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New Poe Toaster takes up a Baltimore tradition

A daytime Poe Toaster shows up to give new life to an bizarre old Baltimore birthday tradition

Wearing all black with the broad brim of a hat to preserve his anonymity, a man stepped up to Edgar Allan Poe's gravesite on Saturday to resurrect the tradition of toasting the long-dead writer on his birthday.

Cineri gloria sera venit, the man said. Fame comes too late to the dead.

For decades, a mysterious figure visited the monument at the Westminster Hall burial ground on West Fayette Street to drink a glass of cognac, in Poe's honor, and leaving three red roses and the rest of the liquor behind in honor of Poe.

The person or people involved behind the tradition were never unmasked. The tradition ended after 2009, without explanation.

But last year, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to pick someone to take up the mantle. The new Poe Toaster, as the office is known, was selected from among candidates who performed tributes anonymously.

His identity has been kept from the public.

Jeff Jerome, the former curator at the Poe House and the guardian of the toaster tradition, said in 2011 that it was time to let the ritual "die a noble death" if the original practitioner did not return.

On Saturday, he said no one could replace the old toaster, but fans were excited to have the chance to see the tribute performed again.

"People have missed the guy," he said.

Poe was born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1809 — so his actual birthday is Tuesday — but published his first horror story while living in Baltimore and died in the city in 1849, in circumstances that were highly mysterious.

Baltimore has championed the writer. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued a proclamation announcing Saturday as an official day of appreciation of his work.

About 100 people — a few wearing costumes — came to watch the ceremony Saturday afternoon. They filled up the hall to hear a dramatic reading of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," a tale of revenge that ends (spoiler alert) with the protagonist walling his nemesis into a catacombs and leaving him for dead.

After saluting Poe with apple cider and the raffling off of a themed cake, the group headed outside to watch the arrival of the new toaster.

The bearded figure emerged from beneath the hall playing Camille Saint-Saëns' distinctive Danse Macabre on a violin. He marched up to the grave with a white scarf draped loosely across his shoulders.

Some things remain the same: The inheritor of the tradition toasted with cognac and left red roses. Some things are different: The violin was the new toaster's addition, and the ritual was performed in daylight rather than the dead of night.

The toaster rested the violin and bow on the stone monument and intoned a tribute in Latin. He yanked the cognac from his coat pocket and drank. He set down the roses, nodded to Poe and left.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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