Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Poe Toaster .... Nevermore?

Edgar Allen Poe died on October 7, 1849. A couple of days earlier he was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious, "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance", according to the man who found him.

He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. Some sources say Poe's final words were "Lord help my poor soul." All medical records, including his death certificate, have been lost.

Newspapers at the time reported Poe's death as "congestion of the brain" or "cerebral inflammation", common euphemisms for deaths from disreputable causes such as alcoholism. The actual cause of death remains a mystery.

In 1949, a century after Poe's death, a bizarrre ritual began to take place and contined until 2009.

In the early hours of the morning of January 19, a black-clad figure with a silver-tipped cane, presumed to be male, would enter the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At Poe's grave he would raise a cognac toast and place three red roses on the grave marker in a special configuration, along with the unfinished bottle of Martell cognac.

The roses were 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 is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado). However, a note left at the 2004 visitation implied that the cognac represented a tradition of the Toaster's family, rather than Poe's.

The 'Toaster' wore a black coat and hat, and obscured his or her face with a scarf or hood. A group of reporters and Poe enthusiasts of varying size observed the event each year. A photograph, reputedly of the Toaster, was apparently published by Life Magazine in 1990.

In 2007 a 92-year-old man named Sam Porpora claimed that he had started the Poe Toaster tradition. A former historian for Baltimore's Westminster Church, Porpora claimed that he invented the tradition in the 1960s as a "publicity stunt", to reinvigorate the church and its congregation, and falsely told a reporter at the time that the tradition began on Poe's centennial in 1949.

However, reports of the annual visits date from well before the 1960s, for example a 1950 article in the Baltimore newspaper that mentions "an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle against the gravestone."

Porpora's daughter said she had never heard of her father's actions but that it fit in with his mischievous nature; but Jeff Jerome of the Edgar Allan Poe Society pointed out that the details of Porpora's story seemed to change with each telling. "There are holes so big in Sam's story, you could drive a Mack truck through them," he said.

Jeff Savoye, another officer in the Edgar Allan Poe Society, also questioned Porpora's claims, but admitted he could not definitively prove or disprove them.

Whatever the case might be, this year as crowds gathered at Poe's final resting place, noticably absent were the roses and the partly emply cognac bottle.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

The Raven
Edgar Allen Poe - The Raven .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine