Poe Toaster: For 75 years a mysterious man visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, poured himself a glass of cognac, and toasted the great writer

Domagoj Valjak
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If Edgar Allan Poe were still alive, he would have celebrated his 209th birthday on January 19 of 2018. Sadly, Poe died under mysterious circumstances on October 7, 1849, aged only 40.

Edgar Allan Poe is most certainly a major figure in world literature. For starters, he is the man who is said to have invented both the detective story and the horror genre. He has been widely known as the “architect” of the modern short story, with an influence that undoubtedly went beyond American literature and has been now deeply encoded into the global cultural DNA. Poe’s imaginative storytelling substantially influenced the French Symbolists who initiated the Poe cult in Europe, which soon made a great impact on all the major “isms” of the time in Europe.

Poe was a very prolific author; he left behind a remarkable legacy of exceptional stories and poems that established him as the master of mystery and the macabre. Stories like The Black CatThe Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado, as well as poems like the sensational The Raven established him as one of the greatest authors to have ever lived, and served as an inspiration for many of the most famous writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Arthur Conan Doyle, author of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Howard Phillips Lovecraft, author of many iconic tales, such as The Rats in the Walls and The Shadow Out of Time; Fyodor Dostoevsky; and George Bernard Shaw.

Daguerreotype of E. A. Poe from 1849.

Some people chose to honor Poe’s legacy in unique ways. One of them was the anonymous figure who visited Poe’s grave on his birthday for more than 70 years. The anonymous person earned the nickname the “Poe Toaster” because of the special celebration of Poe’s birthday he practiced each year.

The Poe Toaster would visit Poe’s grave in Baltimore, Maryland, before dawn every January 19. Those who observed him say he was dressed in a black coat and wore a white scarf and wide-brimmed black hat. He would bring a bottle of cognac, pour himself a glass, and recite a brief toast to honor Poe’s legacy. He would then leave the rest of the cognac by the gravestone and decorate the grave with three red roses.

The Poe Toaster paid a stealthy visit to the cenotaph marking the site of Poe’s original grave, in Baltimore, every January 19th for almost 80 years.

Many people tried to identify the Poe Toaster, but he (or she) always managed to cleverly escape before being photographed. There are several theories about the identity of Poe’s mysterious admirer, but the facts remain unknown. Almost like a character in some unwritten story, the visitor has acquired his own following.

In January 2009, on the day when Poe would have celebrated his 200th birthday, the original Toaster was seen raising his glass for the last time. Fans of both Poe and the Toaster from all over the world were baffled when he didn’t appear in 2010.

Jeff Jerome, the former curator of the Poe House and Museum, suggested that the Poe Toaster specifically chose Poe’s bicentennial birthday to bring the tradition to an end and leave the final three roses.

Cognac and roses found at Poe’s present-day (post-1875) grave on January 19, 2008, likely left by an imitator. Author: Midnightdreary – CC BY 3.0

Since then, imitators have tried to continue the tradition, but nobody has managed to re-create the small celebration with the diligence of the original Toaster.

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In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society decided to carry on the tradition and chose a new person to perform the ritual every year. In order to preserve the tradition properly, the new Toaster will also remain anonymous.