On January 19th, for the second year in a row, the infamous ‘Poe Toaster’ failed to appear at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. Virginia Clemm (the pen name of this essay’s anonymous author), on the other hand, was in attendance:
Jeff Jerome says I didn’t see the Poe Toaster last night. He says I saw four ‘imposters’ whose style was not OG enough. He says the secret ‘signal’ never went down. To paraphrase a fellow grave-sitter: Jeff Jerome was going to tell me in the morning what I saw.
Jeff is the caretaker of a house where Edgar Allan Poe once lived. He was with us last night at the Westminster Hall Burial ground, on the anniversary of Poe’s birth. The Poe ‘Toaster’ is said to have first shown up in 1949 at the gravesite in the early morning hours of Poe’s birthday, leaving a half-drunk bottle of cognac and three roses. The cognac and roses showed up for the next sixty years.
Many readers will assume Poe’s grave is a lonely, spooky place. While it is pretty spooky at night—the old tombstones in a row along the walking paths, the claw-like winter trees, the catacombs, the raven carved into Poe’s monument—it is also smack in the middle of downtown Baltimore at the intersection of two broad streets. Those of us who gathered outside the cemetery gates last night were flanked by the trauma entrance of a major hospital and a busy bus route. We were panhandled. A cop mistook us for corner-boys and crackheads. I was not alone in drinking liquor from a bottle in a brown paper bag to stave off the wet cold.
There were four Toasters last night. The first came just past midnight, and though it hadn’t started to rain yet, it was already dreary, thanks to dim headlights and car exhaust. In an Invisible Man-style get up, the Poe Toaster made his way through the graveyard gracefully and exited near the church doors in a chauffered white stretch Hummer. That is correct. A Hummer. Nevertheless, it was an impressive show: he got high marks among the grave-sitters for ‘presentation’, and I especially liked his hustler’s gait and his fine showmanship.
An hour later a similarly dressed Toaster headed for the monument, stumbling in an effort to catch hold of something falling out of the back of her coat. It was clear she was a woman. She placed an arm respectfully on one side of the monument. I like to think she chose that side in acknowledgement of Virginia Clemm, who was buried on Poe’s left.
The absolute best Toaster was a policewoman who’d earlier tried to break up the crowd. She wanted to know what we were all doing there hanging around on the corner in the middle of the night. She rattled the lock on the gate and then disappeared into the trauma entrance of the hospital across the street, where a few moments later she re-emerged in plainclothes, and crossed the street in an adorable caricature of sneaky-walking. She got into a car, and not long after appeared among the graves beyond the gates. She didn’t bother with a costume. I heard someone nearby say “For Pete’s sake, come on now.”
Last up was a tall, impressively no-nonsense man who hustled out of the upper gates (no one saw him come in) chased by several grave-sitters, including a woman who was in the middle of saying “I’m trying to imagine who would chase him—”
When Jeff unlocked the gates near dawn there was a cognac toast and roses. I’m not sure why the ‘solemn visitor’ (said to be a no-show for the last two years) trumps a line of literary admirers scattering roses on his grave, or why the drink on offer is cognac. Why not Amontillado or even a private-label wine, which would be more apropoe (come on, who could resist that pun?). Nor do I understand why some insist that Poe would not approve of the shenanigans keeping his name in the papers. Poe was behind a number of infamous hoaxes, and exaggerating a connection to Poe is practically a sport in Baltimore. He spent a lot of time in graveyards himself.
I don’t believe, as some do, that the press hastened the demise of a sacred private ritual, previously guarded by a select few and recently defiled by a bunch of revelers tap dancing on Poe’s grave. The Poe-Toaster is a story about a grave, a story devoted to keeping a dead man’s tales alive. Inasmuch, it is a solemn thing and due some respect. But the half-drunk bottle of cognac and the artfully arranged roses don’t signal private motives. No matter how this ritual came about and survived, it is an invitation to ponder the many mysteries of Poe. Did he invent the detective novel? Goth-culture? The psychological thriller? How much did he hasten realism (and magical realism) by grabbing up the Romantic Movement in literature, and wringing out all its naiveté? What the hell happened in those four wild days it took him to die in Baltimore? Was there an Annabelle Lee, a Lenore? And most important to my own heart: what sort of alchemic and death-defying soul could make the contours of such horror and suffering the stuff of poetry?