by Mac Carey
It’s been two hours since we arrived at the wrought iron fence surrounding the old cemetery of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. We wait patiently, my friend and I, our car parked on the skeevy side of town. The only buildings that aren’t boarded up are liquor stores and pawnshops, and the ladies of the night begin to make their appearance at about two in the afternoon. Oh yeah, and it’s cold. Like dead of winter cold. There’s a reason the only other outdoor event that has dared to pick this time for its annual ritual is the Super Bowl, an event that can be viewed from heated living rooms.
Along with a hodgepodge of other spectators, we crack another hand warmer, slip it under our three layers of gloves, and peer through the twisted railings one more time. And all of this because of a guy. A guy nobody knows. It may not even be the same guy every year. But it’s a good story, a story worth risking frostbite and carjacking.
Every year on January 19th, out of a frigid Baltimore night, a nameless man appears at the old Westminster Burying Grounds, places three red roses and a bottle of cognac on the grave of the cemetery’s most famous occupant, and disappears as wordlessly as he came. The man’s identity has never been revealed, despite the fact that the tradition has been going on for the past sixty years. His face has never been seen, hidden beneath a black fedora hat and scarf, and the motivations for his actions are just as mysterious.
The three red roses are for the three people buried underneath the gravestone, Edgar Allan Poe, his wife and first cousin Virginia Clemm, and her mother Maria. Referred to as the “Poe Toaster” by observers and Poe enthusiasts, the man has never revealed his identity, nor the motivation behind his actions. Little has changed over the years, every January 19th (Poe’s birthday) the man appears, always entering from a different direction, and always at a different time of night. After pouring a glassful of cognac and toasting it in the direction of the headstone, he places the three red roses on the grave.
No one knows the reason behind the choice of drink; amontillado being the more obvious pick. Cognac has not played a prominent role in any of Poe’s stories nor was the author known to have any particular affinity for it during his life. The ritual takes only a few minutes, and the Toaster quickly departs once he has finished.
To maintain his anonymity, the Toaster enters and leaves through a different area every year, which means it’s a crapshoot as to where you choose to stand. Sort of like going to the Super Bowl and finding out they’re playing it in on a baseball diamond that year. The best seats are in the tower of Westminster Church. As my friend and I stave off hypothermia, above us the four occupants of the red brick tower leisurely eat their dinner and glance out the window. The occupants are made up of the mayor, Jeff Jerome (curator of the Poe Museum), and a student essay winner. The fourth spot is left open for whomever the mayor or Jerome feels worthy. Sometimes it remains empty.
This year the Poe Toaster enters through a back entrance from the trees, alleviating a more public walk past the observers. My friend and I completely miss him, as do the other thirty some people near us, though one guy claims he saw the fedora. No one believes him. Perhaps the reason for the Toaster’s careful entrance is because of incidents in the past few years, when observers attempted to break into the cemetery and unmask him. The church and the Poe Museum no longer officially encourage visitors to the cemetery. Discouragement that my friend and I, and a continually growing crowd of about a hundred and fifty other people, blatantly ignore. For decades though, the tradition was known by only a select few.
No one knows when exactly the Poe Toaster first began his homage to the author. The earliest known record of him is in a newspaper article dating from 1949, in which a vicar of Westminster Church mentions that someone has been visiting Edgar Allan Poe’s grave every year. Older members of the church claim to remember seeing the Toaster earlier in the forties, but there has never been any solid evidence to prove this. Since the nineties the tradition has snowballed; each successive year brings clearer signs of its ascendancy into American folklore. What was once an obscure legend recounted by Goth kids and Poe enthusiasts is now almost mainstream. There are larger crowds, yearly coverage of the procession in USA Today, more media appearances by Jerome, even a murder mystery called In a Strange City, set in Baltimore with key scenes involving the Toaster himself.
In its sixty-year history, the tradition has not been without controversy. In 1992, the Toaster, now grey-haired and getting on in years, stumbled as he made his way through the ice and snow that covered Westminster cemetery due to a January blizzard that had covered all of Baltimore. Along with the cognac and roses, the Toaster left a note on the grave. It was the first time that the Toaster had communicated with anyone. Clearing off the bottle and flowers the next day, Jerome nearly missed it. The note said that some traditions must pass and others take their place. The torch would be passed.
Some took it to mean that the Toaster would no longer be coming to the gravesite. It was thought that now that the Poe Society held a memoriam there on Poe’s birthday, Poe was finally receiving his proper recognition and the Toaster’s work was done. But about a year later, Jerome received a letter addressed to him, from two men who claimed to be the sons of the original Poe Toaster. They said that their father had died and they wanted Jerome to know how appreciative their father had been that no attempt was made to identify him. The sons said that they would be taking their father’s place. But Jerome has received lots of anonymous letters over the years, and leans toward skeptical. However, the next year a markedly younger man appeared. Since then the Toaster has alternated between a taller and a shorter man.
In recent years, there have been two more notes, which have confused, and angered, some citizens of Baltimore. The Toaster left a puzzling note in 2001, after the newly formed Baltimore Ravens were in the playoffs of the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, which read:
The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allan Poe evermore.
The note left some people annoyed, others confused. Why would the Poe Toaster of all people be against the Ravens, the Baltimore home team that was named after Poe’s most famous poem?
In 2004, after the start of the second Iraq war, the Toaster left a note next to the bottle of French cognac, reading:
The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac. With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is placed. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!
In 2007 the Poe Toaster again made the headlines, when Sam Porpora, a retired advertising executive and Westminster church historian, claimed to be the original Poe Toaster. He said he began the stunt for publicity in the 1970s. Jerome dismisses the legitimacy of the claim, due to several unexplained holes in the story. Nevertheless, the burgeoning legend drew enough of an audience for the supposed unmasking to make several major newspapers and media outlets.
The controversy of the memorial seems fitting, since Edgar Allan Poe’s own death is shrouded in mystery and controversy. A fledgling writer his whole life, Poe was found near death, huddled on a side street of Baltimore, October 3rd, 1849. Taken to Washington County Hospital , Poe remained in a state of delirium for the next four days. The night before he died, Poe shouted the name “Reynolds” several times, though the only person in Poe’s life with that name was a distant acquaintance.
It was long assumed that Poe had died from alcoholism, but this is now disputed. A doctor who had taken care of Poe shortly before his death claimed that he never smelled alcohol on Poe during the time he was in the hospital. In recent years several theories have been set forth, with proposed causes of death ranging from diabetes to syphilis, rabies, and murder.
Like the cause of Poe’s death, there has never been a conclusive answer to who the Poe Toaster is. But there have been attempts made to discover his identity. In the eighties, Jeff Jerome had two suspects that he believed could possibly be the Toaster, but after both died and the Toaster continued to appear, he gave up guessing, at a loss as to where to go next in the research process.
There is no other known commemoration that has lasted as long or gained as much notoriety as the Poe Toaster. For years, roses were sent to Marilyn Monroe’s grave every week, but the mystery was solved when Joe DiMaggio died and the roses stopped arriving. A woman in a long black veil used to visit the grave of silent movie star Rudolf Valentino, but she stopped appearing years ago. Now, in memory, revelers will dress up in long veils and as sheiks (in memory of Valentino’s most famous role) and congregate at his grave on his birthday. Benedict Arnold’s mother has a similar devotee, an unseen man who often leaves flowers, candles, and other tokens on the historic grave in Norwich, Connecticut in recent years.
But no other grave tradition has lasted as long, or has remained as impenetrable to solution, as the Poe Toaster, a legacy awfully befitting the author that it commemorates. For Poe was a man who loved a good mystery, he wrote several famous examples himself, including The Gold Bug, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mystery of Marie Roget. He is even credited with creating the first literary detective character, C. Auguste Dupin.
The Poe Toaster holds his cards close, and knows the secret to keeping a secret, don’t talk too much. He is that rare modern man who toils for prominence but disdains publicity. His silence has turned a once private tribute between a middle aged man and a long dead writer into something of a tourist attraction for Baltimore.
But the basics are the same.
Like clockwork every January 19th, he comes, and now we come too, crowding around the old cemetery gates, hoping to be a part of a modern day mystery. And though the identity of the man remains unknown, some things are clear. He is a man with imagination and devotion, a true romantic.
After all, who can blame him for enjoying a little cloak and dagger? Poe certainly wouldn’t.