Back in the 1970’s until 2002, when I was teaching high school English, I remember discussing the story of the Poe Toaster just about this time each year.
Edgar Allan Poe, one of my very favorite authors, died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. He died under rather mysterious circumstances, and a number of theories continue to circulate about the cause of his death. But after a life of alcohol, poverty, and poor health, he was bound to die young, and at age 40, he was gone. A medical school nearby took up a collection for his coffin.
Each year I brought in the newspaper articles of the strange ritual that took place at Poe’s grave on the stroke of midnight tonight (January 18.) The clock marked the chiming of the new day, the day Poe was born in 1809. Each year a man, clad in a dark cloak, white scarf, and wide-brimmed hat, and carrying a silver-tipped cane, entered the cemetery called Westminster Church and Burying Ground, poured himself a cognac, and made a toast to Poe. Then he vanished into the night leaving three roses and a half-empty bottle of Martell cognac on Poe’s grave. It is thought that the roses symbolized Poe, his wife Virginia Clemm Poe, and his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm.
The first written record of this bizarre ritual came in 1950, but it is widely believed that the strange event began in 1949, one hundred years after Poe’s death. It appears to have ended, sadly, in 2009, on the 200th centenary of Poe’s birth. Each year, Jeff Jerome, the curator at the Poe House and Museum, made sure that the Poe Toaster was not molested or stopped, and occasionally the shadowy figure left Jerome a note.
In 1993, the note explained that “the torch would be passed,” and Jerome thought that might mean that the original Toaster was quite elderly and leaving the job to someone younger, maybe a son. A note left in 1999 by a younger man indicated that the original Toaster had died a few months earlier. Speculation has been that two younger sons took over the watch, but during the years from 1999-2009, a few cryptic notes about current events indicated that the younger Toasters were not fulfilling the job with its original intent: to toast the genius of Edgar Allan Poe.
In 2012, Jerome declared the Poe Toasts at an end, and no shadowy figures have been seen since on this night in the Baltimore Cemetery. Too bad that such a romantic and sentimental acknowledgement of respect for this master of American Letters has had to end. And yet…maybe I should check the Baltimore newspapers tomorrow morning.