Thursday, August 16, 2007

'Poe Toaster' a Hoax

It has been a poignant and touching annual tradition: late at night on 19 January (Edgar Alan Poe's birthday) for many years, a black-clothed figure laid three roses and a bottle of cognac on the writer's grave in a Baltimore cemetery. The story has captivated Poe fans for decades, but now the bubble may have burst.

The AP reveals that 92-year old Sam Porpora, former historian of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, says he concocted the story of the Poe Toaster in the late 1960s, when he told a reporter that the Toaster had begun leaving his yearly offering in 1949. "We did it, myself and my tour guides," says Porpora. "It was a promotional idea. We made it up, never dreaming it would go worldwide." He says since that time, someone actually has taken over the annual practice.

Hearing the news, Poe House curator Jeff Jerome, who has led annual vigils in the churchyard to await the arrival of the Toaster, "reacted like a man who's been punched in the stomach by his beloved grandfather. He's sad. He feels betrayed. But he's reluctant to punch back," according to the AP report. "[Porpora's] like a mentor to me. And I can tell you that if it weren't for him, Westminster Hall may not be there. But to say the toaster is a promotional hoax, well, all I can say is that's just not so."

But does Porpora's story even hold water (or cognac)? "He said he invented the stranger in an interview with a reporter in 1967, but the story to which he refers appeared in 1976. Shortly afterward, the vigils and the yearly chronicles of the stranger's visits began. During the same interview, Porpora said both that he made the story up and that one of his tour guides went through a pantomime of dressing up, sneaking into the cemetery and laying the tribute on the grave ... Jerome found a 1950 newspaper clipping from The [Baltimore] Evening Sun that mentions 'an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)' against the gravestone."

Jerome says he'll continue to keep the annual vigil, whether the Toaster appears or not. Jeffrey Savoye, of Baltimore's Poe Society, says "Even if Sam's story is true, so what? It's a tradition. It's a nice tradition, whether it dates back to 1949 or the '70s."

I suppose - but these revelations do cause it to lose a little of its allure.