the Poe Toaster: nevermore?

Here’s a little American tale with a Stoke Newington twist, a literary conundrum that turns out to be both a ghost story and an unsolvable mystery…

The Stoke Newington part is got over quickly: Edgar Allen Poe’s middle name, Allen, was adopted from the last name of his foster father, Mr John Allen, whose family spent several years in England in the 1810s. Little Edgar attended several school during this time, including the Reverend John Bransby’s Manor House School, on the site of the current Fox Reformed wine bar.

But the news right now is: the Poe Toaster never showed up this year. Since 1949, on Poe’s birthday – January 19 – a mysterious man in a brimmed hat, dressed all in black with a walking stick, slips quietly into the cemetery where Poe is buried; leaves three red roses and half a bottle of cognac at the grave, which also contains Poe’s mother-in-law and his wife, who died very young of consumption; tips his hat, and is gone. It’s a happy mystery; attempts have been made, and the photograph above was even taken years ago (by Time magazine!) with an infra-red camera set up with tripwires. It’s genuine. Eyewitnesses have reported a dark man, a man with white hair, a fair-haired man. But no one knows who the Poe Toaster is.  Or was. Because this week, for the first time in 60 years, and on his 201st birthday, there was no Poe Toaster.

The gathered hoards of people hoping for a glimpse of the mystery figure were disappointed. (People would travel from across the world to try and glimpse the mystery. It is hard not to wonder if the mystery Toaster was carrying on the ritual at least partly through a sense of theatre.)

It’s quite sad, really. It’s been one of those stories that cheer the soul, ever so slightly; I did toy briefly at one stage, years ago, with going to Baltimore and being one of the hordes, but of course that would never happen. (Don’t laugh! I had a wonderful time in Baltimore once.)

Mystery abounds, of course. The gothic writer famously died in Baltimore (a city whose very name is a perfect rhyme for his most famous word) at the age of 40, in highly mysterious circumstances. He was on his way to New York to collect his beloved mother-in-law, and then to go back to Virginia to marry his childhood sweetheart. Four days after arriving in Baltimore he was found collapsed semi-conscious in the gutter, in clothes not his own, including even a walking stick that was not his own. Taken to hospital there he died, never having regained full consciousness, but having suddenly cried out “Reynolds!” No one knows who he meant to this day. And no one is really sure what he died from. Alcohol, opium, and other causes including abduction* and even rabies, have been suggested, but no one knows. His death certificate and all other relevant papers have been lost.

There is even one theory that the Poe toaster is the ghost of Poe himself. Poe’s ghost is said to haunt the Old Western Burial Ground (now the Westminster Church grounds), where he was buried; there are reports of footsteps, voices, and people feeling the touch of unseen hands in various places connected with Poe. He is also said by locals to haunt the upstairs of the last pub he was seen to be drinking at, in Baltimore. They refer to the ghost as “Edgar.”)

If we’re talking about ghosts, though, maybe it’s the ghost of Reynolds, making amends.

But nobody will ever know. And now speculation is rife that the Poe Toaster will never come again.

Some links and sources:

Telegraph

Prairie Ghosts.com

Wikipedia

* in the form of the weird 19th-century phenomenon of “cooping” – like press gangs for elections

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