Toaster pops up to pay tribute to Poe

Graveyard: `It was almost as if he appeared out of nowhere,' said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.

January 20, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

He came, he saw, he cognac-ed.

An annual ritual continued in Baltimore early yesterday, as a stranger made his way to the grave of writer Edgar Allan Poe, leaving behind a half-full bottle of Martell's Cognac and three red roses to mark the 191st anniversary of the writer's birthday.

The so-called Poe Toaster -- a role believed to have been played by at least three men to date -- has visited the grave behind Westminster Hall every year since 1949. That year happened to mark the 100th anniversary of Poe's death in Baltimore, yet another mystery that has never been solved to anyone's satisfaction.

However, no one has ever tried to unmask the annual visitor, and this year, as always, a small group of observers -- including this Sun reporter -- kept a vigil at the site, waiting for the ritual to unfold.

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, has kept this date every Jan. 19 since 1977. He saw the man approach the grave site shortly before 2 a.m. (The visit typically occurs anywhere from midnight to 6 a.m.) After the man disappeared, Jerome inspected the grave site, then invited the other observers to do the same.

"It was almost as if he appeared out of nowhere," was Jerome's official statement to the Associated Press, which is notified promptly after each year's appearance. "By the time we realized who he was, he was already in the shadows."

Last year, the Toaster left a letter at the grave site, indicating the man who had originated the tradition had died in 1998 but passed the torch to his sons. This year, he left only the cognac and the three roses, said to represent Poe, his wife, and his Aunt Maria Clemm. But Jerome can only guess at the meaning of cognac, which he believes is simply intended to be a toast to the writer.

Born in Boston, Poe produced an astonishing array of poetry, criticism and fiction in his short life and is described as the father of the modern detective story. He is best remembered for his short stories, including "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

In 1833, his career received a significant boost in Baltimore when his short story "MS. Found In a Bottle" was chosen as the winner of a $50 prize from the Saturday Visiter. It was one of six stories Poe submitted, and the judges were so impressed that they urged Poe to publish the entire volume.

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