Monday, January 27, 2003

Mystery visitor returns to Poe's grave
Associated Press

BALTIMORE -- With his face hidden beneath a dark hood, a man crept into a bitterly cold downtown graveyard before dawn on Sunday and raised a solitary birthday toast to Edgar Allan Poe.

Continuing a 54-year tradition, the man, whose identity remains unknown, put his hand on Poe's tombstone, bowed, placed three red roses and a half-empty bottle of Martel cognac on the grave and then silently slipped back into the shadows.

A huge pale-white moon glowed over the city, yet the man still eluded dozens of people who waited in their cars or huddled together on the sidewalk outside the cemetery.

"To me, it's magic," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, who spent the night tucked inside a former Presbyterian church nearby with a small group of Poe enthusiasts he invited to watch the ritual. "It would be very easy to step out from our hiding place and expose him, but no one wants to ruin this mystery."

No one, not even Jerome, who has watched the cemetery every Jan. 19 since 1976, knows the identity of the so-called "Poe Toaster." The visit was first documented in 1949, a century after Poe's death. For decades, Jerome says, it was the same frail figure.

Then, in 1993, the original visitor left a cryptic note saying, "The torch will be passed." Another note left later told Jerome that the first man in black, who apparently died in 1998, had passed the tradition on to his sons -- Jerome thinks there are either two or three. Such notes are the only communication anyone has had with the visitor.

A combination of respect, the visitor's cunning and the chill of Baltimore on a January night have kept the curious from uncovering the secret.

"It's just this incredible rush of adrenaline when you see that he's made it again," said Anita Gruss, an athletic director at a high school in Centreville who has seen 12 toasts. "Even after all these years, it's a thrill."

Poe, who is best known for poems and horror stories such as The Raven and The Telltale Heart, died in Baltimore at the age of 40 after collapsing, delirious, in a tavern. The circumstances of his death remain unclear: some researchers have blamed a fever, while others point to the late stages of alcoholism or to rabies.

The visitor's three roses are thought to honour Poe, his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, and his wife Virginia, all of whom are buried in the graveyard. The significance of the cognac is a mystery.

"That he has kept this secret for over 50 years is just so fascinating to me," said Joe Sainclair, a high-school English teacher from Mountaintop, Pa., who was seeing the toast for the first time Sunday. "For a fan of Poe, for a fan of mystery, it just doesn't get any better than this."

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