Poe Toaster tribute is 'nevermore'

No gift of cognac and roses left at poet's grave, ending decades-long tradition

January 19, 2010|By Liz F. Kay | liz.kay@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

A longtime tribute to Edgar Allan Poe may have come to an end with the absence of the "Poe Toaster," who for more than half a century has marked the poet's birthday by laying roses and a bottle of cognac at his original grave site.

This is the first time since Jan. 19, 1949 that the person, whose identity is unknown, failed to arrive, said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House.

"I was very annoyed," he said.

"I've been doing this since 1977, and there was no indication he wasn't going to show up," Jerome said.

The curator said the toaster usually arrives between midnight and 5:30 a.m. He said he arrived at Westminster Hall at 10:30 p.m., because one year the toaster left his offerings at 11:30 p.m.

He sometimes kneels at the tombstone or puts his hands on it, Jerome said. "There's no elaborate ceremony — it's very short and touching," he said.

A crowd of 30 to 50 people waited on the sidewalks surrounding Westminster Hall and the adjacent cemetery, he said. "They were very happy people, very jovial," Jerome said, even singing "Happy Birthday" to the poet several times through the night.

However, by 5:30 a.m., there was no sign of the shadowy figure from his vantage point within the hall, Jerome said, so he went out to break the news to the spectators.

"People are really fascinated and people were very disappointed, but there was no anger," he said. "Everyone was very sad, but there was still a feeling of goodwill. We were there, and we paid our respects to Edgar."

Chicago resident Cynthia Pelayo, who is working toward her M.F.A in writing, flew in to write a story about this event.

"I got a story, but it's a disappointing story," she said. "It's really sad that the ritual was broken."

She was among people from Texas, Massachusetts and Georgia hoping to catch a glimpse of the tradition. The group read aloud passages from "The Raven", she said.

Pelayo said she and her husband waited until 6:40 a.m., but saw nothing, finally retreating to their hotel.

"Everybody has their theories about what happened," Jerome said. "Somebody said, 'Maybe he just has the flu.'" Or perhaps he had car trouble.

Another possibility: 2009 was the bicentennial of Poe's birthday. "And if it was going to end, that would be the perfect time to end it," he said.

Cognac and roses are usually put on display at the birthday celebration for Poe scheduled on the weekend following Jan. 19, but this year that's not an option.

The curator was surprised that there was no indication that the toaster would be nevermore. "You would have thought he would have left a note saying it's over," Jerome said, since the toaster has left notes at the grave site before.

Jerome said he plans to keep vigil on Jan. 19 at least through 2012.

"After two years if he doesn't show up, I think we can safely assume the tribute has ended," Jerome said.

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