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What Killed Edgar Allan Poe? A WebQuest

Updated on October 11, 2015


Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most intriguing and mysterious authors in American literature. His tragic life is reflected by his dark, twisted tales of the macabre. Poe is also credited with creating the modern detective tale. Ironically, his own death is still shrouded in mystery…


Using deductive reasoning, students will act as forensic detectives to create a hypothesis for Poe’s death based on an examination of his work and historic death theories. Students will then investigate this hypothesis in hopes of solving the mystery of Poe’s death. Ultimately, students will propose a solution to the mystery.

"All that we see or seem

Is but a dream within a dream."

— E.A. Poe


1. Note-taking: Students will investigate Poe’s life and create a timeline of important events.

2. Read some Poe: Students will read one of Poe’s tales and connect it with the events of his tragic life.

3. Poe’s Death Investigation: Students will choose from a list of death theories and decide which theory is most likely the cause of Poe’s death. Students will research this theory.

4. Proposal: Students will create a presentation in which they propose a solution to the mystery of Poe’s death to the class.

Bio of Edgar Allan Poe

Process: Day One-- Poe's Life and Work

To fully understand the mystery of Poe’s death, you must get a sense of his life and work. Two members of your group will research Poe’s life. The other members of the group will analyze works by Poe.

1. Choose two members to investigate the background of the victim. The other two members should scroll down to #2.

Explore the following sites to research Poe’s life:

Be sure to read the following website: Poe’s Problematic Biography. It describes why Poe’s biography is often inconsistent.

Create a timeline of the most important and interesting details of his life. At the bottom of your timeline, describe Poe’s life in general with a thoughtful paragraph. Keep in mind that the rest of your group is relying on you to give them a good, complete picture of Poe’s entire life. Was it happy, sad, frustrating, tragic, complicated, simple, hopeful, successful, etc? Make sure you back up everything you write with evidence from his life and your timeline. Were there any aspects of his life that might have ultimately led to his death? Use or to cite your sources. You are required to cite two sources.

This timeline and paragraph will be turned at the completion of the project.


2. Each individual member will choose one of the following Poe stories and read it. Use or to cite the website you used to read this story:

Summary and Analysis for “Cask”

Summary and Analysis for “Masque”

Summary and Analysis for “Portrait”

Study Guide for “Morella”

Then read the following poem: Annabel Lee

After reading, answer the following in complete sentences:

  1. What is the tone of the story you chose? What is the tone of “Annabel Lee”?
  2. What might be the theme of the story? What is the theme of “Annabel Lee”?
  3. In a word, how would you describe or summarize the story? Why? In a word, how would you summarize or describe “Annabel Lee”? Why?

When you’re finished, collaborate with your research team (the members who completed #1) to do the following:

  1. With a thoughtful paragraph, explain how you think Poe’s life influenced this story and poem. Give me very specific details from his life. Explain how these details may have influenced a specific part of “Annabel Lee” and his stories.
  2. Discuss this connection between Poe’s fiction and his life. In other words, what elements or aspects of his life are apparent in his work?

You will turn in the answers to these questions at the completion of this project.

Gustave Dore's illustration from "The Raven"
Gustave Dore's illustration from "The Raven" | Source

Process: Day Two-- Poe's Death

Investigate Poe’s final days:

Click on this website: Poe Museum: Death Theories and Poe Death Theories.

Each group member should choose a different theory to investigate. Each group member should investigate a DIFFERENT theory than the other members.

You may need to look up the meaning of certain death theories in a medical dictionary:

Individually, begin investigating your theory on these sites:

This here’s an interactive game that gives some good information on Poe’s death as well.

Didn’t find what you were looking for? As a last resort, try googling information on Poe!

Once you’ve gathered enough evidence, answer the following in complete sentences:

  1. Define your theory (“Cooping”, “Alcoholism,” etc) and explain how it might be connected to Poe’s death.
  2. What evidence supports your theory? Primary source evidence is best. What newspaper articles, letters, etc. from that time period support your theory? What circumstantial evidence (based on people’s testimony and the circumstances surrounding his death) support your theory?
  3. Bottom line. In your opinion, is this a good theory or not? Why or why not?

Use or to cite your sources. You are required to cite two sources.

In the last ten minutes of class, come together and share the theory you investigated. As a group, decide which theory you think is correct. This will be the theory you present to the class.

You will turn in the answers to these questions at the completion of the project.


Evaluation: Create a Pro-Poe-sal

As a group you will create a presentation that explains the theory you chose and why you chose it.

  1. Your presentation should include a description of the theory you chose. (1-2 slides)
  2. Your presentation should include 5 pieces of evidence (either circumstantial or direct evidence: circumstantial means the circumstances that support your theory such as Poe’s supposed alcoholism, and direct means concrete evidence such as Poe’s ill-fitting clothes on the day he was discovered). (1-2 slides)
  3. I want you to reconstruct your timeline of Poe’s life and his final days. According to your theory, what happened? (1 slide)
  4. Finally, conclude with how this theory is better than the others (1 slide).

What Killed Poe WebQuest Rubric

20-15 Points
14-10 Points
9-5 Points
4-0 Points
Poe's Life and Death Timeline
Has all major events of Poe’s life
Has most major events of Poe’s life
Has some events of Poe’s life
Very few events or not turned in
Poe's short stories summaries
Answered all questions with complete sentences and a completed paragraph of logical connections to Poe’s life
Answered most questions with complete sentences and had paragraph of passable connection to Poe’s life
Did not answer all questions thoroughly or did not complete paragraph of connection to Poe’s life.
Did not answer all questions. Did not turn in paragraph.
Answers to questions about death theories
Answered all questions.
Answers most questions thoroughly.
Answered some questions.
Did not answer questions.
Death Theory Presentation
Explained theory. Had five pieces of evidence. Had thorough, completed timeline. Concluded with reasoning for choice of theory.
Explained theory. Had four pieces of evidence. Timeline was completed. Concluded with reasoning for choice.
Was missing one of the requirements of presentation.
Missed more than one requirement of presentation or did not complete.
Stayed on task. Worked efficiently as a team.
Stayed on task most of the time. Worked as a team.
Often off task. Struggled to work as a team.
Off task. Wasted time. Could not work as a team.


What Killed Poe?

What theory do you believe to be the correct one?

See results


Congratulations, you have used deductive reasoning to “solve” the mystery of Poe’s death. You have learned about his life and investigated his death. You’ve analyzed his work and connected his weird fiction to his tragic life. Could Poe's stories even hold clues about his death? You’ve presented your theory, but will we ever know what REALLY happened? Only time will tell…


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