Friday, January 18, 2013

The Poe Toaster: Nevermore…


Edgar Allan Poe
Poe's Monument
Tomorrow will be the 204th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, and most probably the fourth year in a row that the Poe Toaster has failed to appear. What began in the late forties, became an annual tradition for 60 years, but now it appears to be over.

The Poe Toaster?
Martell Cognac
Every year since the late forties, (some say the 1930’s), a mysterious figure dressed in black, with a white scarf and wide brimmed hat, appeared in the early morning hours to visit Poe’s grave.  The man would always leave three red roses, one for Poe, his wife, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm, all buried there. He had been known to leave notes at the grave, one that said simply, “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you.”  Then he would pour a glass of Martell cognac, toast the writer, and leave the half empty bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave. Who was he?  It’s a mystery quite befitting Poe - one that has not been solved.

Boston Harbor
Fitting, for Edgar Allan Poe lived a life of mystery.  He was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to actors.  His father, David Poe, Jr., abandoned the family one year later.  His mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, died of tuberculosis when he was two years old.  Poe was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia.

Tamerlane & Other Poems
Poe attended college for one semester, and went to West Point for a short time.  A collection of his poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems, were published anonymously in 1827.  For several years, Poe wrote for literary journals and periodicals that published his works.  In 1835, he began working for the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia.



The Raven
In 1845, Poe’s poem, The Raven, was published and became an immediate success.  His themes of death and the macabre electrified readers.  Other famous works included The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe is given credit for writing the first modern detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Virginia Clemm Poe
Poe married his 13-year-old first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm on September 22, 1835.  It is thought that Edgar and Virginal had a relationship more in keeping as that of a brother and sister, than husband and wife. 

Several of Poe’s writings are said to be about Virginia.  The most popular is the poem, Annabel Lee, where it's believed she was the inspiration for the main character.  The poem, Lenore was also inspired by Virginia, as was the short story, Eleonora. 

Virginia's Grave
Virginia began to show signs of consumption in 1842.  As the disease progressed, she became an invalid, and Poe began to drink heavily. Virginia died of tuberculosis on January 30, 1847 in New York.  She was 24. After her death, Poe’s behavior became even more erratic and unstable.





Washington College Hospital
Poe in 1849
On October 3, 1849, Poe was discovered wandering the streets of Baltimore, wearing someone else’s clothes and "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance", according to Joseph W. Walker, the man who found him.  Poe was taken to Washington College Hospital but was never coherent long enough to tell anyone what had happened to him.  Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849 at the age of 40. 

Written by a rival- Rufus Griswold
But even in death, mystery surrounded him.  It was never known for sure what caused Poe’s death because the medial records and his death certificate have been lost. Rumors as to the cause of his death include, alcoholism, heart congestion, cholera, syphilis, rabies, brain disease, even suicide.


Westminster Burial Grounds
Poe's Stone
Poe was buried in Westminster Hall and Burial Grounds in his grandfather’s lot, but was moved to a more prominent spot in 1875.   On January 19, 1885 the remains of his wife Virginia, were exhumed and buried next to Poe’s.  Then, in the late forties, the Poe Toaster began his annual pilgrimage.  His visits were first mentioned in passing in the Evening Sun of Baltimore Newspaper in 1950.

Tell-Tale Heart
Over 160 years after his death, people are still haunted by Poe’s writings, understanding that the suffering of his characters blended with his own personal torment and angst. 

Poe's House & Museum
Several of the homes he lived in have been preserved and are now museums, including the Poe House and Museum* in Baltimore, where the Poe Toaster made his yearly pilgrimages to Poe’s grave. The Toaster could arrive any time between midnight and 5:30 A.M. on Poe’s birthday. Although museum curator, Jeff Jerome has held a vigil for the Poe Toaster each January 19th since the late 1970’s, he says he does not know who the Toaster was.

A note from 1993 says, “The torch will be passed.”  In 1999 another note left at the grave declared that the original toaster had died in 1998, and his son would be continuing the tradition.

The Toaster’s last official visit to Poe’s grave was January 19, 2009, 150 years after Poe’s death, and the 200th Anniversary of Poe’s birth.  Fans have continued to wait for the Toaster for the past three years; on January 19th, 2010, again in 2011, and finally, last year, declared that if he did not appear in 2012, the tradition was officially over.

And so it appears we may never know who the Poe Toaster was, nor what influence Poe had on his life to keep him coming back each year to celebrate the writer’s birthday.  

But there are so few mysteries left in this world, I for one, would like to think his identity is safe with the ages, even if his visits shall be Nevermore…

~ Joy



* Please note: The Poe House and Museum is currently closed to the public until some time in late 2013. Find out more on their Facebook page @ https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Edgar-Allan-Poe-House-Museum/10150113128020459?ref=mf

For more on Poe visit The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore @ www.eapoe.org