originally published April 21, 2013
It’s not uncommon – though perhaps a tad on the morbid-meter – to contemplate one’s legacy after death. Who would make the trip to your funeral? Surely not all of your exes, but hopefully your current significant other and most of your kids. How would you be remembered? For that time you blasted that wet fart during a math exam, or for the heaps of great art that you sketched out on a napkin but never really completed?
Who would visit your grave? One would expect that said significant other and maybe an old friend or two might drop a flower (or a rock if you’re Jewish) on the cement marker that testifies to the world that you did indeed exist. What about some mysterious stranger, visiting your grave once a year and laying a tribute to your magnificent wonderfulness? Probably not.
And if they did, they wouldn’t be the first to undertake such a task. For there was always the Poe Toaster.
Edgar Allen Poe died under bizarre and mysterious circumstances on October 7, 1849. The details of his strange end could (and probably will) merit a full article of dissection over the next 523 days, but for now it’s enough to know that he was pronounced dead at Washington College Hospital in Baltimore on a dark Sunday morning.
For whatever reason, Poe’s legacy was left in the hands of Rufus Wilmont Griswold (probably no relation to Clark W. Griswold, but the details are sketchy on that), Poe’s rival. Griswold published a ‘memoir’ of purportedly invented facts that depicted the great author as a drunken, drug-huffing loon. There’s a good lesson in this – don’t leave your post-mortem legacy in the hands of the guy that totally wants you to look like literature’s biggest dick.
It took a while for Poe’s friends and colleagues to clean up the writer’s legacy, debunking most of Griswold’s memoir and restoring Poe’s public image to the best of their ability. As time moved forward, the memoir faded from the spotlight, and people remembered Poe the way they should – by reading his stuff, then lying terrified in bed, praying they don’t wake up with a giant-ass pendulum blade swinging above their mid-section.
Witnesses first reported seeing the ‘Poe Toaster’ as early as the 1930’s. A mysterious figure – believed to be male – would wander into Westminster Hall and Burial Ground in the early hours of January 19 (Poe’s birthday), dressed entirely in black and obscuring his face with a scarf or a hood. He would approach Poe’s tombstone, then raise a glass of cognac in a toast before leaving a trio of roses in a specific formation on the memorial. Then he would take his silver-tipped cane (pure class) and walk away.
This happened every year. Nobody knew why the mysterious man would show up, or what the significance of the cognac might be, as no cognac shows up in any of Poe’s works. The three roses were believed to symbolize Poe, his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law, who had all been interred at that location, though it’s worth noting that none of them are still there. Poe was moved to another location in 1875 – the Toaster showed up at the memorial of his original burial site.
Sometimes the Toaster would leave a little note. One said “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you.” The 1993 note said, “The torch will be passed.” In 1999, the note claimed that the original Toaster had died and his son had taken over. The note in 2001 indicated a slightly more real-world take on the master wordsmith, declaring, “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all. The Baltimore Ravens. A thousand injuries they will suffer. Edgar Allen Poe evermore.” A few days later, the Toaster was proven wrong when the Ravens beat the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
I’m actually a little surprised the Toaster hasn’t left a note declaring his love for The Wire.
Naturally, because we live in the age when Google has taught us that all information should be at our fingertips all the time, a group of nosy schmucks decided they wanted to unmask the Poe Toaster. Luckily, they were unsuccessful. The rest of Baltimore has apparently decided that they prefer the mystery, and out of respect to the great unknown, no one has since tried to figure out the Toaster’s identity. In 2007, some guy named Sam Porpora told a reporter that it was he who had started the tradition back in the 60’s in order to splash some publicity for his church into the media. His story was full of holes though – in particular it didn’t match up with the earliest reports of the Toaster’s appearance, dating back thirty years before his claim.
Then, in 2010, it all ended. Jeff Jerome, who works at the Edgar Allen Poe House & Museum, had witnessed every Toaster arrival since 1976, and had no idea why the tradition ended suddenly. It could be that 2009, which marked the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, just might have seemed like a good round number for the Toaster to call it quits.
But Poe isn’t the only corpse with a secret admirer.
Just a short stroll from where my own father is chilling through eternity lies silent film star Rudolph Valentino, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. On the anniversary of his death, a mysterious “Woman In Black” shows up to deliver a single red rose to his grave. This began in 1928, just two years after Valentino succumbed to peritonitis from complications during surgery to remove his appendix.
Strange? Mysterious? Maybe. But it was later revealed to have been a publicity stunt by press agent Russel Birdwell, probably to promote a re-release of one of Valentino’s films. Several copycats have followed over the years, but it hardly holds the same air of fascinating obsession as Poe’s admirer.
To my knowledge, no other mysterious visitors are dropping in on any famous graves in this same fashion. The Poe Toaster is more touching than creepy, though I suspect that someone who drops in to leave a bottle of Zima at the grave of a modern celebrity every year might not be seen in the same way.
When I’m gone, I expect no such tribute. I suspect I’ll be too busy haunting the people I didn’t like when I was alive and hanging out in the Hall of Bacon (literally made of bacon) that no doubt exists in the afterlife. But if it happens, thanks in advance, whoever you are.