There was a minor stir in the back alleys of American literature yesterday:  for the first time since 1949, the enigmatic Poe Toaster failed to appear at Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore gravesite to mark Poe’s January 19 birthday.

The Poe Toaster is the mysterious figure — usually in a black coat and hat — who strolls into Baltimore’s Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in the early hours of January 19, silently walks to at Poe’s gravesite, toasts Poe with a glass of cognac, then departs, leaving behind three red roses and a half bottle of cognac on the grave.  It’s a neat tradition that’s been going on since 1949 — perhaps intentionally begun on the 100th anniversary of Poe’s death — and has gone on uninterrupted for the last fifty years, despite efforts of gawkers to block or unmask the mysterious Toaster.

It’s generally accepted that there have been at least two Poe Toasters — whether it’s a father and son is uncertain — because at one point, the Toaster left a note at the grave saying, “The torch will be passed.”  The newer Toaster, however, has annoyed Poe purists by leaving behind notes commenting on current events, starting with the 2001 Super Bowl between the Giants and Ravens (oddly, the Toaster chose the Giants) and taking an apparent jab at the French in 2004.

News trickled out early yesterday morning that the toaster — who normally makes his appearance between midnight and 5 a.m. on the morning of the 19th — had failed to appear.  I was hoping that perhaps he might be waiting until late last night to make his appearance, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the small crowds that have been gathering to watch his ceremony, but as of this morning . . . no such luck.

Jeff Jerome, curator for the Edgar Allan Poe house in Baltimore, offered several explanations for the Toaster’s absence, from sickness to car troubles to just plain deciding to hang it up for good.  After all, 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth, making a neat bookend for a tradition that began on the 100th anniversary of his death. 

Perhaps appropriately, it’s a mystery worthy of the writer and poet that inspired it.  Happy (belated) 201st, Edgar Poe.

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