Baltimore history buffs raise Edgar Allan Poe tradition from the dead

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Edgar Allan Poe's cenotaph

This cenotaph or "empty tomb" marks the original burial site of Edgar Allan Poe. The marker was installed in 1904 and the dates indicate how long Poe's body was at this location. 

Soon upon an evening dreary, they’ll pick a winner, skilled and eerie.

The Maryland Historical Society wants to rekindle local interest in one of Baltimore’s brightest (or perhaps darkest) literary luminaries: Edgar Allan Poe.

Society leaders recently launched a competition to crown the next “Poe Toaster” in an effort to reinstate a peculiar tradition surrounding the author’s gravesite.

“Poe is one of those characters who lends himself to a little bit of fun, a little bit of creativity, sparking the city to dig deep, show us what we’ve got and play a little bit,” Katie Caljean, director of programs and strategic initiatives at the society, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

According to legend, starting in the 1940s, an enigmatic figure wearing black clothes, a hat and a white scarf would sneak into the cemetery at Baltimore’s Westminster Hall alone at night each year on Jan. 19, Poe’s birthday.

As the story goes, the so-called Poe Toaster would place three roses on Poe’s grave, open a bottle of cognac and toast the master of macabre before laying the half-consumed bottle beside the grave and vanishing into the night.

The three flowers were intended for Poe and the women buried by his side — his wife, Virginia, (who was also his first cousin) and his aunt Maria Clemm. Their remains were later moved to a larger memorial in the same cemetery, but a cenotaph, or empty tomb, still marks Poe’s original burial site.

“Nobody knew who this man was,” Caljean said of the Toaster. “People would camp out to see if they could see him, but his identity was never revealed.”

The Toaster appeared by Poe’s gravesite every year until 2009. Some speculate that in more recent years the original Toaster’s son took over; others think there have been several Toasters.

Since the last sighting, there had been hope that the Toaster would return, but the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum finally declared that the tradition was no more in 2011.

“We’ve been without one of our interesting characters for four years now, so we thought it would be fun to put a new twist on it and reinvent the tradition,” Caljean said.

The Maryland Historical Society is encouraging artists to submit proposals via email to describe how they would perform the toast. Submissions are due by Oct. 23, and a handful of finalists will be announced on Halloween.

Each contestant will get three minutes to perform his or her interpretation of the toast at the official competition on Nov. 7.

The newly christened Poe Toaster will have the honor of officially reviving the tradition by toasting Poe at his gravesite on his birthday in 2016, as well as making appearances at various city events throughout the year.

Jeff Jerome, the curator emeritus for Poe House, had seen the Poe Toaster tribute each year since he started working at the building, which is an officially recognized national historic landmark, in the 1970s.

After the tribute stopped, Jerome was inundated with phone calls and emails from volunteers eager to resurrect the tradition, but he felt they should give it up.

“I would tell them to let it die because anything else would be a cheap imitation,” Jerome told Yahoo News. “So I approached this endeavor with the Maryland Historical Society with some trepidation.”

But he was relieved to learn that the organization did not want another Poe Toaster stirring around the graveyard in the middle of the night.

“I see this as a great opportunity to celebrate Edgar Allan Poe,” he said. “This is a good, fun and educational way to bring attention to Edgar Allan Poe and, of course, Baltimore.”

Poe’s oeuvre spawned countless imitators, never went out of print and looms large in English class curriculums across the country. But Poe’s enduring popularity extends beyond his prose; he is a staple of popular culture and his likeness graces everything from beer bottles to T-shirts at Hot Topic.

Paul Hurh, a professor of English at the University of Arizona, has studied 19th-century American literature extensively and written widely on Poe. The writer’s continuing popularity, Hurh suggests, stems in part from his masterful ability to anticipate the public’s tastes, as well as his own fascinating biography.

“The mysteriousness and romanticism of his own biography makes him into something like a character from one of his own tales,” Hurh told Yahoo News.

Poe was born to traveling actors in Boston and was orphaned at a young age. He quarreled with his adopted father and alienated his friends, people who were poised to help him. He had problems with gambling, alcohol and holding steady work. This caused him to live a relatively itinerant life, living in several cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

The author, a central figure of dark romanticism, died at the age of 40, and the exact cause of his death remains a mystery to this day.

“His own life seems beset by perversity, something that he writes about in his stories,” Hurh said. “That impulse to do something that one knows one shouldn’t do just because they know they shouldn’t do it. He seems to have operated by this principle.”

More information on the submission process can be found on the Maryland Historical Society’s website.

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