Profile at MysteryNet.com: “A Toast to Edgar” by Stuart McIver
Baltimore fondly remembers one of its favorite sons, Edgar Allan Poe.
Each January 19th, whether the midnight be dreary or not, a mysterious stranger, clad in black cape and white scarf, appears at a Baltimore cemetery. He places three red roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at the memorial to the man who lies buried in Westminster Graveyard. The man was Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe, the master of the macabre, would have relished the scene. As the creator fo the detective story, he might well have induced his sleuth, Monsieur August Dupin, to ask:
Why three roses?
Why a half-empty bottle of cognac?
What kind of cognac?
And, most important of all, who is the stranger? Actually, solving the puzzle would be a fairly easy task for a skilled descendant of Dupin, like Philip Marlow, Kinsey Milhone or Harry Bosch. Sherlock Holmes would have figured it out in no time at all.
The fact is nobody really wants to solve the mystery, preferring to let it remain part of Baltimore’s homage to one of its favorite sons. Poe is honored each year on the anniversary of his birth by the Poe Toaster, as the stranger is called, on the anniversay of his death by the annual meeting of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore and throughout the year by the City of Baltimore, which operates the Poe House on Amity Street as a museum.
Poe lived in the house from 1833-1835 with Maria Poe Clemm, his aunt, and her daughter, Virginia, whom the poet later married.
Jeffrey Jerome, curator of the Poe House, joins a small group of Poe devotees who journey to the Westminster Graveyard each January to watch for the toaster. The man of mystery has been coming every year since 1949, the 100th anniversary of Poe’s mysterious death in a hospital near the Baltimore waterfront.
“The three roses represent Poe, Virginia and Maria,” says Jerome. “The cognac, we think, is simply a favorite of the toaster. It’s Martell. As for his identity, we believe that there have been two toasters, perhaps a son carrying on his father’s tradition.”
I get the feeling that the curator probably knows who the stranger is but won’t admit it. Faithful followers of Poe tradition have no desire to disrupt it.
Several of the cognac bottles are on display at the Poe House, located in a slum area west of the downtown Harborplace. Poe’s home was a humble, two-story dwelling at 203 North Amity Street. The rooms are small, spare, with low ceilings, reflecting a time of short people and a family living on the edge of poverty.
Among the exhibits is a plaque commemorating the $50 first prize he won for writing “MS Found in a Bottle” in 1833. On Amity Street he wrote “Berenice” and “Morella,” as well as other short stories and poems.
About 5,000 people a year visit the house. Among them have been many famous movie stars, but apparently few mystery writers even though the tellers of tales dream of one day winning an Edgar, the Mystery Writers of America’s highest writing award.
“Vincent Price came here,” said Jerome. “He was a major force in reviving interest in Poe. The French actor, Louis Jordan, came here. He’s an enthusiastic Poe fan.
“There may have been a number of mystery writers, too, but I don’t know them by sight sight and they haven’t come forward to identify themselves. One who did come by was Martha Grimes.”
Although most of Grimes’ mysteries are set in England, her 1993 novel, The Horse You Came In On, is set in Baltimore and includes a visit to the Poe House. She even has a murder committed near Poe’s grave.
No homage to Poe would be complete wihtout a visit to Church Home and Hospital at 100 Broadway. A bronze plaque marks the location of the room where the Great Man died on October 7, 1849.
Four days earlier the frail poet had been found dazed and incoherent in a Baltimore tavern. No one knows for sure what happened. One explanation is that he had been drugged and plied with whiskey on election day, then taken from poll to poll to vote mulitple times until he lapsed into unconsciousness.
It is somehow fitting that the death of the father of the detective story should itself remain a mystery, just as Jeff Jerome believes the Poe Toaster should also remain a mystery.
Or, as the Raven might have put it, “Nevermore.”
Buy Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
The Works of Edgar Allan Poe
This single volume brings together all of Poe’s poems including “The Raven,” and “Annabell Lee,” as well as his stories including “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter,” etc. This collection illuminates the diverse and multifaceted genius of one of the greatest and most influential figures in American literary history.
“An authoritative biography that both clarifies many problems in Poe’s life that have baffled readers for a century and a half and enriches interpretation of many of Poe’s writings. . . .”–New York Times Book Review
Stuart McIver’s most recent true crime book is Murder in the Tropics(Pineapple Press), a collection of Florida and Bahamian mysteries. McIver, president of the Florida Chapter and regional vice-president of Mystery Writers of America, also has a short story, “Instant Replay,” in Mystery in the Sunshine State (Pineapple Press, October, 1999) , an anthology of Florida mystery stories.