Lo, Death has reared itself a throne In a strange city, lying alone.
– EDGAR ALLAN POE, “THE CITY BY THE SEA”
I admit, the name is regrettable: the Poe Toaster. Can anyone say it without first picturing that old screen saver, the one with winged toasters shuttling through the cosmos, only this time adorned with little mustaches and those famously melancholy eyes? But the first thing you need to know is that the Poe Toaster is not an appliance but a person, one charged with a sacred duty: the annual visit to Poe’s grave in the Westminster Burying Ground.
Admittedly, many of Baltimore ’s tributes to Poe seem just a little… off. His original grave site was unmarked for years. Then we have the Ravens, the NFL team that my hometown stole from Cleveland. There is the long-shuttered Telltale Hearth, a decent pizza joint in its day, and Edgar’s Club, a billiards joint on the Baltimore Skywalk, which is everything one might expect in a billiards joint on the Baltimore Skywalk. There is the omnipresent squad car parked outside the Poe House, in case a tourist loses his way. There are the Poe Homes, a housing project, where the tourists are on their own. There is the fact that we’ve torn down the hospital where Poe died, failing to salvage a single item. And then there is the memorial erected to Poe in 1875, almost thirty years after his death. On it, the date of Poe’s birthday is wrong, off by a day.
The Poe Toaster does not come to this site. That’s the second thing you need to know. The Poe Toaster visits the original grave, at the rear of the old cemetery in downtown Baltimore. He arrives between midnight and 6:00 A. M. on January 19-for the Poe Toaster is not confused about the date of Poe’s birth-and leaves three red roses and a half bottle of cognac. Cognac -a toast, hence the Poe Toaster. Yet no one, except the Poe Toaster, knows why he does this, the precise significance of those items, or even how many people have assumed the mantle of Poe Toaster since the custom began in 1949, precisely one hundred years after Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore.
A man in a nursing home came forward in the summer of 2007, claiming that he started the whole thing, but his version of events was so full of holes and inconsistencies that it would have been more polite to ignore him entirely. (If only the local newspaper had shared that opinion.) This is what we know: The visits started in 1949. A note was left in 1999, suggesting the torch had been passed at least once, if not twice. In 2001 another note was left, but this one was silly, exhorting the New York Giants to a Super Bowl win over the Ravens. Hmmm. I have always found that one a little dubious.
But in 2000 I was there, and I can describe very precisely what happened. Only-I won’t. Because that is part of the promise I made to Jeff Jerome, the Poe House curator, who granted me entry to the annual watch party, an invitation he controls because the church is now a concert hall owned by the University of Maryland. Oh, anyone can go to the corner of Fayette and Greene and wait, in what is usually a frigid night, for a glimpse of the visitor. Go ahead, hang out on a corner in Baltimore at 2:00 A. M. I dare you. If you do, you will find that the sight lines from the street are compromised, especially since the construction of a new building behind the graveyard. You can see Poe’s second grave easily enough from outside the gates, but not the original one.
In 2000 I was the one who saw the Poe Toaster first. That’s the way I remember it, but I bet everyone who was there that night thinks they had the first glimpse. I was in the right location, though, a second-story window that afforded a wide-open view of the graveyard. It was a dreamlike moment, watching him approach, for he really did seem to appear out of thin air. His clothing, his aspect, how he moved, the route by which he left-I could probably share those things without breaking my promise to Jerome. Again, I won’t. They belong to me, and the others who were there.
I suppose there are people who think it would be great sport to unmask the Toaster. Just as there are probably people who think it would be fun to tell young children that there is no Santa Claus and, by the way, you’re not going to grow up to be a fireman or a ballerina either. All I can say is that I’ve never known of a true Baltimorean-outside of an elderly man in a nursing home-who wants to unmask the visitor. The mystery is what makes it special. Every January 20, I awake with a queasy sensation. Did he come? Is it over? So far, so good.
Baltimore has a strange relationship with Poe. The city gave him an important leg up when, in 1838, a panel of judges here granted the struggling young writer a prize for his story “Manuscript Found in a Bottle.” But he didn’t write any of his best-known works in the brief time he lived here on Amity Street. Instead, Baltimore ’s primary claim to Poe is that he died here, under mysterious circumstances. The last time I checked, there were more than twenty competing theories about Poe’s death. Some have been knocked down definitively (rabies). Others are more plausible but not provable (cooping-the idea that Poe was rewarded with drink for voting repeatedly in a Baltimore election, then beaten). Some are just preposterous. (Sexual impotence? Only if a man can literally die of embarrassment.)
Then there is the theory of all theories-that Poe’s body isn’t even in his grave, that it was carried off by corpse-needy medical students long before the memorial was built. This idea, too, has been largely discredited, but it comes back to life again and again, a monster that cannot be slain.
In 1999, on the sesquicentennial weekend of Poe’s death, I traveled to a symposium in Richmond, a city that can-and does-make a good case for its ownership of Poe. “Everyone wants a piece of Poe,” I scribbled in my reporter’s notebook. The Poe scholars are a contentious lot, proudly so. They agree to disagree about virtually everything. Almost a decade later, much of what I learned that weekend has vanished from my poor, porous memory. The only impressions I retain are a lecture on the problem of translating “The Raven” into Italian (the literal translation of “nevermore” was aurally inelegant, requiring a substitute) and my utter confusion at the vocabulary of literary criticism, some of which sailed so far over my head that I sat through an entire lecture with only these notes to show for my attendance: “Something about the X-files.” And: “Wittgenstein, what?”
But my ignorance does not void the fact that I, too, have my piece of Poe. A moonless night, the view of a graveyard through the window of an old church. A figure approaches. How do you imagine him? Young, old? Dressed in a cape, or clad so as to attract no attention on a modern city street? Tall, short? Thin, fat? Male, female? How does he move? Stealthily or with a grand swagger? Is he capable of a quickness that suggests a younger man, or does he move with the stiffness of age? Does he saunter out the front gates or make a more devious exit?
This much I will tell you-yes.