The life and death of Edgar Allan Poe are just as mysterious as his tales. Whether people wanted to present the American writer as a dark and enigmatic character or things just occurred obscurely, no one can tell. If not puzzling, the events surrounding Poe’s death were at least inexplicable.
Poe died on October 7, 1849. At his funeral, there were only seven people. He was buried in an unmarked grave on his grandfather’s plot in Westminster Burying Grounds, Baltimore.
26 years after his death, teachers and students raised money to pay for a proper monument, and Poe’s remains were moved next to the cemetery gate.
Hundreds of people from all over the world visit Poe’s grave. To this day, many people, fans of his literature, honor Poe’s legacy in various unique ways. However, nobody pays their respects to the dead poet as did the Poe Toaster.
On 19 January, 1949, E.A. Poe’s birthday a hundred years after his death, a stranger approached the gravestone of the writer. It was dawn, and the mysterious man was dressed all in black, with a white scarf and wide-brimmed black hat.
He placed three red roses and a note on the grave, poured himself a glass of cognac, recited a brief toast, and after leaving the half-empty bottle of cognac next to the roses, the stranger left.
The next year, the stranger showed up again, performed his short ritual, and left the scene. He went on repeating the same ritual on 19 January for 70 years. He remained anonymous and was called the “Poe Toaster” due to his celebration toast for Poe’s birthday.
He never got unmasked but was observed by the small audience that gathered each year to celebrate the day. People wondered who that person might be and if he was somehow mysteriously related to the writer.
Although many tried to identify the Poe Toaster, he (or she) managed to escape before being photographed.
There is only one, obscure but actual photo of Poe Toaster, taken in 1990 and published in Life Magazine. There have been many theories about the identity of the mysterious admirer, but nobody ever came up with a fact. While the stranger admired Poe, he acquired his own followers, who admired the Poe Toaster.
Kat Eschner writes for Smithsonian that ever since 1977, the crowd that gathered at Poe’s gravestone to celebrate his birthday included the now-former curator of Poe House, Jeff Jerome. Over the years, he became the keeper of the notes left by the Toaster. Jerome became one of the Toaster’s followers, every year, eagerly waiting for the note.
In 1999, Jerome took the Toaster’s note saying: “the torch had been passed.” And the Toaster died. It has been assumed he passed the tradition to his sons or another literary fan, but as Bob McMillan of the Herald-Citizen writes: “But things were different. The sons didn’t always take the tradition as seriously as their father. Sometimes the Toaster showed up in street clothes. Sometimes notes were left that were completely off target, and a disappointed Jerome withheld them, simply telling the crowd that the Toaster had come and gone.”
The Edgar Allan Poe Society wrote once that cognac was never mentioned in any of the writer’s works. Therefore, everyone was even more puzzled why the Toaster preferred the beverage to make the toast. Some people gave the simplest explanation that the stranger might have simply liked cognac.
In January 2009, on the 200th birthday of Poe, the Toaster didn’t show up. For the first time in 70 years, there was no toast on Poe’s gravestone. No note. Not a sign of the stranger. Everyone was disappointed.
And then, the Toaster came back on Poe’s birthday celebration in 2016. The Maryland Historical Society resurrected the tradition. The society chose a person to show up at dawn at the graveyard and perform the famous ritual.
However, although the “imposter” was dressed the same and held the same ceremony, the mystery was missing from the act. He wasn’t anonymous, and the event was a public celebration. We still don’t have any clues to the identity of the original Poe’s Toaster.