Absinthe: History in a Bottle (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988) (Although a very interesting read, and lavishly illustrated, Conrad’s book is at best poorly documented.)
  • Mabbott. Thomas Ollive, ed., Merlin: Together with Recollections of Edgar A. Poe, New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1941.
  • Moss, Sidney, Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu, Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1963.
  • Ostrom, John Ward, ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Gordian Press, 1966.
  • Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1941.
  • Sartain, John, The Reminscences of a Very Old Man, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1899 (reprinted by New York & London: Benjamin Blom, 1969)
  • Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log, Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987.
  • Woodberry, George Edward, “[Notes - Poe and Opium],” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe; Literary and Personal, (1909), Vol II, pp. 428-430.



[S:1 - JAS] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - General Topics - Edgar Allan Poe, Drugs, and Alcohol