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)Read More
It. Was. Murder!
That’s what this sign reads, and it’s the battle cry of the Guglmänner, a secret society in Bavaria. It is trying to prove King Ludwig II was murdered in 1886 and thinks America might hold the clues it needs.
Who are the Guglmänner?
Guglmänner translates to hooded men, but they should in no way be confused with the white-hooded men in America. The German group traces its history back to a medieval knighthood with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. That’s how mourning knights dressed following Kaiser Barbarossa’s death in 1190, the Guglmänner website explains. And during the time of the plague, the black-hooded knights became symbols of death and exhortation to the living; they were the ones that carried the victims to their graves. Guglmänner traditionally participate in the funerals of Bavarian monarchs by marching 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 are still organized according to a 1037 law, Constitutio de feudis, regulating the knighthood. And their main focus has shifted to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a royal death.
A Controversal Death
Bavaria’s best known king, Ludwig II – patron of Richard Wagner and builder of Bavaria’s fairytale castles – couldn’t have picked a more controversial way to die. You could call it Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery.
Bavarian ministers deposed Ludwig in 1886. They alleged his insanity, but the real reason may have had more to do the king’s overspending. They transferred Ludwig to the castle Berg on Lake Starnberg for psychiatric supervision and evaluation. The following day, on June 13, 1886, Ludwig and his psychiatrist took a walk along the lakeshore but never returned. Searchers found them dead several hours later, floating in shallow water near the shore. A previous blog post covers the death in more detail.
Authorities ruled Ludwig’s death suicide by drowning, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree. Years later, witnesses said a gag order prevented them from talking. Everyone who helped recover the bodies was forced to swear on a crucifix and Bible never to say anything about that night, not even on his deathbed. One witness said Ludwig was shot while trying to escape to a boat.
Might there be Overlooked Evidence in America?
Some of those witnesses immigrated to America after Ludwig’s death. It’s possible that one of them left information behind because witnesses who moved to America might have not longer felt constrained by a Bavarian gag order. On their website, the Guglmänner request that anybody with an ancestor bearing one of the following last names check to see whether a forefather might have been a witness to the occurrences the night of June 13, 1886 on Lake Starnberg. If so, they would like to hear from you. You can contact the Guglmänner by emailing info@guglmänner.de.
Grashey, Gudden, Gumbiller, Hack, Hartinger, v. Holnstein, Huber, Klier, Lauterbach, Lechl, Lidl, Liebmann, Mauder, Mayr, Müller, Rasch, Schneller, Schuster, Ritter, Rottenhöfer, v. Washington, Wimmer, Zanders.
This avenue of research ought to be pursued, because I don’t think it’s been tried before. Since the Guglmänner website is in German, it’s worth bringing their request to the English-speaking world. Who knows? Perhaps someone has some interesting history boxed away in their attic.
Ludwig II once expressed his hope that his life would be an “eternal enigma.” His death has certainly become one. An international enigma.
Do you it still might be possible to resolve the controversy surrounding Ludwig’s death after all these years?
Literature on point:
Die Guglmänner SM. König Ludwig II. (Guglmänner website)
Die Guglmänner, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung Sept. 28, 2010