The Poe Toaster: Never More?
On January 19th, every year since 1949, a masked fan of Edgar Allan Poe has left three red roses and half a bottle of cognac on the literary great's grave. I'm a big Poe fan and remember reading The Raven and The Cask of Amontillado when I was in grade school truly being scared---but loving every minute of it.
This year, I am sad to report, Poe's toaster failed to appear.
According to tradition (and Wikipedia), the Poe toaster appeared in the early hours of the morning of January 19, a black-clad figure with a silver-tipped cane, presumed to be male. He would enter the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At the site of Poe's original grave, which is marked with a commemorative stone, he would raise a cognac toast and place three red roses on the grave marker in a special configuration, along with the unfinished bottle of Martell 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. The significance of the cognac is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado). However, a note left at the 2004 visitation implied that the cognac represented a tradition of the Toaster's family, rather than Poe's. Several of the cognac bottles are kept at the Baltimore Poe House and Museum.
The Toaster wore a black coat and hat, and obscured his or her face with a scarf or hood. A group of reporters and Poe enthusiasts of varying size observed the event each year. A photograph, reputedly of the Toaster, was published by Life Magazine in 1990.
In 2010 the Poe Toaster failed to appear. Curator Jeff Jerome, who had witnessed every visitation from 1976 on, had no explanation, but did speculate that if the Toaster intended to end the tradition, the 2009 bicentennial would mark a logical ending point.
The 2011 anniversary saw only the appearance of four impostors (immediately dubbed "faux Toasters"), identified as such because all four walked in clear sight of waiting observers (contrary to the real Toaster's secretive nature). None gave the secret signal that only Jerome knows – a gesture the Toaster predictably made each year at the grave – and none arranged the roses in the unique pattern established by the Toaster.
Jerome (who has denied rumors that he himself was the Toaster) said that he will keep watch for one more year, and if there is no genuine appearance in 2012 he will consider the tradition ended.
I hope the Poe toaster hasn't met with hard times. I hope someone carries on, not as a faux toaster, but someone who respects and loves Poe's work as much as so many of us do. If you are out there, real Toaster, please go next year.
Are there other graveside traditions readers/writers know about to commemorate the birthdays of long dead authors?