Monday, December 10, 2007

Let us raise a glass-The Poe Toaster....

Illustration by J.D. Crowe


The Poe Toaster is the unofficial nickname given to a mysterious figure who pays an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the author's original grave marker on his birthday.

The unexplained tradition began in 1949, a century after Poe's death, and has occurred on the author's birthday (January 19) of every year since. In the early hours of the morning on that date, a black-clad figure, presumed to be male, with a silver-tipped cane enters the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore, Maryland. The individual proceeds to Poe's grave, where he or she raises a cognac toast. Before departing, the Toaster leaves three red roses and a half-bottle of cognac on the grave. The roses are believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, all three of whom are interred at the site. The significance of the cognac itself is unknown, although a note was once left by Poe's grave stating it was for great respect for the family tradition the cognac is placed. Many of the bottles left behind have been taken and stored by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

The Toaster wears a black coat and hat, and obscures his or her face with a scarf or hood. A group of reporters and Poe enthusiasts are usually on hand to observe the event. Generally, none have attempted to interfere with the Toaster's entry, tribute or departure or to identify the individual out of respect for the tradition (and, perhaps, the mystery).

Identity revealed?

On August 15, 2007, the Baltimore Sun broke the story that 92-year old Sam Porpora claimed that he had started the Poe Toaster tradition. Porpora had been given the title of historian for the Westminster Church in the late 1960s. Porpora claims he started the tradition to reinvigorate the church and its congregation. In 1967, Porpora says, he told a reporter that the tradition dated back to 1949, though the article to which he refers actually was printed in 1976. Jeff Jerome, of the Edgar Allan Poe Society, however, says the earliest newspaper article about the Poe Toaster dates back to 1950, predating Porpora's claims. After further research, Jerome said that, "There are holes so big in Sam's story, you could drive a Mack truck through them."Jeff Savoye, another officer in the Edgar Allan Poe Society, also question his claims. Porpora's daughter said she had never heard of her father's actions but that it fit in with his mischievous nature.

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