I was there -- the Poe Toaster came

January 26, 2011|By Michael Madden

Yes, Virginia, there is a Poe Toaster.

Now that smoke from the supposed failure of the Poe Toaster to materialize on Jan. 19 has cleared, it is time to consider the fundamental question: Did the Poe Toaster appear, or not?

I was among the crowd gathered outside the graveyard at Baltimore's Westminster Hall, hoping for a glimpse of the Poe Toaster — the mysterious visitor who, since 1949, had crept unnoticed into the ancient graveyard on that date, leaving cognac and flowers on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. The conditions could not have been in better harmony with the event, the wet streets reflecting the dull yellow glare of the streetlights and bathing the entire scene in a Victorian, gas-lit hue.

The crowd, however, was solemn — subdued not by the rain or the cold but by the Toaster's unexplained failure to appear the previous year. Talk turned to what had become of him. It was rumored he'd died sometime in the 1990s, that a son had taken over the tradition only to abandon it in 2009, on the 200th anniversary of the great writer's birth.

My interest in the spectacle was more than voyeuristic. Since childhood, I have been enamored with Poe's gothic masterpieces — "The Tell Tale Heart," "The Raven," "The Cask of Amontillado" — and the closing line from "Masque of the Red Death" still rings in my ears. I had heard of the tradition at Westminster and, like all those shivering under the streetlights, had hoped the Toaster's previous absence was an aberration and that I would catch a glimpse of the enigmatic figure.

No fewer than four individuals approached the grave that night bearing roses and cognac, and yet the curator at Westminster Hall proclaimed that the Poe Toaster had failed to materialize. There was an outpouring of love and admiration for Baltimore's favorite adopted son. They left flowers — which the curator said had not been arranged in the prescribed manner. They left cognac — but, according to the curator, had failed to give the correct "secret sign" at the grave. Worst of all, these "faux toasters," as they have been dubbed, had the audacity, the unmitigated gall, to dispense with the surreptitiousness of the traditional Poe Toaster and boldly give tribute to an American genius in full sight of their fellow men.

When I arrived, I was told that there had already been three such imposters. Then, around 2 in the morning, a spry young woman in a cloche hat with roses and cognac tucked into her coat made her way deftly through the crowd. Without any pretension, she delivered her tribute to the grave and was gone — was whisked away in a passing car and disappeared into the night.

I left after that, satisfied, realizing that the Poe Toaster is not a particular person but rather a concept. An idea.

It mattered nothing that the woman did not give the curator his precious "sign," that she did not utilize his secret entrance, or arrange the flowers according to Hoyle. What mattered was that, on that cold, rainy night, she delivered the passion, the respect, and the tribute that our beloved poet richly deserves.

The Poe Toaster failed to appear? I was there. The Poe Toaster came.

Michael Madden is a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. His e-mail is maddenlaw@gmail.com.

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