It lacked the dark shadows and late hour of appearances past, but the Poe Toaster made his long-awaited return this week. Standing beside the Baltimore grave of Edgar Allan Poe on the poet’s 207th birthday this past weekend, a nameless man wearing a black broad brim hat and a white scarf emerged from underneath historic Westminster Hall playing Camille Saint-Saëns' ominous Danse Macabre on violin. When finished, he set down the instrument and proclaimed “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“fame comes too late to the dead” in English). Then, he pulled a bottle of cognac from his pocket, took a big sip and left the remainder accompanied by three roses on Poe’s grave. And with ne'er a word more, the toaster departed.
The last time the Poe Toaster graced Westminster Burial Grounds with his presence was in 2009, leaving many to think the tradition was nevermore. But the Maryland Historical Society made sure that wasn’t the case, going so far as to hold November auditions for the “Next Poe Toaster.” While the historical society's version of the ritual isn't quite the same as the original - this year's happened in the daylight and on the weekend before his birthday - it nonetheless pays homage to a tradition dating back decades.
On October 3rd, 1849, the poet Edgar Allan Poe died under mysterious circumstances. Found delirious and semi-conscious in a gutter on Election Day in Baltimore, Days later, Poe succumbed to his ailments in a hospital, yelling for an unknown “Reynolds" on his deathbed. To this day, nobody's quite sure what actually happened to the poet and author. Theories for his cause of death abound though, from catching rabies to becoming a victim of the weird election strategy of cooping (for which party workers would force people to consume mass quantities of alcohol before sending them off to vote for a particular candidate). Either way, Poe was laid to rest in Baltimore’s Westminster Burial Grounds in an unmarked grave in the back of the small cemetery. In 1875, thanks to a fundraising effort, the poet moved to a more respectable spot at the front of the cemetary under a monument that still stands today.
The Poe Toaster likely first made an appearance in the 1930s, earning his reputation by raising a glass of cognac in Poe's honor. Additionally, the toaster left three roses, sometimes a note and the half-drunk bottle of cognac.
Over the years, the notes cleared up the symbolism behind the items that the toaster left. The three roses stood for Poe, his beloved wife (& younger cousin) Virginia and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm. The cognac, of course, represents Poe’s notorious drinking habit, though, in a 2004 note the toaster inferred that the cognac was his own tradition. The notes also revealed that the Poe Toaster may have been a family affair, with a 1993 note saying that a “torch has been passed” and a 1999 one indicating that the original toaster had died.
A mysterious black and white photo featured in a 1990 issue of Life Magazine turned the Poe Toaster into an international sensation. From then on, people came out in droves, waiting well past the “midnight dreary,” hoping to catch a glimpse of the man in action. With all the fanfare, the annual ritual soon became less about Poe and more about the mystery. In 2006, 92-year-old historian and former ad man Sam Popora claimed he had been the Poe Toaster, although many, including the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum’s curator Jeff Jerome, vehemently disagreed.
In 2009, on the bicentennial of Poe’s birth, the toaster made his last visit. The next year, despite people waiting in the cold, the mystery and his bottle of cognac never came. In 2012, with nothing but imposters showing up, Jerome declared the tradition dead. That is, until this year.
It is not immediately clear if the Poe Toaster’s appearance will, once again, be an annual tradition. But whatever he decides, let’s raise a glass of cognac to Edgar Allan Poe once more.