- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 19, 2011

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.

But once again, the unknown person who for decades has left three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at Poe’s grave on the anniversary of the writer’s birth failed to appear Wednesday, fueling speculation that he may have died.

Four impostors came and went overnight. The real one never showed. Around 5 a.m., the dozen Poe fans who were left began to wonder if 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 some 60 years and was never fully explained appears to have ended at 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.”

It would be an ending befitting of 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. Mr. 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 last year’s no-show, Mr. Jerome this year was expecting Poe toaster wannabes imitating the real thing, and they showed up in brazen style. One emerged from a white stretch limo shortly after midnight. Two others appeared 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 Mr. Jerome knows, and none of the four arranged the roses in the unique pattern established by the Poe toaster over 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 brought 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,” Miss 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.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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