Thursday, January 19, 2012

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream... said Edgar Allan Poe, whose birthday is today. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

Many critics have noted that Poe's life was marked by the loss of women he loved, a theme that occurred repeatedly in his writing. Having suffered the loss of his mother, Poe was haunted by the idea of a young, sick, beautiful woman, especially when he was forced to witness the illness of his "little wife" (a nickname earned in part by Virginia's delicate stature and in part by her age: she was thirteen when they married while he was twenty-seven) - she died of tuberculosis about 12 years after they married (Poe died two years later). This obsession is reflected in his heroines: Ligeia, Berenice, Lenore, and Madeleine Usher.

Poe was a divisive character while he lived, and had as many enemies as friends, in part due to his volatile, high-strung temperament. Yet he also had his champions: his wife and mother-in-law both doted on him, and the French poet Baudelaire lovingly translated his work into French and proclaimed him one of the greatest poets who ever lived.

The cause of Poe's death remains a mystery, but the more macabre story is the one surrounding his burial.  Poe is buried on the grounds of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground, now part of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. He was originally buried without a headstone towards the rear corner of the churchyard near his grandfather, David Poe, Sr. A headstone of white Italian marble, paid for by Poe's cousin Neilson Poe, was destroyed before it reached the grave when a train derailed and plowed through the monument yard where it was being kept. Instead, it was marked with a sand-stone block that read "No. 80". In 1873, Southern poet Paul Hamilton Hayne visited Poe's grave and published a newspaper article describing its poor condition and suggesting a more appropriate monument. Sara Sigourney Rice, a teacher in Baltimore's public schools, took advantage of renewed interest in Poe's grave site and personally solicited for funds. She even had some of her elocution students give public performances to raise money. Many in Baltimore and throughout the United States contributed; the final $650 came from Philadelphia publisher and philanthropist George William Childs. The new monument was designed by architect George A. Frederick and built by Colonel Hugh Sisson, and included a medallion of Poe by artist Adalbert Volck. All three men were from Baltimore. The total cost of the monument, with the medallion, amounted to slightly more than $1,500.

Poe was reburied on October 1, 1875, at a new location close to the front of the church. A celebration was held at the dedication of the new tomb on November 17. His original burial spot was marked with a large stone donated by Orin C. Painter, though it was originally placed in the wrong spot. Attendees included Neilson Poe, who gave a speech and called his cousin "one of the best hearted men that ever lived", as well as Nathan C. Brooks, John Snodgrass, and John Hill Hewitt. Though several leading poets were invited to the ceremony, Walt Whitman was the only one to attend. Alfred Tennyson contributed a poem which was read at the ceremony:

Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.

Probably unknown to the reburial crew, the headstones on all the graves, previously facing to the east, had been turned to face the West Gate in 1864. The crew digging up Poe's remains had difficulty finding the right body: they first exhumed a 19-year old Maryland militiaman, Philip Mosher, Jr. When they correctly located Poe, they opened his coffin and one witness noted: "The skull was in excellent condition—the shape of the forehead, one of Poe's striking features, was easily discerned."

A few years later, the remains of Poe's wife, Virginia, were moved to this spot as well. In 1875, the cemetery in which she lay was destroyed, and she had no kin to claim her remains. William Gill, an early Poe biographer, gathered her bones and stored them in a box he hid under his bed. Virginia's remains were finally buried with her husband's on January 19, 1885, the 76th anniversary of her husband's birth and nearly 10 years after his present monument was erected. George W. Spence, the man who served as sexton during Poe's original burial as well as his exhumation and reburial, attended the rites that brought his body to rest with Virginia and Virginia's mother, Maria Clemm.

Adding to the mystery surrounding Poe's death, an unknown visitor affectionately referred to as the "Poe Toaster" paid homage to Poe's stone marking his original grave annually beginning in 1949. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would leave three roses and a partially-filled bottle of French cognac, then disappear into the night. As the tradition carried on for more than 60 years, it is likely that the "Poe Toaster" was actually several individuals, though the tribute was always the same. According to eyewitness reports, and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster visited the tomb from 1949 until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to "a son." Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity, and was rarely seen or photographed.
Members of the Edgar Allan Poe Society in Baltimore helped protect this tradition for decades.The Poe Toaster's last appearance was on January 19, 2009, the day of Poe's bicentennial. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster, nor did he appear in 2011 or 2012, triggering speculation that the 60-year tradition had ended and that the toaster had died.

There are a few ways you can mark this day for yourself, barring living near Baltimore and visiting his gravesite.

Tap at the door (bedroom door, office door, bathroom door) of a family member or coworker and keep tap, tap, tapping at the door. Wait if they tell you to come in until they actually have to get up to come answer it. When they do, stare at them for a minute, and then say, "Nevermore."

Too creepy?

You could find a place to perch and just say "Nevermore" to everyone who walks by.

Still not doing it for you?

Then curl up with a cup of hot tea and a warm throw, and read the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. A raging thunderstorm outside would really set the stage, but since we cannot control that, turn the lights down low or read by candlelight. Get out your Hallowe'en cds and have them playing in the background.

Enjoy the delightful shivers from the comfort of your own home.


  1. I love Edgar Allan Poe, maybe we'll celebrate his birthday by telling his stories... start the day with tap,tap,tapping on my kid's chamber doors and when they answer yell, NEVERMORE!!! : ) Thanks for the great info!


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