The Death of Edgar Allan Poe and the Mysterious “Poe Toaster”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

The “Poe Toaster” is not a kitchen appliance. More on that in a bit.

The circumstances of Edgar Allan Poe’s death on October 7, 1849 are as dark and mysterious as his writings.

During the summer of 1849, Poe (40 years old) was on a lecture tour. While in Richmond, he reunited with an old flame, Elmira Royster Shelton. He was a widower, and Elmira was a widow. The relationship was rekindled and they quickly proposed to be married. Poe made plans to return to his home in New York, gather up his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, who lived in his household, and arrange to bring her to Richmond. By September 26, 1849, he was ready to depart.

Elmira, his betrothed, wrote Maria Clemm shortly after Poe’s death and claimed the day before he departed, he was quite unwell. “He was very sad, and complained of being quite sick; I felt his pulse, and found he had considerable fever, and did not think it probable that he would be able to start the next morning, (Thursday) as he anticipated—I felt so wretched about him all of that night, that I went up early the next morning to enquire after him, when, much to my regret, he had left in the boat for Baltimore.”[1]

This description is somewhat in contrast to accounts of friends in Richmond who saw Poe just hours before his departure and said that he was cheerful and in good health. After taking his leave of Elmira, Poe met friends at Sadler’s Restaurant where he lingered into the wee hours. He boarded a steamer for Richmond early in the morning of September 27.

Poe’s whereabouts between September 27 and October 3 (when he was discovered in desperate condition) are unclear and debated. It had been his intention, as documented in a letter to Maria Clemm, to stop in Philadelphia on his way to New York. A friend and publishing partner, Thomas Lane, later asserted that Poe appeared in Philadelphia in poor health and was taken home by another friend James P. Moss. He was ill, stayed the night at Moss’s, then left to go on to New York, although Moss protested and tried to get him to stay due to his poor condition. Poe would have none of it and left, supposedly taking the wrong train and heading back to Baltimore rather than New York. It seems Lane was not an immediate witness to any of this and so his account has been called into question. [2]

In Baltimore, on the afternoon of October 3, 1849, a young printer named Joseph W. Walker found Edgar Allan Poe at Ryan’s Tavern. Later tales claim that Poe was found in the gutter or on the street outside the tavern, but exactly where he was found in or about the tavern is not clear. The tavern also happened to be the polling place for Baltimore’s 4th Ward. Baltimore was having a local election that very day and the tavern was particularly busy.

Poe was semi-conscious and barely coherent. Walker asked him if he had any friends in Baltimore. Apparently Poe was sufficiently aware of his surroundings to offer up the name of Dr. Joseph Snodgrass who lived very nearby. Walker quickly wrote Snodgrass: “Dear Sir, — There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance, Yours, in haste, Jos. W. Walker.”

Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass (1813-1880), a friend of Poe’s, was a physician, writer and temperance activist. His temperance leanings, and his suspicion that Poe was intoxicated, led him to later write scathingly of Poe, claiming that he drank himself to death. Snodgrass arrived on the scene promptly and then summoned another friend, Henry Herring (1791-1868), Poe’s uncle by marriage.

Snodgrass later wrote of Poe’s appearance and condition. Perhaps the most bizarre element of his account is the fact that Poe was wearing someone else’s clothes. Poe was normally quite meticulous about his appearance. How on earth he ended up wearing cheap, threadbare clothing is utterly unknown.

Snodgrass wrote, “His face was haggard…his hair unkempt, and his whole physique repulsive…His clothing…worn and badly-fitting, if they could be said to fit at all…The carriage having arrived, we tried to get the object of our care upon his feet…But he was past locomotion. We therefore carried him to the coach as if he were a corpse, and lifted him in the same manner.”[3]

The two men took Poe to Washington Medical College where he was placed in the care of Dr. John Joseph Moran (c. 1820-1888). Moran did not know Poe but happened to be an admirer of his writing. Poe was committed to a cell in the hospital usually reserved for the intoxicated.

There are many theories as to the reason for Poe’s condition. They include intoxication, dementia, brain tumor, rabies, cholera, syphilis, influenza, murder and…perhaps most extraordinary…”cooping.” The latter was an election fraud practice whereby thugs would kidnap, beat and drug individuals and keep them in a “coop” only to release them to vote multiple times. This theory, while implausible, would explain why Poe was wearing someone else’s clothes…to disguise him at the polls. Regardless, no single theory has been proven. What landed Poe in the hospital will likely forever remain unknown.

Over the next few days, Moran apparently did the best he could to make the delirious Poe comfortable. It is a bit strange, I think, that he isolated Poe and made no efforts to contact his family or friends. A cousin who lived in Baltimore, Neilson Poe, who evidently heard about all this from Henry Herring, tried to visit Edgar. He wrote, “As soon as I heard he was at the college, I went over, but his physicians did not think it advisable that I see him, as he was very excitable.”[4]

The only source we have on Poe’s last days is Moran. The doctor later spoke publicly on a number of occasions about Poe’s death and seems to have embellished the story each time he told it. One anecdote that has tied some historians in knots is Moran’s claim that Poe repeatedly cried out the name “Reynolds.” Efforts have been made to determine who this Reynolds was and why he was important. But as it turns out, Moran may have simply been mistaken about what Poe was saying.

On October 7, at about 3 a.m., Poe quieted and seemed to rest. Then, Moran claimed, at about 5 a.m. he uttered, “God rest my poor soul,” and faded away.

October 8, 1849, the day of Poe’s funeral and burial at the Westminster Church Burying Ground in Baltimore, was described by the church sexton as “a dark and gloomy day, not raining but just kind of raw and threatening.”[5] Poe was buried in the plot of his grandfather, David Poe. Less than 10 people attended. The perfunctory service lasted only minutes. His grave was unmarked. Neilson Poe arranged for a marble marker, but it was destroyed when a train derailed and completely demolished the monument yard where it was being carved.[6] As if there were not enough strange twists to the story.

Hardly 20 years later, many in Baltimore began to lament the state of Poe’s unmarked grave. Sarah Sigourney Rice, a Baltimore schoolteacher, took up the cause and led the fundraising to create a fitting monument for Poe and to have his remains moved to a prominent spot at the front of the burying ground. This was accomplished in 1875 and the dedication was attended by a throng including Walt Whitman. A poem written for the occasion by Tennyson was read.

Poe was, in a way, reunited with his wife ten years later in 1885. Her remains had been disinterred when the Fordham Church Cemetery in New York was destroyed. Some more creepiness…an early Poe biographer named William Gill arrived on the scene just in time to rescue Virginia Clemm Poe’s remains and kept them in a box in his house. For ten years. He eventually made the arrangements to have them interred with Edgar Allan Poe’s in 1885.[7]

The Poe Toaster, 1990

The Poe Toaster, caught on camera

Now, what of the “Poe Toaster?” On January 19, 1949, (Poe’s birthday and the centennial year of his death) a unknown person left a bottle of cognac and three roses at the site of Poe’s grave in the middle of the night. The significance of the cognac is a mystery…Poe never mentioned the beverage in his writing. The tradition continued for 60 years. By the late 20th century, crowds gathered annually, holding vigil in the dark, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Poe Toaster in his fedora, a scarf covering his face, and carrying his silver tipped walking stick. Officials at the Westminster Church kept the burying ground locked so that the crowds could not interfere with the mysterious individual, and yet the Poe Toaster still somehow was allowed private access to continue his tradition.

In 1999, a note was left by the “Poe Toaster” that the torch had been passed. Presumably, the original Toaster had died and the tradition had been taken up by one or more sons. Whoever took up the mantel apparently did not have the same passion for it. The final appearance of the Poe Toaster took place on January 19, 2009 on the bicentennial of Poe’s birth.

[1] Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, (2011), p. 636
[2] Quinn, p. 637.
[3] George E. Woodberry, Life of Edgar Allan Poe, (1965), p. 333
[4] Woodberry, p. 346.
[5] “Poe’s Burial and Grave,” New York Times, February 26, 1893.
[6] “Poe’s Memorial Grave,” Edgar Allan Poe Society.
[7] Michael Kammen, Digging Up the Dead, (2010), p. 138.

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

5 responses to “The Death of Edgar Allan Poe and the Mysterious “Poe Toaster”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: