Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore”
By Mike Marino
Long before Stephen King unleashed Cujo to take a bite out of an unsuspecting literary audience, and well before Alfred Hitchcock’s flock of killer seagulls terrorized the silver screen, Edgar Allan Poe took us on a journey through a literary labyrinth of terror, murder and horror. His writings blazed a psychotic path that led to a “pit with a pendulum” that made our “telltale hearts” race with fright and fear. And we owe it all to a talking raven who uttered the infamous lines, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” and “quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore!’”
Poe, the master of the macabre, was born in Boston in 1809, the son of stage actors who died when Poe was quite young. He was raised as a foster child in Richmond, where later he enrolled at the university. Academia was short lived, however, as his gambling addiction and mounting debts forced him to drop out and once again, he headed back to Boston in 1827 where his first collection of poems were published, but not to critical acclaim.
Dejected and broke, he left Boston and moved in with his aunt, Maria Clemm, in Baltimore. At this point his fortunes began to change and he began to sell short stories to magazines and small publishing houses. Then love came calling and in 1836, he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, which was not an unusual practice in those days. She would die 11 years later from tuberculosis, but it was that same 11-year period in which Poe was most prolific, churning out macabre masterpieces such as The Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue and so many others that today are considered, and rightfully so, true classics of horror and American literature.
Poe was a tormented artist with personal demons that included debilitating depression and alcoholism that affected his writing and his career. He was found delirious on the streets in Baltimore in 1849 raving and incoherent, dying four days later of what doctors called “acute congestion of the brain.” Later forensics performed on Poe’s remains created the speculation that he may have suffered and died of rabies, although nothing conclusive has been determined, only adding to the morbid mystery of his life and death.
Our tale does not end in 1849. It continues today in Baltimore at Poe’s final resting place, where every January on the anniversary of his birth, usually on a dark night and “a midnight dreary” a mystery that began a half century ago continues. It’s a tale right out of the pages of Poe himself. For the past 60 or 70 years on, Jan. 19, a mysterious stranger, referred to as the Poe Toaster, appears at the grave, leaving a bottle of cognac and three roses. Shrouded in as much mystery as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and crop circles, no one knows the name of this “ghostly” visitor or how the tradition got started. One thing that stands out, however, is the fact that over the years, it has probably been different people who have kept the Toaster tradition very much alive. If that is the case, then Poe himself would certainly approve. It’s classic Poe at its very post mortem best.
To make the Poe pilgrimage to his final resting place in Baltimore, you’ll have to go to the small church graveyard, now called Westminster Hall, located at the corner of Fayette and Greene streets. It’s located near the front corner of the cemetery and a large monument marks the spot. If you listen closely you may even imagine you can hear his telltale heart beating from the great beyond.
If you tour the home at 203 Amity St. (www.eapoe.org/balt/poehse.htm), you’ll see a number of pieces on exhibit including his telescope, sextant and a traveling desk or what they called a “lap desk” in those days, the 19th century version of today’s laptops. There is also a portrait of his wife Virginia on display along with a set of 1884 illustrations done for Poe’s The Raven. There are interactive displays and videos documenting his life and death. Among the more offbeat articles on display, there are several bottles of cognac left over the course of the years at his grave by the mysterious Poe Toaster.
Edgar Allan Poe continues to fascinate us — his life, his mysterious death and the literary genius of his dark writings. His works will live forever in the hearts of horror fans everywhere as his legacy survives his life and has found new life in the strange happenings in the Baltimore graveyard. So bring a bottle of cognac and feel free to drink a toast to the Poe Toaster and the quotable Raven. Poe would be proud of the legacy he has left behind.
Mike, a freelance writer, journalist and author of four books on pop culture, can be reached at [email protected]
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