POE’S BIRTHDAY TOASTER
This date marks not only the birthday of American macabre writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe but it also marks the tradition of what was known for many years as the “Poe Toaster.” It was an unofficial nickname given to a mysterious person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seventy years, paid an annual tribute to Poe by vising his grave in the early morning hours of Poe’s January 19 birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe's memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Poe fans gathered every year in hopes of getting a glimpse of the Toaster, who never sought publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.
According to accounts, and notes that accompanied later tributes, the original Toaster began making the original visitations in the 1930s and they continued until his death in 1998. After that, the tradition was passed on – but to who? Some said that it was the original toasters son, others called him a clever imitator. Controversial statements were left in some notes by the post-1998 Toaster and in 2006, attempts were made to detain and identify him. But then in 2009, the visits stopped on the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth and has not returned since.
Who was this mysterious character? Why did he begin his strange, annual ritual? And will he ever return? Answers to those questions may be as puzzling as some of the mystery stories that were penned by the man who gravesite was honored for seven decades…
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, who lived a troubled life and never achieved the fame that he would in death, died under mysterious circumstances on October 7, 1849. The Poe Toaster tradition began in the 1930s. Each year, in the early morning hours of January 19, a black-clad figure, face obscured by a scarf or hood, carrying a silver-tipped cane, entered the Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore. Poe had been buried in what was the Western Burial Ground at the time of his death, but his body was later moved from the back of the cemetery to a more prominent location near the cemetery gates. The Toaster, however, always visited the stone that marked the original site of Poe’s burial. When he reached the stone, he would raise a cognac toast and place three red roses on the monument in a distinctive configuration, along with the unfinished bottle of cognac. The roses were believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, all three of whom were originally interred at the site.
On several occasions, the Toaster left a note along with the roses and cognac. Some notes were simple expressions of devotion, such as "Edgar, I haven't forgotten you." In 1993, a cryptic message stated, "The torch will be passed." In 1999, a note announced that the original Toaster had died the previous year and had passed the tradition to "a son." Subsequent eyewitnesses noted that the post-1998 Toaster appeared to be a younger individual.
The identity of the man was an intriguing mystery for years. Many people, including Jeff Jerome, the curator of the nearby Edgar Allan Poe house, did his best to protect the identity of the Toaster. He was quoted as saying that if he had his way, the man’s identity would never be known.
For some time, rumors persisted that Jerome was the mysterious man in black, so in 1983, he invited 70 people to gather at the graveyard at midnight on January 19. They had a celebration in honor of the author's birthday with a glass of amontillado, a Spanish sherry featured in one of Poe’s horror tales, and readings from the author’s works. At about an hour past midnight, the celebrants were startled to see a man run through the cemetery in a black frock coat. He was fair-haired and carrying a walking stick and quickly disappeared around the cemetery’s east wall. The roses and cognac were found on Poe's grave as usual.
The infrared photograph of the Poe Toaster taken in 1980
Not in an effort to solve the mystery, but merely to enhance it, Jerome allowed a photographer to try and capture the elusive man on film. The photographer was backed by LIFE Magazine and was equipped with rented infrared night-vision photo equipment. A radio signal triggered the camera so that the photographer could remain out of sight. The picture appeared in the July 1990 issue of LIFE and showed the back of a heavyset man kneeling at Poe's grave. His face cannot really be seen and as it was shadowed by his black hat. The Toaster was never photographed again.
The tradition continued after the 1999, but was never the same again. Subsequent notes predicted a win for the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl and, in 2004, was critical of France’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Jeff Jerome suggested that the later notes reflected an unwillingness of the son (or sons) to take the tradition as seriously as had the father. A final note—left sometime between 2005 and 2008—was so dismaying, Jerome said, that he decided to fib and announce that no note had been left. He declined to reveal its contents, other than that it was a hint, in hindsight, that an end to the tradition was imminent.
Meanwhile, a group of onlookers unsuccessfully attempted to intercept the Poe Toaster in 2006, breaking a long-standing tradition in Baltimore to never interfere with the Toaster's entry, tribute ritual, or departure. It was the only time that it ever happened. Then, in 2007, a man came forward who claimed to be the Toaster. The man, 92-year-old named Sam Porpora, claimed that he had started the Poe Toaster tradition. A former historian for Baltimore's Westminster Church, Porpora claimed that he invented the Toaster in the 1960s as a "publicity stunt", to reinvigorate the church and its congregation, and had falsely told a reporter at the time that it had begun in 1949. However, Porpora’s claims turned out to be more fanciful than many of Poe’s stories. Reports of the annual visits dated from well before the 1960s. For example, a 1950 article in the Baltimore Evening Sun mentions "an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label) against the gravestone." After the many errors were pointed out in his stories (which changed with each telling), Popora never retracted his claim, but acknowledged that he was not the man who made the annual visits.
In 2009, the Poe Toaster returned to mark the bicentennial of Poe’s birth, but he didn’t leave a note behind. In 2010, he did not return and has not been seen since. Although some believe that another Poe admirer should take up the cause, perhaps it’s best to let it come to an end. The Poe Toaster, it’s said, will return to the master’s grave, “nevermore.”