5 Writing Mysteries That Nobody Knows (EXCERPT)

Taken from The Things That Nobody Knows: 501 Mysteries of Life, the Universe and Everything ($14.95, Atlantic Books, distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square Publishing)

Who wrote Beowulf?
The epic poem Beowulf is the most important surviving work of Anglo-Saxon literature. Known only from a single manuscript called the Nowell Codex, it is a tale of heroic dragon-slaying exploits so potent that a translation of its 3,182 lines into modern English won Seamus Heaney the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize in 1999. Yet we know almost nothing of the origins of Beowulf. The best that can be said is that it was written somewhere between the eighth and eleventh centuries. As for the identity of the writer, we have no idea at all. The story may, however, have existed for some time, being passed down in the oral tradition, before finally being written down.

What did Edgar Allan Poe die of?
On 3 October 1849 the forty-year-old Edgar Allan Poe was found in great distress and a state of delirium on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. He was taken to Washington College Hospital, where he died four days later, having never in that time been coherent enough to explain what had happened.

Poe had last been seen on 27 September, when he left Richmond, Virginia, on his way home to New York. No clear evidence of his whereabouts is known until he was found in Baltimore. During his four days in the hospital, he was kept in an area reserved for drunks, and was denied any visitors. On the night before he died, he is said to have repeatedly shouted out the name 'Reynolds.'

Why was Poe wearing someone else's clothes when he died?
To add to the mystery, when he was found in Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe was apparently dressed in someone else's clothes, to judge from their shabbiness, which would have been most unlike him. The owner of the clothes was never identified, but has led to speculation that he might have been a victim of 'cooping', an electoral vote-rigging scam that involved seizing and drugging someone off the streets and turning up with them to vote at a number of polling stations. However, Poe was well known in Baltimore and even shabby clothes might not have stopped him being recognized.

What became of the first draft of T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom?
In 1919, Lawrence of Arabia and almost completed his first draft of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, most of which he had written while attending the Paris Peace Conference. Around Christmas, back in England, he took the manuscript with him on a train journey that necessitated a change at Reading. While waiting for his connection, however, his briefcase, with the precious manuscript inside, went missing.

Some accounts say he left it on the train, others that he left it in the station buffet; some say it was stolen. All that remained in Lawrence's possession was a typescript of a few early chapters. The rest he rewrote from memory and the book was published in 1921. The missing manuscript, and the briefcase, were never found.

Was Emile Zola murdered?
Accident, suicide or murder? When in 1902 the sixty-two-year-old French novelist and political activist died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a blocked chimney in his home in Rue de Bruxelles in Paris's seventh arrondissement, any of the three seemed possible. When Zola, in 1898, had written his famous front page open letter to the president of the French Republic, headed with the words 'J'accuse!' and charging the president with anti-semitism and obstruction of justice in the Dreyfus case, he had made some powerful enemies. There had even been attempts on his life. His enemies, not unnaturally, celebrated his death and said, rather unconvincingly, that Zola had committed suicide on discovering that Dreyfus had been guilty after all (which turned out not to be the case.)

Many years later, a Parisian roofer, on his deathbed, is said to have confessed to blocking Zola's chimney "for political reasons." Yet that does seem a rather elaborate way of murdering someone, and the roofer did not say on whose orders he was acting.

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