The Poe Toaster

The Poe Toaster was an unidentified person or persons who annually visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on the anniversary of his birth on January 19, 1809. Each year the Toaster, dressed in black and sporting a wide brimmed hat and white scarf, pours out a glass of cognac, raises a toast, and arranges three red roses on the monument in a distinctive formation.

On several occasions, notes were left along with the roses and cognac. The 2001 note was particularly interesting as it referenced the upcoming Super Bowl XXXV between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens (who, incidentally, derive their name from Poe’s famous poem.) It read

“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.”

The prophecy was a play on the last line of “The Masque of the Red Death” but was inaccurate since Baltimore beat the Giants 34-7.

In 2007, 92-year-old Sam Porpora, former historian of Baltimore’s Westminster Church, claimed he had started the Poe Toaster tradition in the 1960s as a publicity for the church. However there are reports of the Toaster well before the 1960s and Porpora’s stories vary widely in each telling.

In 2010 the Toaster failed to appear. Jeff Jerome, former curator of the Poe House and Museum, speculated that if the Toaster intended to end the tradition, the 2009 bicentennial would mark a logical end.

The 2011 anniversary saw only the appearance of four imposters—dubbed “faux Toasters.” According to Jerome, none of them gave the secret signal, known only to him (Jerome) or arranged the roses in the established pattern.

The faux Toasters sparked controversy. Some preferred that the tradition die a “dignified death;” Others urged that it be carried on, by imitators if necessary.

Since 2015 the Maryland Historical Society has revived the tradition. Annually on January 19, the Poe House and Museum on North Amity Street in Baltimore has special activities, including readings from Poe and violin performances by renowned artists.  Of course the Poe Toaster makes an appearance somewhat like Santa Claus. 

Though several leading poets were invited to Poe’s funeral, Walt Whitman was the only one to attend. Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, a great admirer of Poe’s, contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:

Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.

01-19-12

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