The myth of the Poe Toaster is extensive. And there have been few attempts to discover his identity; he’s better shrouded in mystery. Poe, who resided in Baltimore (the Ravens are named after his most famous poem), would have preferred it that way.
Now it appears, the legend may be at an end.
The tradition dates back to the 1940s, when the graveside tributes at the city’s Westminster Burial Ground began. The Toaster, who has had many impostors, occasionally left notes — once, indicating that the tradition had been passed along to the next generation and once indicating his political beliefs, according to a 2004 Washington Post Names & Faces column:
For more than half a century, an anonymous person has marked the birthday anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe by slipping into the Baltimore cemetery where the writer is buried and leaving three roses and a bottle of French cognac on his grave. This year the mysterious visitor also left a note with a possible reference to French opposition to the war in Iraq.
"The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac," the note said in part. "With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is placed."
In 1983, Washington Post reporter Chip Brown attended the Poe vigil. Here is his story:
Evermore: Roses, Cognac At Poe's GraveBy Chip Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
As five people waited in the catacombs, a man bundled in a black frock coat and clutching a gold-handled cane stole into a graveyard in downtown Baltimore in the dead of night yesterday and laid three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac under the baleful granite eye of a raven perched over the grave where Edgar Allan Poe was buried 132 years ago.
Every year since 1949, on Jan. 19, the anniversary of Poe's birth, cognac and roses have appeared under mysterious circumstances in the small walled-in Westminster Cemetery in Baltimore where the body of the celebrated writer is buried.
No one knows who reveres Poe enough to shell out for a $20 bottle of cognac and roses and undertake a clandestine visit, year after year on cold winter nights. No one is even sure if it is the same person.
Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House in Baltimore, has followed the phenomenon since 1976. Spurred by curiosity, and hoping to scotch suspicions that he was the mysterious gift-bearer, Jerome enlisted four ardent Poe buffs this year to help him stake out the writer's original grave (Poe's body now lies beneath a different monument in the same cemetery) in an attempt to unravel a bit of the mystery.
On Wednesday morning, just after midnight, 70 people gathered for a reading of Poe's poems and for a drink of champagne and amontillado, the Spanish wine of a celebrated Poe short story. When the reading was done and the crowd dispersed, Jerome and four students secluded themselves in the catacombs.
While it's the nature of great writers to inspire acts of homage — top hats and white gloves have been found at F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave in Rockville, for instance — the mysterious appearance of cognac and roses has a certain hold on Baltimore, in part because Poe ranks with H.L. Mencken as the city's top literary icon, and partly because the tribute is paid in a graveyard in the middle of the night with symbols of wealth and elegance.
Why that is so, just adds to the mystery. Cognac is not a major liquor in Poe's oeuvre. He never mentioned it once in his 18 books, according to Burton R. Pollin's "Word Index to Poe's Fiction." Roses are mentioned 22 times as a common noun, once as a proper name and four times as plural. But the connection is still unclear.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is the eerie evidence that the tribute is the work of one fan. The cognac is always a bottle of the same Martel brand and the three roses are always arranged the same way.
"It has a quaint, haunting Poe-esque quality about it," said Alexander Rose, the historian of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe Society, who has been following the ritual since the mid-1960s and doubts that it is the work of one person.
Tuesday night, the group crouched in the catacombs over which the church was built, fortified against the cold with extra clothes and hot chocolate, nervously passing the time talking about Poe.
At 1:30 a.m., a flashlight beam poked across the crypts and headstones and someone rattled a door. The group followed the light through the catacombs, then ran upstairs through the church to get a better view. Two of them saw a figure just as he saw them.
"I saw the top of his hair, it was blond or brown," said Ann Byerly, a 21-year-old student. "All of a sudden he darted around the corner of the east wall. His coat was flying away as he ran. It was a very dramatic sight."
The group had been outwitted. They agreed that the Poe-Toaster, as they call him, was well-dressed, and had a cane as Poe had when he was found dying nearby, in a doorway on Lombard Street. They had no intention of confronting the stranger. They returned to the catacombs and kept watch until 5 a.m. to make sure no one else showed up. No one did.
"We would never attempt to photograph him, or stop him," said Jerome. "We had no thought of confronting him. People have called me up and said they don't want to know who he is. This is a nice mystery, and there aren't a lot of mysteries left."