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Mysterious Poe visitor nevermore?

posted 1/20/2011 4:15:19 PM |
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BALTIMORE-- Telltale hearts beat with anticipation during a rainy midnight dreary and beyond, hoping the mysterious visitor to Edgar Allan Poe's grave would return after a one-year absence.

Four impostors came and went early yesterday morning. The real one never showed.

About 5 a.m., the dozen Poe fans who were left began to wonder whether the eerie ritual is indeed nevermore, so they walked to Poe's tombstone and performed their own tribute by leaving roses and drinking a cognac toast.

A fascinating tradition that ran for about 60 years and has never been fully explained seems to have ended. An unknown person who left three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at Poe's grave on the anniversary of the writer's birth failed to show up - the second straight year he has disappointed those who stake out the downtown Westminster Hall and Burying Ground.

"I think we can safely say it's not car trouble, and he's not sick," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. "This doesn't look good."

Such an ending would befit the legacy of Poe, the American literary master of the macabre who was known for haunting poems such as The Raven and grisly short stories including The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. He is also credited with writing the first modern detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. He died in 1849 in Baltimore at age 40 after collapsing in a tavern.

Sometime in the 1940s, it seems, an anonymous man began the annual tribute at Poe's grave. It was first referenced in print in 1949 by The Evening Sun of Baltimore.

Those who have glimpsed the "Poe toaster" always saw him dressed in black, wearing a white scarf with a wide-brimmed hat.

Jerome has kept watch over the vigil since 1978, watching from inside the Presbyterian church while Poe fans peered through the locked gates of the cemetery.

After the no-show last year, Jerome was expecting Poe toaster wannabes imitating the real thing this year - and they showed up in brazen style.

One emerged from a white stretch limo shortly after midnight. Two others looked to be women. The fourth was an older man. All walked in clear sight of the Poe fans, contrary to the secretive nature of the real Poe toaster. All wore black hats and left roses and cognac, and two left notes; but none of the four gave the secret signal that only Jerome knows, and none of the four arranged the roses in the unique pattern established by the Poe toaster throughout the decades.

The "faux toasters" provided excitement for the Poe fans who braved rain and near-freezing temperatures through the night. One couple traveled from France, another from Chicago. Two friends came from New York. A mother from Cleveland took her 19-year-old son because it's on his bucket list. Raven See, who was named after the Poe poem, took time off from her studies at Elmira College in New York to make her sixth appearance at the vigil. Some sang Happy Birthday at midnight and read aloud from Poe's writings.

"There's so many conspiracy theories," See said. "Like it ended in '98 and now the church does it. Or maybe in '09 they wanted to end it because it was the bicentennial. It just adds to the mystery. The best part of it is meeting people."

In 1993, the visitor began leaving notes, starting with one that read: "The torch will be passed." A note in 1998 indicated that the originator of the tradition had died and passed it on to his two sons.

The sons didn't seem to take the duty as seriously as the father. One left a note in 2001 referencing the Super Bowl and another in 2004 implying criticism of France over its objections to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, upsetting many of the traditionalists.

When the Poe toaster didn't show last year, Jerome theorized that the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth in 2009 might have been considered the appropriate stopping point.

Or, it was thought at the time, perhaps the toaster just had a flat tire on the way to the cemetery.

But that's the sort of happenstance unlikely to occur two years in a row. Jerome says he'll return one more year. If the visitor fails to show in 2012, he'll consider the tradition ended.

Still, some sort of Poe tradition will seemingly continue each Jan. 19: Most who attended this year said they plan to return next year, and maybe beyond.

Cynthia Pelayo, who traveled from Chicago with her husband for the second straight year, handed out roses after the gates were opened shortly before 5a.m. Those flowers were presented - one by one - at Poe's grave.

Pelayo also left a note.

"Dear, Edgar," it said. "You are what all us macabre writers only hope to be. Thank you. 'Til next year.'"

Poe graveside article with pic

The Columbus Dispatch

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post a comment!


Jan 20 @ 4:31PM  
I saw that.

Jan 20 @ 6:41PM  
It's kind of sad that that has appeared to come to an end. I remember having a Literature class in high school and I liked Poe.

Jan 20 @ 7:19PM  
The mysterious visitor(s) have been known for decades. Is it one person or a secret society? I have also pondered as to whether it was a literature professor on one hand or kooky weirdo on the other, maybe both?

Jan 21 @ 12:46AM  
At least someone cared enough to continue the tradition for a while... hopefully if they have passed someone cares and visiting their grave.

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Mysterious Poe visitor nevermore?