On this day in 1845, the New York Evening Mirror published a gothic poem by Edgar Allen Poe called “The Raven.” The poem brought Poe great fame and although it made him popular in his time, this popularity did not carry with it any financial success.
The poem is a creepy tale of a man spending a dreary December’s eve thinking of his lost love, Lenore. He hears a gentle rapping upon his chamber door, and finds a raven standing there. The raven walks into his chamber and begins to haunt the man with his eerie caw of the word “Nevermore.” It’s a fantastic, dark piece of poetry, but it’s not what I’d like to talk to you about today. You see, ten days ago was Poe’s birthday and we neglected to celebrate it. So, allow me to make it up to you with a tale about Poe from long after Poe’s death. A tale of a cemetery, a mysterious figure in black and a bottle of cognac.
Sometime in the 1930s, a man in a long black coat and hat began making an annual visit to Poe’s grave in Baltimore, Maryland in the early hours of Poe’s birthday. He’d stop at the grave and leave three red roses and an unfinished bottle of Martell cognac. Over the ensuing decades, this mysterious ritual became better known, and Poe fans came to Baltimore from around the world in the hopes of seeing the man who became known as the “Poe Toaster.” In 1990, Life Magazine actually snapped a photo of the Toaster. This inspired a few imitators. However, Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House and Museum who’d watch the Toaster from the Westminster Church, was able to tell the real Toaster from a secret signal that the Toaster always performed at the gravesite.
The Poe Toaster often left notes for Poe. Typically, these were simple messages like “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you.” However, in 1993, a note reading “The torch will be passed.” was left by the Toaster, leading some to suspect that the Toaster was going to retire. In 1999, witnesses noticed that the Toaster looked younger, and when Jerome went to the grave he found a note explaining that the original Toaster had died in 1998 and the tradition had been passed on to “a son.”
However, the son (or possibly sons) did not treat the tradition with the same reverence. In 2001, the Toaster left a note that referenced the upcoming Super Bowl: “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 Allan Poe evermore.” This note, which riffed on the closing lines of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” was odd for many reasons. For one, the Toaster had never before commented on current events and secondly, it was strange that the Toaster was rooting against a team that was named after Poe’s “The Raven.” For the record, the Ravens won the game by 27 points.
In 2004, the new Toaster left another odd note, this one possibly referencing France’s opposition to the looming Iraq War. “The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac. With great reluctance but for respect for [sic] family tradition the cognac is placed. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!” The Toaster continued to leave the roses and cognac behind, but according to Jerome, the new Toaster (or Toasters) didn’t put the same effort into it. According to an interview Jerome did in 2013 with Baltimore’s WBAL, the new Toasters “started getting lazy with the way they dressed’ and blended into the crowd by wearing winter jackets and caps instead of the traditional outfit.”
Sometime between 2005 and 2008, the Toaster left another note, which according to WBAL “Jerome said he was chagrined at the contents, as were his fellow witnesses inside the Hall. He decided to fib and say that no note was left. He declines to reveal its contents, other than to say that, in hindsight, it was a hint that the vigil was about to be nevermore.” 2009 marked Poe’s bicentennial, and the Toaster appeared again to perform the ritual. Then, in 2010…nothing, and again in 2011…nothing, and it was the same in every year since. In 2012, Jerome declared that the ritual was dead, telling WBAL a year later, “My personal feeling is the novelty wore off and they didn’t like fighting the crowds and trying to find ways to get in here,…And being afraid someone would try to tackle them with a camera right in their faces.”
Whoever the Poe Toaster may be, let’s raise a glass to him and Poe on the anniversary of the publication of “The Raven.” Unfortunately, The Raven isn’t a cognac based cocktail, it’s a darker and fruitier twist on the Mojito made with blackberries and cranberry juice.
- fresh mint leaves
- 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
- 6 blackberries
- 1 1/2 ounces White Rum
- sparkling cranberry juice
Muddle the mint and sugar in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add blackberries and muddle just enough to get the juice out, but not so hard that the berries get mushed. Add ice and rum and shake. Strain the drink into an ice filled highball glass and fill to the top with sparkling cranberry juice. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Tomorrow: Chaplin’s masterpiece