Once Upon a Midnight Dreary, the Poe Toaster Failed to Show


© Lee Snider/Photo Images/Corbis

For more than sixty years, a character right out of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tales left gifts at the author’s gravestone to honor his birthday on January 19.

Sadly, today marks the third year in a row the famed Poe Toaster has failed to show. Now that the tradition is likely over, let’s take a look back at the beginning.

Poe died under eyebrow-raising circumstances in 1849: he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, delirious and wearing shabby, mismatched clothes that weren’t his. He passed away a few days later, but not before crying out the name “Reynolds” several times. Since then, Baltimore’s Westminster Cemetery has served as Poe’s final resting place. Baltimoreans decided to upgrade the memorial of one of their city’s most famous residents in 1875, but other than that, the tragic writer rested in relative peace.

Then, a mysterious man clothed in head-to-toe black, save for a white scarf, appeared at Poe’s grave on January 19, after a midnight dreary but before sunrise. He left three blood-red roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac, and continued to do so every January 19 thereafter.

Although the first time the ritual was mentioned in print was in the Evening Sun of Baltimore in 1950, it’s possible that it started more than a decade earlier. Jeff Jerome, the Curator of the Poe House and Museum, chatted with some older members of the Westminster Church, which shares the land with the cemetery, and discovered that some of them had heard tales of the Poe Toaster as early as the 1930s.

Some quick math will tell you that even if the Poe Toaster were as young as 18 when he started the ritual in the mid-1930s, he would be pushing 100 today. That actually fits in with this whole perplexing puzzle: in 1993, a note that simply read, “The torch will be passed” accompanied the usual tribute. Six years later, another note announced that the previous Toaster was nevermore, but a son had stepped up to fill the role.

And for 10 years, he did. Unlike his predecessor, this Poe Toaster left somewhat controversial notes. Surprisingly, one proclaimed his distaste for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. Another seemed to express his anger with France, saying that the country’s Martell cognac wasn’t deserving of such an honor, but that he would leave it out of respect for family tradition.

Then, in 2010, the visits came to a halt. Dozens of people waited in the dead of night to catch a glimpse of the mysterious man, but he didn’t come. Nor did he show in 2011, though plenty of impostors stepped up to take his place. Jeff Jerome, who has observed the ceremony since 1978, says he developed a secret signal with the anonymous admirer that lets him know the real deal has arrived. He hasn’t seen the signal for three years. “It’s over with,” he admitted this morning.