From the article: For decades, a mysterious figure dressed in black, his features cloaked by a wide-brimmed hat and scarf, crept into a churchyard to lay three roses and a bottle of cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.
Now, a 92-year-old man who led the fight to preserve the historic site says the visitor was his creation.
“We did it, myself and my tour guides,” said Sam Porpora. “It was a promotional idea. We made it up, never dreaming it would go worldwide.”
Porpora’s story begins in the late 1960s. He’d just been made historian of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, built in 1852. There were fewer than 60 congregants and Porpora, in his 60s, was one of the youngest. The overgrown cemetery was a favorite of drunken derelicts.
The site needed money and publicity, Porpora recalled. That, he said, is when the idea of the Poe toaster came to him. The story, as Porpora told it to a local reporter then, was that the tribute had been laid at the grave on Poe’s January 19 birthday every year since 1949. Three roses—one for Poe, one for his wife, and one for his mother-in-law—and a bottle of cognac, because Poe loved the stuff even though he couldn’t afford to drink it unless someone else was buying.
I would rather that it had been a secret but, now that it’s out, it can’t be helped. I must admit though that I am very happy that they perpetuated the hoax; otherwise, the site would have been demolished or worse, left derelict. :-( America isn’t very interested in preserving it’s history.
Members of the Poe Society insist they recall members of the old congregation—all now dead—talking about the Poe toaster before Porpora says he made it up. Stories since the 1970s refer to older newspaper accounts about the visitor. Jerome found a 1950 newspaper clipping from The (Baltimore) Evening Sun that mentions “an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)” against the gravestone.
Porpora’s account isn’t consistent. He said he invented the stranger in an interview with a reporter in 1967, but the story to which he refers appeared in 1976. Shortly afterward, the vigils and the yearly chronicles of the stranger’s visits began. During the same interview, Porpora said both that he made the story up and that one of his tour guides went through a pantomime of dressing up, sneaking into the cemetery and laying the tribute on the grave.
Porpora acknowledges that someone has since “become” the Poe toaster.
“For us, it was a one-time thing. If I could have brought Edgar Allen Poe back to life, I would have—that would have been the biggest promotion of all,” he said. “But who would have thought people would jump on it the way they did?”
Well, if they found a clipping from 1950 referring to it, it might be that this guy’s claim to have created the tradition is a hoax in and of itself. Regardless of whether he created it or not, someone still does stop by every year to leave the three roses and cognac. He doesn’t explain things like the note in 1998 saying the originator of the tradition died, and they claim his story isn’t consistent.
The only “hoaxy” part of this if he is telling the truth is that it started in the 70’s and not the 40’s, it is still a yearly tribute to the author by a mysterious person whose identity we know not. if he is lying, he’s probably counting on the fact that the real people doing it won’t come forward and break the tradition of silence anyways.
Masters of Horror did an excellent version of The Black Cat by Poe that sent shivers up my spine. It wasn’t 100% faithful to the story itself, but really only changed a few insignificant details.
I heard about the Poe Toaster about a week ago ironically. Had a big conversation about him with my flatmate a few days ago, so I’m well clued up on the whole thing.
I doubt very much if he was 60 in the 1960s he started it and kept it going every year until the early 90s (when the toaster changed to a noticeably younger person who’s a bit of a prick and leaves political statements on little cards with the roses and cognac).
Still, I like the tradition. Poe himself would love it.
I should start doing this to Rabbie Burns or something. Drink half a bottle of whisky at his gravestone, nip for a pee round the side of the church and then come back and leave three thistles.
Update: I received the following email from Jeffrey Savoye of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore:
Okay, this silly story is really getting out of hand. Sam Porpora has a long history of making things up for the sake of publicity, which in this case is rather ironic as it is itself a publicity stunt about claiming to have started something else as a publicity stunt. As noted in the AP article, there is a clipping from the Baltimore Sun from 1950 which mentions what is essentially the modus operandi of the Poe Toaster. I was only an English major, but this is clearly long before Sam is claiming to have “started” the tradition.
in the 1970s, Sam Porpora claimed that there was a mass burial grave of Revolutionary War soldiers in the catacombs of Westminster Church, where Poe is buried. It turned out that the pile of bones were from pigs, not humans and of apparently fairly recent vintage. (Hmmmmm, I wonder how those got there? In any case, I suspect that there were very few porcine participants in any of the major battles.) He also invented stories of the catacombs being used in the Underground Railroad, with a crypt on the outside being used to get into another crypt on the inside of the basement area. (Unfortunately, the basement was essentially open to the outside until the 1930s, when it was finally closed up to keep out vagrants—thus no need for a secret tunnel in the 1850s.) The fact is that Sam makes up stories, and this is apparently just another one of them—not the event itself but his claim that he originated it. At best, he might have termed the phrase “Poe Toaster,” for which, I suppose, some credit is due. The rest of his claims should not be accepted without verifiable evidence, which he does not have.
Looks like the real hoax is likely the claim to being the originator after all…
A mysterious visitor who each year leaves roses and cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe on the writer’s birthday failed to show early Tuesday, breaking with a ritual that began more than 60 years ago.
“I’m confused, befuddled,” said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
The tradition dates back to at least 1949, according to newspaper accounts from the era, Jerome said. Since then, an unidentified person has come every year on Jan. 19 to leave three roses and a half-bottle of cognac at Poe’s grave in a church cemetery in downtown Baltimore.
The event has become a pilgrimage for die-hard Poe fans, some of whom travel hundreds of miles. About three dozen stood huddled in blankets during the overnight cold Tuesday, peering through the churchyard’s iron gates hoping to catch a glimpse of the figure known only as the “Poe toaster.”
At 5:30 a.m., Jerome emerged from inside the church, where he and a select group of Poe enthusiasts keep watch over the graveyard, and announced to the crowd that the visitor never arrived. He allowed an Associated Press reporter inside the gates to view both of Poe’s grave sites, the original one and a newer site where the body was moved in 1875. There was no sign of roses or cognac at either tombstone.
“I’m very disappointed, to the point where I want to cry,” said Cynthia Pelayo, 29, who had stood riveted to her prime viewing spot at the gate for about six hours. “I flew in from Chicago to see him. I’m just really sad. I hope that he’s OK.”
Pelayo and Poe fans from as far away as Texas and Massachusetts had passed the overnight hours reading aloud from Poe’s works, including the poem “The Raven,” with its haunting repetition of the word “nevermore.” Soon they were speculating, along with Jerome, about what might have caused the visitor not to appear.
“You’ve got so many possibilities,” said Jerome, who has attended the ritual every year since 1977. “The guy had the flu, accident, too many people.”
Tuesday marked the 201st anniversary of Poe’s birth, and Jerome speculated that perhaps the visitor considered last year’s bicentennial an appropriate stopping point.
“People will be asking me, ‘Why do you think he stopped?’” Jerome said. “Or did he stop? We don’t know if he stopped. He just didn’t come this year.”
Jerome said he will continue the vigil for at least the next two or three years in case the visits resume.