Writers love their fans, and for good reason. But no writer has ever been blessed with a devoted fan to equal that of Edgar Allan Poe’s. It was a bizarre yet pleasing relationship that embodied all the elements of mystery and intrigue worthy of Poe himself, and it lasted for more than six decades.
Poe was born on January 19, 1809. Note that date. Sometime in the 1930s, the ultimate Poe fan began a bizarre annual ritual that lasted until 2009. He became known as the Poe Toaster and his legacy continued uninterrupted until the bicentennial celebration of Poe’s birth. Toaster devotees believe that the tradition was actually carried out by two individuals, most likely a father and son. In truth, no one is sure.
Poe’s original grave site lies in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Each January 19, always in the predawn hours, an individual would stealthily visit Poe’s grave. The ritual was always the same. The Toaster would raise a glass of cognac to honor the writer, carefully place three red roses on the marker, and leave the opened bottle of cognac at the foot of the small monument. He would then disappear into the night, not to be seen again until the following year.
The Toaster was regularly seen by onlookers but his ritual was never interrupted. He was only photographed once. The alleged photo first appeared in Life Magazine, in July 1990. Like everything else about this enigma, the photograph remains controversial. The best description of the Toaster had always been provided by the many onlookers who personally witnessed the ritual, and the published photograph seemed to validate what was already known. The Toaster would invariably be dressed in black with a brimmed hat and scarf to help disguise his features. He would carry a silver-tipped cane. The disguise worked perfectly for decades.
Although never identified, the Toaster would leave cryptic notes from time to time. A few of these notes offered a hint at the meaning of the ritual, others were so inscrutable as to be useless. In 1993, the Toaster left a message that read, “The torch will be passed,” leading Toaster devotees to conclude that the original Poe visitor had died and passed the ritual on to his “son.” By 1998, Toaster observers concluded that this new visitor was a younger man than the original Toaster. It seemed that the ritual had become inter-generational.
The second Toaster apparently had more than a sense of mystery and humor. In 2001, he left a message that contained the phrase: “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allan Poe evermore.” That year, in Super Bowl XXXV, the Baltimore Ravens, named after Poe’s most famous poem, were scheduled to meet the New York Giants. It was the first time the Toaster’s messages strayed beyond his fascination with Poe. It wouldn’t be the last.
In 2004, the Toaster wrote: “The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac. With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is placed. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!” Toaster interpreters took this as a condemnation of France for her fierce and public resistance against the Iraq war.
Toaster followers only tried to interfere with the ritual on one occasion, in 2006. It was unsuccessful. The other visits were never disrupted even though onlookers would regularly show up at the appointed hour. From time to time, an individual would either claim to be the Toaster or know his identity. They were all hoaxers.
In 2009, the Toaster made his final appearance. He left no message and did not return in subsequent years. Toaster followers see the symmetry in this gesture. The Toaster marked the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth and simply disappeared, forever. Should someone else appear in future years in the guise of the Toaster, he will certainly be declared a hoaxer. It seems that the long-standing ritual has run its course and, true to the life of Poe himself, will always remain a mystery.
Could there have ever been a more devoted fan?