He appears after midnight, dressed in black. With three red roses and a bottle of cognac, the stranger enters Baltimore’s Westminster Burying Ground. Upon reaching the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, he bows to lay his flowers and offer a toast, then vanishes into the darkness.
But after a succession of no-shows, is the tradition finally dead?
Rumors of the mysterious mourner date back to the 1930s. However, most believe his first visit occurred in 1949 – exactly 100 years after Poe’s death. Baltimore’s newspaper, The Evening Sun, published a report of “an anonymous citizen” who crept into Westminster just after midnight to memorialize old Edgar on his birthday. The man was straight out of the author’s creepy fiction: dressed in a wide brimmed hat with a scarf wrapped about his face, a silver-tipped cane clicking along the cobblestone as he drifted through the cemetery toward Poe’s memorial…
The roses were arranged in a distinct configuration. Many believed they symbolized the author, his wife Virginia, and mother-in-law Maria. Often, a handwritten letter was left. After sipping some cognac, the Toaster placed his bottle at the base of the cenotaph. Then, he disappeared.
The late-night ritual played out like this for years. And in an era before Instagram, the mysterious tradition (as well as the Toaster’s identity) remained undisturbed. Nevertheless, word eventually spread. Crowds began to appear outside the cemetery and by the ‘90s it was reported that over 150 attendees had gathered around Westminster, hoping to catch a glimpse of the cloaked figure.
Alas, nothing lasts forever. A note left in 1991 sorrowfully acknowledged that “the torch” had to be passed. A second note in ‘93 implied that the original Toaster died shortly before the event. Subsequent sightings suggested two younger individuals now handled the tradition – presumably sons honoring their father’s custom. The final toast took place in 2009, on the bicentennial of Poe’s death. The following year, no Toaster appeared.
Poe Museum curator Jeff Jerome declared the event dead in 2012. And yet, the legend continues. Laura Lippman’s recent crime novel In a Strange City features two Poe Toasters dueling to the death. Meanwhile, crowds continue to gather outside Westminster every January 19th. While they hope to witness the return of the mysterious man in black, they also read Poe’s poetry and sip some cognac. Perhaps the Poe Toaster tradition is nevermore. But, like a beating heart beneath the floorboards, its legacy lives on.
Courtesy of Bill Ballenberg/Life; Midnightdreary; Hulton Archive