Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Poe Toaster

Last time we looked at the haunting of the Poe House, this time let’s look into another weird thing associated with Edgar Allen Poe, The Poe Toaster…

Since 1949, on the night of the anniversary of Poe's birth, a mysterious stranger has entered this cemetery and left as tribute a partial bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe's grave. The identity of the stranger, referred to affectionately as the Poe Toaster, is unknown. The significance of cognac is uncertain as it does not feature in Poe's works as would, for example, amontillado. The presumption for the three roses is that it represents the three persons whose remains are beneath the monument: Poe, his mother-in-law (Maria Clemm) and his wife Virginia.
Poe's grave is located in the 200 year-old Old Western Burying Ground cemetery on the corner of Fayette and Greene streets in Baltimore, Maryland, not far from the house where Poe once lived and wrote. The story surrounding his death is a tale in the true gothic fashion that even Poe himself would have approved of: he arrived in Baltimore for a brief visit while en route to New York and ended up staying forever. (Poe had lived in the city years before). Details about his activities during that period of time are uncertain, but apparently, he was in the midst of a troubled time in his life. Soon after his arrival, he disappeared and was later discovered lying in the gutter outside of a well-known tavern in an incoherent stupor, wearing someone else's clothes and carrying a cane that was not his. He was sent by friends to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore where he lapsed in and out of consciousness and finally, into a coma. During his third night at the hospital he went into a violent rage and could not be held down, screaming the name "Reynolds" several times throughout the night. (No one knows what significance that name may have had as supposedly the only "Reynolds" that Poe knew was a person with whom he was barely acquainted). He died on the morning of October 7, 1849 after whispering the last words, "Lord help my poor soul!" His exact cause of death, often wrongly presumed to be the result of a prolonged alcoholic binge, has never been determined and remains a mystery to this day.
The true meaning of the Poe Toaster's ritual and exactly what message is implied by the items left behind remains unexplained: the meaning of the French cognac is not completely clear as references to cognac did not appear as a prominent feature in Poe's works as did, for example, amontillado. The mysterious stranger leaves behind a partial bottle each year, presumably having imbibed the other part himself (which would explain why he is referred to as the "toaster." Several bottles of the Toaster's cognac from previous years are on display in Baltimore's Poe House and Museum). The consensus opinion regarding the three roses is that they represent Poe's aunt/mother-in-law, Maria Clem, his cousin/wife, Virginia Clemm, and Poe himself (the three persons buried beneath the monument).
On one recent anniversary of Poe’s birth an attempt was made to uncover the identity of the Toaster. Jeff Jerome Curator of the Poe House along with several other Poe fans staked out the cemetery and waited to catch the Toaster. At about 1:30am the cemetery gate began to rattle and the group saw movement coming from the area of the entry. As they shined a flashlight across the graveyard the intruder fled but not before both Jeff and his friend Ann Byerly caught a brief glimpse of him.
Byerly describes the man as being of medium height with blonde or brown hair who was wearing a dramatic–looking frock coat. “He was clutching a walking stick with a golden sphere on its end – much like the one Poe was known to carry,” added Jerome. Both also agree that before vanishing over the wall, he raised his cane high over his head and shook it triumphantly.
Out of respect, no further attempts have been made to stop or hinder him. Several of the bottles of cognac from prior years are on display in the Baltimore Poe House and Museum.

This has happened every year for decades, with the identity of the so-called "Poe Toaster" a mystery. But one thing was certain - every year it was the same person. Then, in 1993, the unknown visitor left a note that read "The torch will be passed," and a follow-up note indicated that the tradition of the Poe-Toaster had been passed onto the mysterious visitor's sons. So the question is, Is the toaster the ghost of Poe himself, or some other stranger that for some unknown reason wants to secretly pay his respects? It beats the heck out of me! Just another drop of weird in the bucket of our world!

I’m Average Joe

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