"There are some secrets that do not permit themselves to be revealed."
--Edgar Allan Poe
The Poe Toaster, an unidentified mini-celebrity in Baltimore, Maryland, should be well-known to any fan of Edgar Allan Poe, famous author of such poems as 'The Raven' and 'Annabel Lee', and short stories such as 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Masque of the Red Death'.
When Poe was buried after his death in 1849, he was placed in an unmarked, unkempt grave. Eventually, George W. Spence placed a small block of sandstone on his grave bearing a carved '80' and nothing more. Rumors began to circulate about the condition of his burial site, first from person to person, and then in the newspapers. News reached Maria Clemm, Poe's aunt and mother-in-law, so she wrote a letter to Poe's cousin, Neilson Poe, inquiring after his gravesite. This seems to have spurred Neilson to tell her that he would make sure the grave was better maintained. He also ordered a three-foot headstone made of carved Italian marble to put over Poe's grave, which was inscribed with the following epitaph: 'Hic Tandem Felicis Conduntur Reliquae. Edgar Allan Poe, Obiit Oct. VII 1849.', which has been translated as 'Here, at last, he is happy. Edgar Allan Poe, died Oct. 7, 1849.' The reverse side of the stone read 'Jam parce sepulto', translated as 'Spare these remains'. Sadly, however, the headstone was destroyed in an accident during shipment, and was never replaced.
By 1865, a movement by the people of Baltimore had begun. Many, determined to give Poe a monument for his gravesite, started on a campaign. From pennies collected from schoolchildren, gifts from friends, and various benefits, half of what was needed for the new monument was raised by 1871, with the remainder being donated in 1874 by George W. Childs of Philadelphia. The monument, designed by George A. Frederick, was dedicated on November 17, 1875. One small error can be found on the tombstone, however; Poe's birthday is marked as being on January 20, when it is indeed on January 19. In preparation for the monument to be put into the cemetery, Poe's remains were put into a different lot in the cemetery, along with the remains of Maria Clemm, who had died before the monument had reached its completion. A decade later, the remains of Virginia Clemm, who had died in 1847, were exhumed from New York and reburied with her mother and husband.
Always arriving between the hours of midnight and 6:00 a.m. on the night of January 19, which was Edgar Allen Poe's birthday, the Poe Toaster visits the grave of Edgar Allan Poe in the 200-year-old 'Old Western Burying Ground', located on the corner of Fayette and Greene streets. He makes his way silently into the cemetery and, without fail, leaves three blood-red roses and a half-empty bottle of expensive French cognac, a tradition dating from 1949, the 100th year after Poe's death.
The Poe Toaster is described as looking like a rather sinister fellow, and is seen wearing all black clothing, with a black fedora placed on his head and a white or black scarf wrapped around his face to keep it hidden. He also carries a walking stick. Each year, he is seen carefully placing the cognac and roses on top of the monument, then tipping his hat and walking away. And while the cognac and roses remain the same year after year, occasionally an unsigned note accompanies them, the first of which read 'Edgar, I have not forgotten you'.
It is believed that there has been more than one Poe Toaster. In the beginning, reports were given of an older gentleman with white hair leaving the items; however, in 1993, a second note was left, reading 'The torch will be passed.'. Since this time, a much younger man has been sighted during the ritual.
Ever since January 19, 1976, Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House and Museum, has watched this ritual. He claims that after the note left in 1993, another note was left stating that the first man in black had died in 1998, and had passed the tradition on to his sons. Jerome believes this explanation, and also thinks that there are two or even three sons carrying on the tradition.
Every year, Jeff Jerome stays in the old Westminster Presbyterian Church that sits in the graveyard, waiting for the Poe Toaster to arrive. And also, each year, he invites about 15 Poe enthusiasts to join him, picking from various friends, acquaintances, and people who write him letters asking for the privilege. In addition to this, many more people wait by the gates of the cemetery so that they can view this yearly spectacle.
The identity of the Poe Toaster remains unknown, and most people prefer it to remain that way. It is claimed as the greatest mystery in Baltimore, giving a sense of wonder to the many who witness it. "To me, it's magic," says Jeff Jerome. No one has ever attempted to uncover the identity of the Poe Toaster, and many believe that this is, in part, due to the crowds of people willing to thwart such a person.
Much speculation abounds as to the significance of the three roses and cognac that are left at the grave; however, it is a popular assumption that the roses represent the three people buried under the monument: Virginia Clemm (Poe's cousin and wife), Maria Clemm (Poe's aunt and mother-in-law), and Poe himself. The meaning of the cognac is unknown, as there were very few references to cognac in Poe's writing, and none was significant; however, it is assumed that the other half of the cognac is drunk by the visitor, which explains the title of the Poe Toaster.
Each of the Poe Toasters seems to be a focused individual, determined to deliver the roses and cognac, and determined to keep the tradition alive. And while the Poe Toaster still makes his yearly journey, many will gather and remember one of the greatest writers ever known to the world.