(See the bottom of the post for today's contest)
Baltimore is the home of Edgar Allan Poe. Does it hurt to say that? Oh yes. But they do have the body (despite my noble protest last year). Did I really expect to have Poe's remains dug up and brought to Philly? Not by a long shot. I was pleasantly surprised to find so many people (well, so many Baltimoreans) would get so upset at the suggestion (I mean, two columns in the Baltimore Sun?), but I never entertained the notion as a serious one. Poe died in Baltimore, was buried there and although it took the city some time to finally embrace his legacy, they did so and continue to honor his memory to this day.
Still, I was a little worried of the reaction I might receive when I visited "Charm City." Would Jeff Jerome, the curator of their Poe House, follow through on his threat to "punch me in the eye?" I had been corresponding with Jerome by email and I was pretty certain that he held my Poe work in high esteem, that I was not just some crackpot out to get attention, that I had something to offer to the study of Poe's legacy. But you never know. A little part of me was leery of meeting him. After all, Jerome was devoted to the writer of a story (written in Baltimore, I admit) in which a crazed lover prematurely buries his fiancé, then visits her grave and pulls out all her teeth. Would anyone be surprised if I paid a visit to the catacombs beneath Westminster Church,where Poe was buried, and was never heard from again? Would Jerome take the police on a tour of the Poe House basement, knocking on the walls to demonstrate how solidly they were put together? Well, I would soon discover how devoted a follower he was.
I made plans to go to Baltimore for their celebration of Poe's birthday on January 19 (next year is the Bicentennial of his birth). Every year, Jerome organizes an event with performances, this year featuring a dramatization of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (written in Philly), an actor portraying Sarah Helen Whitman (one of Poe's many fiancés) and Poe impersonator, David Keltz. But the real reason to travel to Baltimore on a cold winter weekend was to get a glimpse of the Poe Toaster.
Since at least 1949, a mysterious visitor has been leaving a half-filled bottle of cognac and three red
roses at the gravesite of Poe on his birthday. And this visitor has never been unmasked. Poe fanatics flock to the cemetery and hold all-night vigils to catch a glimpse of the dedicated mourner. Jerome has always done everything in his power to help the Toaster complete his mission, short of personal contact. Jerome's steadfast devotion in keeping the Toaster's identity a secret begins with Jerome himself. He has never even corresponded with him. However, he does allow a few faithful aficionados into the Church where they can see the Toaster arrive and depart, partly to witness the event, but also to keep an eye on the cemetery to assure no revelers interfere with the tribute.
The Poe Toaster always arrives between midnight and 6AM on the 19th. And it is always cold. Baltimore is bitter cold in January. Undeterred, Poe fans show up before midnight and the real fanatics, the true-blue ones, with toes frozen and teeth chattering stay until dawn. This year I would make my pilgrimage, join the frozen few and hopefully catch a fleeting glimpse of the Poe Toaster.
And I was successful. Approximately 100-150 fans showed up this year, although at its peak the crowd was never more than 75, many people arriving and leaving as the night progressed. Of these 100 or so, only about a half-dozen of the outside revellers saw the Toaster arrive and enter the cemetery. I was one of the half-dozen.
Tomorrow (and all week): my midnight vigil at the grave of Poe. Meet the people who braved the cold and travelled from all over the US (from Pittsburgh to Richmond to San Diego) to celebrate Poe's birthday. Meet a girl christened "Raven" at birth by her Poe-fanatic parents, now a lit-major college student who two years ago scaled the wall of the cemetery to try to see the Toaster. Meet Sam, the expert watcher, who for the last five years has stood on a corner, binoculars glued to his eyes to scan the cemetery entrances, all the while filling notebooks with copious notes about the Toaster's visits. And, of course, come back to see if Jeff Jerome did punch me in the eye when I finally met him.
Oh, yes, and the contest. The first ten readers who leave a comment on this post will receive a souvenir from the Poe House in Philadelphia. Make sure you add your email address to your profile while commenting, so I can contact you about where to send your prize (or if you don't fancy revealing your email on the internet, just send it to me at email@example.com) Thanks for reading and I hope you'll come back tomorrow and all year.