The Story Behind the Annual Toast to Edgar Allan Poe at His Place of Burial

posted: 10/03/16
by: Guest Post
Edgar Allan Poe's Original Grave
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Edgar Allan Poe's Original Grave

If you love a good mystery I must recommend a trip to Baltimore's Westminster Church and Burying Ground, but do not go summer, spring, or fall for it is too warm and there are too many people. You need to make your way to Westminster Hall during the dead of winter, the coldest time of the year--specifically, the night of January 19th, just before the stroke of midnight. Why? Because you might catch a glimpse of the unknown man dressed in black who pays a yearly visit to the grave of America's most famous author of horror, Edgar Allan Poe. This shadowy figure is known as, The Poe Toaster.

It is not known how The Poe Toaster enters and leaves the gravesite. In order to keep the public at a distance from the mysterious figure the gates to Westminster are locked, leaving Poe and Toaster fans alike outside the imposing brick walls. As is his custom The Toaster will suddenly appear and make an offering of three red roses (for Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm). The unusual nickname for this man, The Toaster, comes from the cognac toast that the man in black makes before vanishing back into the night. I advise you to arrive early to be close enough to the main gate by the large white monument under which the bodies of Poe, his wife, and mother-in-law reside. Pray that The Toaster does not feel too nostalgic and visits the old gravesite of Poe, far in the back of the burial ground and away from prying eyes. Your cold, dark wait would be for naught!

This ritual of the somber and silent offering originated sometime in the mid-twentieth century, and since then the duties of The Toaster have been passed on to at least two men. The original Toaster passed on his office (or, sadly, passed on to the next life!) to a young apprentice. In 2010 though the successor inexplicably failed to appear. "Perhaps he was delayed by unforeseen events! Perhaps the man died unexpectedly!" The Poe Society, Westminster Burial Ground, and the city of Baltimore waited anxiously for five years, yet unfortunately he never returned.

The first (and only) daylight appearance of the new Poe Toaster. Credit: Mike Hearse

Last year saw the reinstitution of this beloved tradition as a new Toaster, chosen by secret ballot to carry on the tradition, made his appearance on the weekend of Poe's birthday. In an odd and unforeseen development the new Toaster made the one (and only!) daytime appearance, but rest assured, the Toaster will never appear in daylight again. He had done so only to reassure the city that the tradition is alive once again--just as is the spirit of Poe. As mentioned, the best time to see this Toaster will be just before midnight on January 19th. This Toaster will appear by the same secret ways as his predecessors, however, you will be able to hear him coming long before you see him for this Toaster plays a haunting tune on the violin as he approaches. In addition to leaving the traditional cognac and three red roses, this Toaster leaves a single white rose as well in honor of his predecessor. As the first stroke of midnight rings out, The Poe Toaster will slip away, back into the catacombs underneath Westminster, and back into myth.

This post was submitted by the Maryland Historical Society.

Contributor's Note: William Wilson was a character in an Edgar Allan Poe story about a doppelganger of himself. Watch "Poe Is Dead!" a special tribute to Edgar Allan Poe commemorating the passing of Baltimore's most beloved literary son, on Saturday, October 8 at 2pm at Westminster Hall and Burying Grounds in Baltimore, Maryland. The program includes theatrical readings, music and dance! Edgar Allan Poe and his wife Virginia will also return from the grave to appear at this unique event. The new Poe Toaster will also be on hand; his presence might not be seen, but his appearance will be FELT. For more details, visit this link and to make a donation to the event vist GoFundMe.