The Poe Toaster is an unidentified person or persons who annually visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on the anniversary of his birth on January 19, 1809. According to witnesses, the Toaster has made his annual visitation to the Baltimore Westminster Hall and Burying Ground from the 1930s, although nothing is documented until 1950. 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.
In 2012, once again, there was no appearance by anyone identifiable as the “original” Toaster. Jerome (who has denied rumors that he himself is the Toaster) proclaimed the tradition “over with”. “I would have thought they would leave a note for me saying it was over,” he said. “That does annoy me a little bit, but they are under no obligation to [do so.]
In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to select a new individual to resurrect the annual tribute in a modified, tourism-friendly form. The new Toaster—who will remain anonymous—made his first appearance during the daylight hours of January 16, 2016 (a Saturday, three days before Poe’s birthday), wearing the traditional garb and playing Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre on a violin. After raising the traditional cognac toast and placing the roses, he intoned, “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“Glory paid to one’s ashes comes too late”), from an epigram by the Roman poet Martial.
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.