I only just thought to check whether the Poe Toaster (oh how I wish I’d thought of that) made his visit this year. Sure enough, he did. That link goes to the full version of AP writer Brian Witte’s coverage, which (apart from a couple of dismal local attempts) seems to be the only version making the media rounds this year.
Here’s a mock news article I wrote a couple of years ago:
Baltimore, MD — Every year, in the early hours of January 19, a mysterious stranger in a black coat and hat visits the grave of Edgar Allan Poe at Westminster Church. He drinks a toast to the long-dead poet and then departs, leaving behind three red roses and half a bottle of Martell cognac. This enigmatic tradition has continued unbroken since 1949, the 100th anniversary of Poe’s death.
January 19 is Poe’s birthdate, and there is some speculation that the roses may represent the three occupants of the grave (Poe, his wife Virginia, and her mother Maria Clemm), but the origin and significance of the ritual remain a mystery and the identity of the visitor has never been revealed. He is treated with careful respect: Jeff Jerome, curator of the nearby Poe House and Museum, has been watching the touching ceremony for more than twenty years, and extracts a promise from other onlookers that they will not interfere.
The solemn annual remembrance has already outlived its instigator. In 1993, the original Poe Toaster left a note saying “The torch will be passed”, and a younger man carried out the ritual the next year. The torch was passed to a third bearer in 1997. Each seems to bring a little individuality to the ritual: the elderly original carried a walking-stick in his later years and was said to tip his hat before he left, and the latest kisses or touches the tombstone. This year, a note was left with the roses and cognac to say that the original Toaster had died in December, but that his tradition would live on. Jerome refuses to reveal the full text of the note, for fear of compromising the anonymity of the Toaster.
The first Poe Toaster was photographed once, in 1990, by a Life magazine photographer with infrared equipment. The photograph1 is grainy and shows the man’s face only as a white blur, and seems to have been the last attempt to penetrate the mystery. Who began this obscure devotion, and carried it out faithfully for almost half a century – and why? Is the Toast a rite belonging to an arcane society who revere the memory of Poe – and does that explain why the bottle is emptier than the graveside toast would leave it? Is the toast a family ritual, handed down in the manner of heirlooms and debts of honour? For myself, I think I prefer not to know; and I rather fancy that the melancholy shade of Edgar Allan Poe would approve.
1I have a copy of this photo, and will try to get permission to post it.