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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"Deep into that darkness peering..."

"There are some secrets that do not permit themselves to be revealed."
-- Edgar Allan Poe
There's something about this whole story that... well, it's one of those things of enigma that nowadays run scarce in this world. We shouldn't be able to explain everything and though it would probably be pretty easy to find out exactly why this takes place every year, we don't really need an explantion, or need to know anything else about the people responsible. Whoever they have been, their tradition should be revered for its own sake, and given the respect it's due as a uniquely American mystery...

The three roses and bottle of cognac left by the Poe Toaster this year (held by Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum)

January 19th is the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. And on its night, every year since 1949 (at least) someone steps out of the Baltimore night, enters the Old West Burying Ground cemetary, and places three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on Poe's grave. The darkened figure then disappears into the shadows as quickly as he arrived.

The "Poe Toaster", as he has come to be called, came to honor Poe's birthday again this year. Herein lies the tale, as relayed from the AP via Yahoo!

Mysterious Fan Marks Poe's Birthday
Wed Jan 19, 7:16 AM ET
U.S. National - AP

By KASEY JONES, Associated Press Writer

BALTIMORE - The mystery man was dressed for the cold rather than tradition, and some spectators were not quite as respectful as in years past. But for the 56th year, a man stole into a locked graveyard early on Edgar Allan Poe's birthday and placed three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on the writer's grave.

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, who has seen the mysterious visitor every Jan. 19 since 1976, gathered with about 20 people Tuesday night to glimpse the ritual.

"It was absolutely frigid," Jerome said of the sub-20 degree temperature.

No one, not even Jerome, knows the identity of the so-called "Poe Toaster." The visit was first documented in 1949, a century after Poe's death.

This year, the visitor arrived at 1:10 a.m. in a heavy coat and obscured his face with a black pullover, Jerome said. He was not wearing the traditional white scarf and black hat.

"He put the roses and cognac at the base of Poe's grave and put his hand on top of the (tomb) stone. He paused and put his head down," the museum curator said. He left after about five minutes, Jerome said.

The visitor's three roses are believed to honor Poe, his mother-in-law and his wife, all of whom are buried in the graveyard. The significance of the cognac is unknown...

Incidentally, so far as is known there is only one photo of the Poe Toaster known to exist: an image that Life Magazine ran in July 1990. Supposedly this is the original Poe Toaster, the one who began the tradition. When he came in 1993 a note was found that said "The torch shall be passed". During a later visit another note was left behind, saying that the man's sons were continuing the tradition and that the original Toaster had died.

That ain't the only communication there's ever been from the Poe Toaster(s). Two years ago, on the eve of the Iraqi War this was found alongside the mementos: "The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac. With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is place. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!", obviously a smack against France not participating in the war. And two years before that the Toaster honked off all of Baltimore when he rooted for the opposing team in the Super Bowl: "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."

First time I heard about this tradition was well over ten years ago. Never forgot it and one of these days, I'm going to make a trip up to Baltimore and watch this happen.