Poe Toaster redux: It’s all about the money

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Faux Poe ~ What’s wrong with this picture? (Anthony C. Hayes)

The plan recently announced by the Maryland Historical Society to “revitalize” the Poe Toaster is an appallingly bad idea.

MHS, along with Poe Baltimore and Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, is asking for artists to submit performances in a competition to pick Baltimore’s next Poe Toaster, who will serve in this honorary capacity for a “revival” of the tradition.

The competition is intended to “honor this tradition in a new and modern way,” said the historical society’s Katie Caljean.

“We feel it’s time to revive this tradition, and add to it, in a respectful way that produces a new icon for our city,” Caljean said.


The Poe Toaster engaged in his solitary graveside tribute for many decades. (Anthony C. Hayes)
The Poe Toaster engaged in his solitary graveside tribute for many decades. (Anthony C. Hayes)

The Poe Toaster engaged in his solitary tribute since the 1970s, perhaps since the 1940s or longer. He (and it was a he) did it for his own personal reasons, not for fame or money.

The distinguishing feature of the Poe Toaster was the many mysteries that shrouded his annual graveside visit. Who was the Poe Toaster? Why did he do it? What is the significance of the flowers and cognac? How has he been able to keep the secret for so many years? How did he get in and out of the cemetery without being seen by the crowds? Why did he stop?

By turning it into a public competition and designating a winner, the very thing that made the Poe Toaster the Poe Toaster is lost. Without the mysteries, you have Babe Ruth without a bat, Billie Holiday without a voice, Francis Scott Key without a poem.

What’s next — a contest to pick the next William Donald Schaefer, who will be trotted out wearing glue-on jowls to bellow “Do it now!” on special occasions?

I was with Jeff Jerome and three others in the catacombs beneath Westminster Hall on a frigid January night in 1983 when the Poe Toaster was first witnessed. Along with my son, I encountered the Poe Toaster again in 2009, during his last visit to the burying ground.

In the course of all those years there was never interest by Maryland Historical Society or Westminster Preservation Trust, which owns the church and burying ground, in documenting the Poe Toaster’s tribute or preserving it from public interference.

Is it too much to hope for a historical society to conduct, oh I don’t know, actual historical preservation? If MHS is genuinely committed to collecting and preserving remnants of the past, an appropriate way to start might be with a Poe Toaster exhibit.

A “Next Poe Toaster” competition doesn’t honor the Poe Toaster. It doesn’t contribute to a greater understanding of his unusual annual ritual. On the contrary, it debases and commodifies the Poe Toaster.

No matter how you dress it up, this is a terrible idea. (Anthony C. Hayes)
No matter how you dress it up, this is a terrible idea. (Anthony C. Hayes)

During his lifetime, Edgar Allan Poe was denied the success and acclaim he deserved. He may have been abused or exploited on the streets of Baltimore, leading to his death. After death, Poe was maligned by biographers into a caricature of a tragic drug-addicted figure. His body was dug up and moved for the convenience of the public and the cemetery. And now scavengers descend on Poe’s carcass once more to pick remaining shreds of value.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t about honoring the Poe Toaster. It’s about money.

This reminds me in many ways of the Hontroversy. Somebody is staking a claim on something that doesn’t belong to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if a trademark registration were next.

Unless the Poe Toaster was a hoax perpetrated by Jeff Jerome, the birthday visits to Poe’s grave were organic and genuine. It was real. The Poe Toaster was an authentic mystery. And mysteries are rare in this cynical, synthetic computer-generated age. The Poe Toaster captivated the imagination of people throughout Baltimore and around the world.

Now he’s gone. That’s part of the Poe Toaster mystery, and that’s how it should be.

Some franchises don’t need a reboot. We don’t need a new icon or a fabricated tradition.

The way to respect and honor the Poe Toaster is by leaving him alone, not by mocking him with a Faux Toaster.


This story first appeared in Welcome To Baltimore, Hon.

2 thoughts on “Poe Toaster redux: It’s all about the money

  • October 31, 2015 at 6:59 PM

    Bruce, this debacle and the Hontroversy represent everything that has gone wrong with Baltimore.

    Having spent nearly a decade in business in Fell’s Point, I think I speak for a number of others when I say that we didn’t want to be viewed as quaint, or even (G-d forbid) hip. It was great fun having the set of the Homicide TV series right around the corner. We got some inside glimpses that were priceless. Melissa Leo skipping down the street accompanied by Clark Johnson’s daughters. Andre Braugher parked in a car, furiously studying a script. Yaphet Kotto nearly in a fist fight with a street-corner evangelist.

    The year after the show’s all-too-brief run ended, tourists seeking out the real-life places used as sets descended on us. That was no fun, unprofitable, and embarrassing.

    Baltimore is no longer the city of Mister Diz, Hyman Pressman, the Hon Man, or the Sun Lies Man. What we’ve become, I’m not sure, but nobody envisioned gigantic flamingoes or such mishegas as this Poe-toaster-contest.

  • October 31, 2015 at 5:54 PM

    Amen! I could not agree more.


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