Mystery of the Poe Toaster
A man wearing a black coat, wide-brimmed hat, and scarf around his face stepped out of Baltimore’s midnight shadows. He passed into Westminster Cemetery, approached Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and set three red roses and a half-full bottle of cognac at the base, only to vanish into the shadows again. A Baltimore newspaper carried an article about the gifts at the grave, but no one knew who the man was.
That is how the tradition of the Poe Toaster started. Every year since 1949, the mysterious mourner appeared in the post-midnight hours of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday on January 19 to leave his tribute of cognac and roses. In the 1990s, he left a note to say he would pass the torch, and the following year, a younger man appeared. In 2010, the Poe Toaster stopped coming. There have been imitators, but the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum had worked out a signal with the real Poe Toaster, a signal that never came. By 2012, the curator declared the tradition dead.
But the riddle of the Poe Toaster’s identity remains. Some say it was a father and son team. Others suspected an author who died in 2010. One Poe historian claimed to be the toaster, but the curator found information contradicting his claim.
As far as I know, no one in America has looked to Bavaria for an answer, even though it has sounded a couple of hints as resonant as echoing alphorns. One group, the Guglmänner (hooded men), well known in Bavaria but less so in the United States, posted interesting comments on its Facebook page. One is in German and the other in English, but they are slightly different.
The title of the German post asks if the Poe Toaster was a Guglmann. The post mentions King Ludwig’s admiration for Poe and points out two similarities: Both the Guglmänner and the Poe Toaster pay respects to the dead dressed in black. If the Poe Toaster wasn’t a Guglmann himself, the English post suggests, it might have been a Guglmann imitator.
Are the Guglmänner trying to give the Americans a hint?
Who are the Guglmänner?
And why would they care about the Poe Toaster? The answer lies in the group’s history and devotion to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the builder of fairytale castles and patron of Richard Wagner. It traces its history back to a medieval knighthood tasked with carrying Plague victims to their graves and with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. Guglmänner have participated in funerals of Bavarian monarchs since 1190. They march in front of the casket carrying two crossed torches and shields with the royal coat of arms. Their motto is: Media in vita in morte sumus. “In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.”
Today the Guglmänner have shifted their focus to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a King Ludwig’s death, which they believe was murder. They collect evidence about his death, fight for further investigation, and gather, shrouded in black, at his grave and the site of his death, to pay their respects. You can read more about Ludwig’s death here.
King Ludwig was a devoted admirer of Edgar Allan Poe. That hasn’t escaped the Bavarians’ notice. And it could be the key to the Poe Toaster’s motivation.
I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour….
Edgar Allan Poe and King Ludwig II
American author Lew Vanderpoole had an audience with King Ludwig around 1878, in which Ludwig spoke at length about Poe. “To me he was the greatest man ever born,” Vanderpoole reported the king saying. “You will better understand my enthusiasm when I tell you that I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour, if in that hour he would unbosom to me those rare and exquisite thoughts and feelings which so manifestly were the major part of his life.”
King Ludwig went on to explain there was “a distinct parallel between Poe’s nature and mine.” A large part of that had to do with their sensitivity and inability to fit in with society.
The Bavarian author Alfons Schweiggert published a book about Poe and King Ludwig in 2008, exploring how Ludwig might have found a kindred spirit in Edgar Allan Poe. Schweiggert lists a surprising number of similarities between the two men.
- Both were devoted to the arts
- Both lost their fathers at the age of 18, one to death and the other to rejection
- Both were accused of being mad
- Both are symbolized by birds; King Ludwig by the swan and Poe by the raven
- Both died mysterious, unexplained deaths
- Both died at age 40
King Ludwig’s reverence for Edgar Allan Poe has pulled Poe into the circle of Ludwig admiration. The Guglmänner have members in the USA. Is it possible that an American member, living too far away from Bavaria to participate in the group’s usual ceremony focused on King Ludwig, decided to focus on the American object of Ludwig’s admiration instead? Or that a King Ludwig fan in America decided to imitate the Guglmänner?
Perhaps the Americans who have puzzled over the Poe Toaster’s identity should take a harder look at Bavaria. In the meantime, the Toaster remains a mystery. And that’s something Edgar Allan Poe would have loved.
What do you think might have motivated the Poe Toaster?
Literature on point:
Alfons Schweigert, Edgar Allan Poe und König Ludwig II: Anatomie einer Geistesfreundschaft (St. Ottilien, Germany: EOS Verlag, 2008)
Lew Vanderpoole, “King Ludwig of Bavaria: A Personal Reminiscence,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1886) 38:536.
William Wan, “Never More Doubt,” Washington Post (August 18, 2007)
Rosemarie Frühauf, “Im Geheimdienst Seiner Majestät: 125. Todestag König Ludwigs II.,” Epoch Times (21 May 2011)