Perhaps the greatest writer in the history of American literature, Edgar Allan Poe is known for his macabre, mysterious works that invoke the most uncomfortably pleasant feelings when reading. It’s only appropriate that the man whose life was shrouded by just as much eerie mystery as his writing had his melancholy legacy carried on by an adoring fan for 75 years.
Never wanting the attention he garnered, the mysterious fan, nicknamed “The Poe Toaster” by intrigued onlookers, arrived at Poe’s gravesite in Baltimore not long after dawn on January 19th, Poe’s birthday, each and every year for 75 years. Dressed in black garb and concealing his face with a conveniently worn hat and scarf, the visitor would arrive carrying a bottle of cognac and three roses. After placing the roses onto Poe’s grave, assumed to be in commemoration of Poe, Poe’s wife, and Poe’s mother-in-law, all of whom are interred at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore, the Toaster would pour himself a glass of cognac, raise a toast in honor Poe, down the drink, place the bottle and a poetic, hand-written note beside the roses, and slip off into the shadows.
What lie beneath the hat and scarf, you ask? No one knows for sure. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the mourning attire merely served as a masque of black death. Sadly, the surreptitious Toaster will never be unmasked, so to speak, as he last made his annual tribute in 2009, and, according to Jeff Jerome, former curator of the Poe House and Museum, he won’t be coming back. While Jerome was led to believe by one of the Toaster’s notes that the original Toaster retired in 1998, the tradition was evidently passed down and carried on until 2009, the bicentenary of Poe’s birth.
Then, without so much as a warning, the true Toaster gave up his ritual for good. There have been impostors in years since, including a violin-wielding Toaster this year, who have chosen to carry out the tribute in broad daylight, completely violating the modus operandi of the original Toaster, and the Maryland Historical Society has even decided to elect a new Poe Toaster for future tributes. However, it just isn’t the same. The intrigue. The mystique. The solemnity. All of it embodied the essence of Poe himself, and the tradition should, as Poe would assuredly want it to, cease to continue.
The tradition became stuff of legend. Onlookers would line the fence surrounding the cemetery each January 19th morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of the most reverent of fanboys. While curiosity got the best of the black cat, so to speak, leading several onlookers to attempt to nab and uncloak the Toaster in 2006, thankfully, they failed. It wouldn’t have been right for the world to know the true identity of the Poe Toaster because that would negate everything that he had worked towards for decades. The tradition was about keeping the legacy of Poe alive and nothing more. The man beneath the melancholy attire was merely a faceless servant of Poe, displaying appreciation on behalf of the entire world for the doyen of Gothic literature.
What inspired the original Poe Toaster to incite his annual tribute? Not even Jerome knows. In fact, no one will ever know what resulted in Poe taking up such a capacious space in the tell-tale heart of the Toaster, and that’s the way it should be. Of course, it isn’t set in stone that 2009 was the definitive finale of the gloomiest birthday celebration in existence. Therefore, should a revival be expected? Will the true Poe Toaster ever make a grand reappearance one foggy January 19th morning? Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”