Other cities would like to claim him, but Baltimore has Poe. There is a society of scholars and devotees who meet to discuss Poe works and a special Poe room in the main branch of our library. There are Poe artifacts, a Poe House, a Poe-inspired football team, but more than anything, there are Poe bones, or at least phantom Poe bones. For many years, since the mid-nineteenth century, according to newspaper accounts, high schoolers have honored those bones, and illustrious scholars have visited the bones at Westminster Hall, made speeches, and laid wreaths. Mayors and Prefects have dispensed proclamations on Poe’s immortality in literature. And in 1875, people even invested to have the poet’s lonely grave moved to a more prominent location and erect a monument in his honor because a simple grave marker would be too small for his growing stature.
In accordance with the many mysteries of Poe—his life, his death, and his marriage to a 13-year-old cousin—newspaper articles from the 1970s on began referring regularly to a mysterious stranger who appeared in the dead of night on Poe’s birthday, January 19. This stranger, like so many other folk, also had great reverence for the Poe bones. Later dubbed the “Poe Toaster” by the press, the stranger would arrive at Westminster burial ground and place three roses at Poe’s tomb: one for Poe; a second for Poe’s wife and cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm; and a third for Poe’s aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. Aside from the roses, the Toaster also brought along a bottle of Martell cognac, toasted Edgar Allen, left the bottle, and exited the yard for a netherworld into which we have no privy.
While the other annual tributes to Poe were considerate, scholars and their speeches can be kind, the gesture of this anonymous citizen captured the imagination, not only of Baltimoreans but of Poe appreciators international. In 1990, a Life magazine photographer took an interest, staked out the Westminster graveyard, and emulsified a man in black with wide-brimmed hat and white scarf. In this image, the Toaster appears much like a ‘40s noir detective, more a character out of a Dashiell Hammett story then a tale of Edgar Allen Poe. But who was this stranger? What were his true intentions? How did he hop that spikey iron churchyard fence without tangling his scarf and suffering strangulation? These mysteries stirred a great many souls, brought interest to Baltimore, and broadened Poe’s fame from scholarly geeks to ordinary peeps.
As a result, the churchyard where Poe is buried gained some much-needed attention. It was in disarray before, but money for improvements materialized in mesmeric fashion. The small parish of barely 500, disbanded in 1977, had never had enough money to pay for the upkeep, but now the church, under new ownership, had enough florin to restore some of the luster to its grounds. The mysterious stranger and his ritual brought benefits to the city as well. Poe celebrants came in from all around the world to sing Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe. And on that evening, many began all-night vigils outside the Westminster churchyard, braving bitter temperatures. A few select watchers were even invited to wait inside the church, gaining a bird’s eye view should the Poe Toaster materialize.
One nice thing, while so many wanted to witness the toasting act and many did, no one ever interfered with the toasts, not even the Life photographer who imprinted the mysterious man’s grainy profile on silver gelatin. No one called the Toaster out, exposed him, and asked for his driver’s license. All onlookers seemed to agree, this was a private, respectful ritual, a solemn tribute to Poe, and the Toaster’s humble appreciation should be left to glow in isolation like an electric coil. What had Poe done to deserve such reverence from this anonymous citizen? Perhaps Poe’s stories had helped the Toaster through a life crisis. Perhaps Poe’s personal tragedies provided the Toaster an example of how not to live. Perhaps the Toaster lamented how Poe had provided so much to so many but had failed to achieve celebrity status and financial security during his lifetime.
Not only did the public somehow manage to restrain themselves from discovering the identity of the Toaster, not even the local newspaper bothered to do any investigations. Everyone enjoyed the mystery of the Toaster and beyond that, why expose him? Citizen observers were quoted as saying things to the effect of, “There isn’t enough mystery in the world, not enough heartwarming Santa Claus stories, so when one is discovered, why spoil it?”
Well, as you might imagine, there is always one killjoy who doesn’t like secrets being kept. One curmudgeon who can’t stand when he’s left out in the rain, or cold. Such a one I met recently on a January walk about the city, and I have resolved to paint his portrait. While somewhat known in his own country, the man is not well known here but no doubt would like to be. His name is C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur but efficacious sleuth who hails from the un-American city of Paris, France.
I bumped into Monsieur Dupin while passing by our hometown Poe House. He stood there holding a silver-tipped cane, puffing on a meerschaum pipe, and sporting a royal blue velvet coat, top hat, and cashmere scarf. From the sidewalk, his neck craned to spy through the Poe House windows. Inferring his interest, I informed him that the building was closed for the season. He responded with a terse, “J’aurais dû m’en douter!”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
He recovered his disappointment and elaborated, telling me he had arrived from France to celebrate the famed author’s birthday, but had missed the previous weekend’s celebrations. Hoping to recoup his losses, he had in mind to visit the poet’s home, but in accordance with his luck, he was not surprised to find the building sealed up. I told him about our Inner Harbor, Science Center, and Visionary Art Museum, all pleasant activities to fill an afternoon.
“I am currently preoccupied with other diversions,” he said, “and will return to my lodgings, en toute hâte.”
Upon my inquiry about those diversions, he lifted his chin to inspect my frosty eyebrows and related that since arriving and finding himself with little to do, he had been investigating an old cold case: the mystery of the Poe Toaster. Imagine my surprise! This was the very legend that I had become enamored with since hearing about and writing about the American Idol-style Poe Toaster contest held at the Maryland Historical Society weeks before.
I inquired further about our common Toaster interests, and Dupin explained that he did not like it when there are people who know more than he does, no matter if these people do nice deeds and wish to remain anonymous. “And as such,” he said, “this is the case with your city’s Toaster.”
In keeping with his sympathies for the ideas of Mr. Darwin, Dupin informed me that he detected selfish motives in all creatures, and he surmised that the only reason that our Toaster would have ever wanted to remain anonymous was so he could either promote something or revel in the private knowledge of his anonymous celebrity. “The only thing of any great importance in this life,” Dupin said, “is in knowing and revealing the sources of ‘Selfish Truths.’”
Being curious and finding the afternoon air chill, I asked Monsieur Dupin if he wouldn’t mind retiring to one of our city’s finer cafes, and in exchange for buying him an Americano, I might hear more about his philosophies and investigations. After some bickering about how he preferred espresso to Americano, Monsieur accompanied me to the Bun Shop, a wide-open and welcoming spot that I frequent whenever having my car fixed at a nearby garage.
Upon entering the shop, Dupin pocketed his meerschaum, and we placed our coffee orders. While we waited, Monsieur removed his blue velvet overcoat and revealed a finely tailored suit. He informed me that with the aid of his eidetic memory, laptop, and a simple search engine, he had begun looking into the legend of the Poe Toaster and found that back in 2007, a 92-year old man named P– admitted that he had started the tradition.
“Your newspapers,” said Dupin, “say that P– had been a member of the Westminster parish. A former adman, Poe fan, amateur historian, and noted tour guide at the catacombs, P– confessed to having the idea for a Toaster and started the tradition as a way to raise attention to the poor condition of the church and tombs. He’d hoped the attention would garner cash for repairs. In this 2007 article, P– mentioned that he had backdated the tradition to around 1949, perhaps to make the tradition appear more traditional. The year 1949, coincidently, would have been the 100-year anniversary of Poe’s death.”
Our drinks arrived and Dupin and I each took up some well-used but cozy stuffed chairs in the cafe. As I leaned forward to sip my latte, Dupin reclined and crossed his legs at the knees. “When P– came clean,” Dupin continued, taking the temperature of his espresso with a pinky finger, “there was some willingness to acknowledge his case, but there were also many who felt that the man had committed metaphorical vivisections on his friends. People wanted to find holes in P–’s story and drive Mack trucks through them, one hole being that the 92-year-old P– had dated his toasts to 1967, but newspapers did not heighten their coverage of the mystery until about 1976.
“Imagine,” Dupin clucked, “a man of 92 confusing the years 1967 and 1976? Il est impossible de comprendre ce qui se passe!” Here Dupin paused to adjust his cravat. “Thankfully,” Monsieur continued, “the curator of the Poe House, a man with scruffy red beard and solemn respect for Poe, a man named J–, came to the rescue, citing an old Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper article from 1950 that mentioned how some ‘jokester’ had brought a bottle ‘of excellent label’ to Poe’s gravesite.”
With a proven Poe Toaster stashed in the Evening Sun archives, Dupin remarked that Baltimoreans and Poe fans were pleased. The phenomenon had been saved and P– discredited. But here Dupin wants to share with me a fact that he finds most interesting. “When I went looking for other reports of this mysterious citizen,” he said, “I could find no reference to the Toaster other than the one in 1950. As I said, frequent references did not begin until 1977, about the time that P—, along with the help of fellow tour guides, claims to have begun the tradition. Had someone, I must ask, purloined the Toaster in those intervening years?
“With no other evidence than the Evening Sun article of September 1950, P– seems to have made an adequate case for himself. My subsequent searches of P–’s name in the Sun ProQuest newspaper files reveal that even before his admission, P–’s interest in the tombs was well known. For that interest, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer had presented P– a commendation for bringing attention to Poe and the city through his innovative tomb tours.
“Another interesting note, I might add, is that during these years, P– lived in a house on Diamond Street, a chicken’s walk from Westminster Hall, making cemetery visits as convenient as a roll out of bed. Having died at 97, however, the discredited P– will not enjoy his vindication, but by all accounts, he might not have minded alternate spins on his Toaster tale. It appears that P– had been somewhat of a trickster and enjoyed a good yarn. I doubt he would object to later convolutions. Legend, not truth, always seemed to be his preference.”
Dupin leaned an elbow on his chair’s tattered armrest and continued. “Even while still alive, P– said that the tradition had kept going long after he had abandoned it. For him, it was a ‘one-time thing.’ But other copycat Toasters may have popped up. One man who falls under suspicion was a famed Baltimore writer and performance artist, F–, but I have my doubts. Many past investigators have singled out F– because he had a flair for the dramatic, once organizing ‘tugboats in Baltimore harbor to toot their horns in a sequence that spelled out one of his poems.’ On another occasion, F– dropped in at the Social Security building at Woodlawn, undressed, mounted a Xerox machine, and photocopied his various appendages. Many surmise that F– might have taken to toasting as well. But as I said, I have my doubts. Toasting would be almost too tame for F–’s tastes.
“With politics veering toward the liberal, if not the radical, it’s unlikely that in 2004, F– would have written the note found tomb-side stating that the French cognac was being left begrudgingly in protest of France’s refusing to join in America’s Iraq war. No, only two pieces of evidence point to F–’s probable participation. One, in keeping with his reputation as prankster, F—, in 2001, may have left the note predicting that the New York Giants football team would defeat your Ravens in the super bowl. But one might also postulate that note as having been left by a copycat. The second, and far better evidence pointing to F–, would be how the Toaster tradition ended in 2009, shortly before F– died of cancer. I, however, have other ideas.”
Monsieur Dupin informed me that he did not confine himself to research into newspaper articles. He also visited the scene of the crime, the Westminster burial ground, and he made an outside inspection, walking the length of the eight-foot-high iron fence and brick walls. He described how the iron gates have ancient padlocks on them, and how it would have been difficult for a Toaster to breach the fence without making a spectacle of himself, or at least ripping his trousers.
“Additionally,” said Dupin, “since 1977, when the church disbanded, Westminster Hall became a showpiece for the University of Maryland Law School, a space to be rented out for wedding celebrations and corporate symposiums. Millions in monies were invested, and by 1983, the churchyard had seen many improvements, not the least of which are high intensity spotlights that shine upon almost every exterior wall, mortar joint, and marble tomb.”
Dupin pointed out that with such high fences, bright lights, and growing crowds, no matter where the Toaster might enter the burial ground, visiting either Poe monument or cenotaph, it would be almost impossible for him not to be seen. “It would seem,” Monsieur explained, “that the most likely Toaster would have to be someone with access to the church and the graveyard, an inside actor per se, someone in the know, or a small circle of non-profit co-conspirators, either within the church or the Poe community or both. “You see,” Dupin clarified, “several insiders may have worn the Toaster cloak.”
“According to my investigations and aided by ratiocination,” Dupin related, “there is but one candidate who might have led such a conspiracy or at least inherited it from P–. This man has always been close to the Toaster, began volunteering at Westminster Hall and the Poe House in 1977, then became the Poe House curator in 1979. This man dedicated 33 years of his life in public employ to all things Poe. Yes, the man I am speaking of, of course, is P–’s old friend J–. J– has always been the gatekeeper of the church and guardian of the Toaster tradition. He has led nighttime vigils at Westminster Hall on Poe’s birthday. He’s aware of how important Toaster attention is to the city and how much revenue can be gained from repeated Toaster visits.
“There are too many coincidences not to indict J–,” Dupin reflected. “J– was not only a close friend of Monsieur P–, in one newspaper account, it’s clear that he shared P–’s understanding as an adman that scholars appearing at a grave site with somber speeches and depressing funeral wreaths are less likely to gather attention than a mysterious stranger who arrives in the dead of night with roses and cognac.
“Also it is J– who collects the bottles and the roses on the morning after. J– who is familiar with the Toaster’s secret signals and precise pattern of rose configuration. J– who distinguishes the real Toaster from his copycats. J– who, in 1993, reported that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Toaster, J– who used his own powers of ratiocination to put forth the idea that the original Toaster might have two or three sons now engaged in sharing Toaster responsibilities, J– who shared the idea that the original Toaster had likely died in 1998.”
“But what of the 1950 article?” I asked in haste, feeling as though the very ground beneath me was giving way. “That article is proof of an age-old Toaster tradition.”
“An interesting supposition,” Dupin agreed, “and I don’t deny the existence of a 1940’s Toaster. But there is only one mention in the news accounts, no description of the man other than he was a ‘jokester.’ For all we know, he might have been an orangutan. My guess is that this jokester was imitating Madame Flame, the woman in black, who deposited roses at Rudolph Valentino’s Hollywood crypt, and whose story became widely known in 1947 when she revealed herself. Certainly, some male mimic of the Madame in Baltimore may have tried a similar trick for fun, but as the accounts of his act go unreported for the next 27 years, he must have taken ‘de vacances.’
“More importantly I think,” Dupin said, assuming a serious tone, “P–, a man of 32 in 1947, would have been aware of the woman in black. Later, as self-appointed historian of the church, clearer of cobwebs from the catacombs, and collector and confabulator of stories, P– could have recalled the 1940’s Toaster and used the story in 1977 to begin his own Toaster tradition. In one 1976 Sun article, a reporter visited P– at Westminster and quotes him as saying that an anonymous visitor ‘used to visit the tomb.’ I repeat, ‘used to visit.’ And the quote continues, ‘on the anniversary of Poe’s birth and prop an empty bottle of scotch whisky….’
“And so I ask you?” Dupin sighed, as though all his suppositions should now be considered as fact. “Who better to start a Toaster tribute than a storyteller so intimately familiar with so many old legends? The choice of spirits in P–’s accounting, however, scotch whiskey, escapes me, as does the latter choice of cognac. Poe liked Jamaican rum, port wine, champagne, whiskey, absinth, but I have read nothing about cognac in the literature. Perhaps P– himself enjoyed a tumbler of Martell now and then, or selected it as a tip of the hat to my people, the French. We French, as you know, were early champions of Poe’s talent. I find it unfortunate though that P– did not select apple cider instead. Alcoholics, we all know, even dead ones, should not be encouraged.
“But back to my case for J–. Let me point out that of course it was J– who collected and curated the Toaster notes and cognac bottles. Those bottles, I suggest, should have been dusted for fingerprints and compared to the prints of all Baltimore City employees. I might also suggest that the Toaster notes be produced, handwriting experts hired, and analysis conducted. I am certain that the clever J—, and his handful of co-conspirators, have shared in their composition. Finally, I might add that it was J—, in 2012, after three years of no shows, who declared the Toaster tradition dead. How could he have known? Perhaps because in that year, J– suffered the loss of his job as curator of the Poe House when the city cut its $85,000 budget.”
“I do hope,” I interjected, “that J– was eligible for retirement.”
“The only thing of any great importance in this life,” Dupin said, “is in knowing and revealing the sources of ‘Selfish Truths.’”
Dupin frowned. “It could only be J–, not F–,” Dupin said, “who ended the Toaster tradition in 2009, knowing by then that the Westminster Hall lights had begun shining much too bright for either him or his co-conspirators to remain undetected. And it would be J– who might have seen the charm in ending the tradition in the bicentenary year of Poe’s birth. As to your point about J–’s retirement, he is hardly retired. He continues to participate in all things Poe, privately raising money for the Poe celebrations. Once a Poe Toaster, always a Poe Toaster.”
“But when he worked for the city,” I counter, “J– said that if he were the Toaster and kept the secret, he would be guilty of fraud.”
“Tu plaisantes ou quoi?” Dupin chortles, “I must applaud J– for this deception. No, no, J– might be guilty of a fib but not a fraud. I see no record of money changing hands. And considering the claims on Poe among Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, and Baltimore, I’d say that Baltimore, with its Poe tributes and celebrations, may be leading the competition. The publicity and subsequent financial benefit to your city surrounding these events cannot be dismissed. No, by my calculations, it is in the best interest of your Baltimore ministry that J– not be caught. Had he been, I’m sure your city fathers and mothers would have been most merciful in their prosecution, perhaps awarding him a key to the city. In such circumstances, what city wouldn’t trade a harmless con for a bulging pot of coin?”
As Dupin finished making his circumstantial case for Toaster J–, I couldn’t help but think back to my recent visit to the Maryland Historical Society when the Society held a contest to inaugurate a new Poe Toaster. This new one would be less mysterious than the previous perpetrator, but he would still perform a ritual at Poe’s memorial. The contest had been sponsored not only by the Society but also Poe Baltimore Inc. and a troupe of performers from a play called “The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe.” As I recalled sitting in the audience that night, I felt that it had indeed been J–, serving on the three-person jury, who guided the audience’s selection of the American Idol-styled Toaster? How difficult it was not to notice J– struggling hard to make the audience understand what type of Toaster we should all be looking for.
“You make some good points Monsieur Dupin,” I said, keeping the tale of the talent competition to myself, “but where does that leave us? Two possible Toaster coordinators, P– and later J–, and perhaps a small circle of helpers. Why, might I ask, have you spent so much time making your investigations? Your case remains circumstantial. Other than identifying a few sources and casting doubt upon many past Toaster accounts, you have proven nothing. The former Toaster tradition was nice while it lasted. If it’s over, why not leave it alone?”
Dupin only shifted his shoulders beneath his suit and lifted his cane from where it had been leaning on the chair, resettling it in the same place.
“What’s more, Monsieur Dupin,” I said with growing resentment, “I feel sorry for you. Why is it that you cannot take pleasure in the act of someone who wants to do a nice thing and do it anonymously? Would you expose an unknown benefactor who gives money to a hospital that treats cancer patients because such an act makes him feel good? You don’t seem to understand the pleasures that an anonymous citizen Toaster, not P– not J–, must have felt doing something kind for a dead poet. Does everything have to be about raising attention, raising money? Would you have me think that no one acts out of pure appreciation, but only for promotional purposes?”
“Monsieur C–,” Dupin said, “I am not about to send J– to the Baltimore gaol!”
“No Monsieur, but I understand your amateur status among detectives, and as the poet says, ‘To vilify a great man is the readiest way in which a little man can himself attain greatness.’ Therefore, Monsieur Dupin, I suggest that you direct your fustian ratiocinations to other subjects. Why not, for example, put your dogged investigative skills to work catching real anonymous bad guys who do bad things? Why spend so much energy on revealing the identities of people who are trying to do good ones?”
“My dear C–,” countered Dupin. “I have no bones to pick with you. Perhaps I have overreacted, but I seek only the truth, and I’ve had a good deal of time on my hands since arriving in your city. My preoccupations would not have been necessary had I been better informed by news accounts of this year’s Poe birthday celebrations. You see, when checking my internet back home in Paris, I was led to believe that a city-wide ‘Edgar Allan Poe Appreciation Day’ would be held on the poet’s birthday, January 19th. Instead, I arrived in your country and your city to find that the celebration had occurred on the 16th. Imagine my frustration and disappointment when I showed up at Westminster Hall on the evening of the 19th but no one else was there. Imagine my braving those cold temperatures, waiting and waiting for some sign of even a fake Toaster but finding none.”
“Monsieur Dupin!” I said. “I am sorry for your confusion. But I don’t see why you have to be so adamant in your investigations and why you keep insisting that the Toaster tradition has always been more about advertising, promotion, and fundraising than about an anonymous stranger paying earnest tribute to a dead poet. You are nothing but un homme cynique and your interests sont erronées. You are…so…so typically French, and everyone, or almost everyone, should understand that even the most flamboyant promoter can still maintain a quiet affection for the thing he promotes!”