Tradition of the Poe Toaster may be nevermore

Roses on Edgar Allan Poe's grave site

Even in a city defiantly proud of its quirks, the Poe Toaster stood out.

Every year for more than half a century, in the early-morning hours of Jan. 19, a mysterious figure would quietly leave three roses and a half-emptied bottle of cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe — a birthday tribute to a towering literary figure.

But early Thursday morning, for the third year on a row, the Poe Toaster was a no-show, signaling an end to one of the city's most enduring — and most mysterious — traditions.

A tired Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, "officially" pronounced the Poe-toasting tradition over. After spending the night inside Westminster Hall awaiting the Toaster's arrival, Jerome declared that the furtive stranger's poignant tribute would be nevermore.

"I more or less resigned myself that it was over with before tonight," said Jerome, who has been curator of the Poe House — and de facto keeper of the Poe flame — since 1979. "What I'll miss most is the excitement of waiting to see if he's going to show up."

As he had for the past 15 years or so, Jerome spent the night inside the former church on West Fayette Street, just yards away from Poe's grave, with a small group of friends. Outside, dozens of fans — including visitors from Rhode Island, Chicago, California and even Russia — held their own vigil. But the Toaster, whose identity has remained a mystery since at least the 1940s, never made an appearance.

No one has ever known for certain the Toaster's identity — not even Jerome. Many regard Jerome as a likely candidate, but he has always insisted it isn't him.

Others, however, did their best to make up for the Toaster's absence this year. Three would-be successors showed up, but there will be no acknowledged successor to the toaster throne, Jerome said.

He and the Toaster had long ago worked out a way of ensuring no impostor could horn in on the tradition. Jerome has always refused to explain it, beyond saying it has to do with what the Toaster does at the grave site. But the real thing never showed up this year, Jerome said.

"I give them an 'A' for effort," said Jerome, who waited until 6 a.m. before calling off his vigil. "I was referring to them as fake Poe Toasters, but that sounds kind of harsh. But it was obvious, when we saw them, that they weren't the original."

One of the men who showed up had a cane, Jerome said. Another wore an outfit similar to the Toaster's — pretty much all black — but the resemblance ended there. A third dressed in a manner Jerome labeled "snappy," though not very Toaster-like.

Poe, an early master of the horror story and inventor of the detective tale, was born in Boston in 1809. He spent a few years in the 1830s living in Baltimore with several family members, including his aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter (and his cousin), Virginia Eliza Clemm, whom he would marry in 1835. He died in 1849 in Baltimore under still-unexplained circumstances, having been found wandering the streets incoherent and wearing someone else's clothes.

The Poe Toaster has been leaving behind his birthday tribute since at least 1949, and his identity has been zealously guarded. Several Poe fans have seen him over the years, some even up-close. But no one has ever claimed to have gotten close enough to identify him, preferring to let the anonymous legend live on.

Of course, that hasn't stopped speculation about the Toaster's identity. When David Franks, a Fells Point poet and famed prankster, died in 2010, just days before Poe's birthday, some friends concluded it must have been him — even though he never publicly or privately claimed to be the Toaster, and would have been only 11 when the tradition started.

In 2007, a 92-year-old restaurateur and former adman, Sam Porpora, claimed to be the Toaster, but his recollections didn't always jibe with the historical record.

In 1993, the Toaster left behind a note that read, "The torch will be passed." That led Jerome to suspect the tradition was being handed down from father to son. But nothing has ever been proved.

The last verified Poe Toaster appearance was in 2009, the bicentennial of Poe's birth.

Still, the Toaster's legacy will endure, Jerome said.

"People will always be talking about it. It brought so much international attention to Baltimore, to the Poe House, to the Poe grave. It will live on in people's memories. People will always be asking, 'You know that guy who used to leave cognac and roses? Whatever happened to him?'"