RainOubliette has beaten me to the punch and already posted about this in the forum
, but I've been getting so many emails about it that it obviously belongs here on the front page as well.
For decades a mysterious figure has visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe in Westminster Churchyard, Baltimore on the anniversary of Poe's birthday and placed three roses and a bottle of cognac on the writer's grave. The figure has become known as the "Poe Toaster.
Now a man, Sam Porpora, has stepped forward who claims to have been the original Poe Toaster, and to have started the tradition as a kind of promotional hoax. USA Today reports
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 Jan. 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. The romantic image of the mysterious man in black caught the fancy of Poe fans and a tradition grew. In about 1977, Jerome began inviting a handful of people each year to a vigil for the mysterious stranger. The media began chronicling the arrivals and departures of a "Poe-like figure." In 1990, Life magazine published a picture of the shrouded individual. In 1993, he left a note saying "the torch would be passed." Another note in 1998 announced that the originator of the tradition had died. Later vigil-keepers reported that at least two toasters appeared to have taken up the torch in different years.
Porpora is definitely a credible candidate for having been the originator of the tradition. However, there's some debate about whether the legend actually predates him. If it does, Porpora obviously couldn't have invented the tradition. I did a search through newspaperarchive.com
, looking for any mention of the legend before the 1970s, but couldn't find anything, even though there were many stories about Poe's grave in 1949 on the 100th anniversary of his death.
Honestly, when I first saw this story it didn't seem like a hoax to me. After all, even if Porpora was the Poe Toaster, his appreciation for the writer was obviously genuine, and so the gesture was an honest one. The only hoaxy element was to add a flair of drama by hiding the identity of the Poe Toaster, and to (perhaps) fudge about how long the tradition had been going on for.
Ironically, there are doubts that Poe's body is even in the grave. In 1875 Poe's body was disinterred and moved, except that no one was quite sure which grave belonged to Poe since his gravestone had been removed. There's also a strong possibility his body had long ago been stolen by medical students for use in anatomy classes, since Westminster cemetery was a common source for cadavers.
Whether or not it's a hoax, the Poe Toaster legend recalls the "Lady in Black" legend, in which a lady dressed in black would visit the grave of Rudolph Valentino and lay a red rose on it. This tradition was said to have been started either by a Hollywood press agent or by the florist across the street from Valentino's grave.
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.