Poe fans call an end to ‘Toaster’ tradition

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BALTIMORE (AP) — Edgar Allan Poe fans waited long past a midnight dreary, but it appears annual visits to the writer’s grave in Baltimore by a mysterious figure called the “Poe Toaster” will occur nevermore.

Poe House and Museum Curator Jeff Jerome said early Thursday that die-hard fans waited hours past the time the tribute bearer normally arrives. But the “Poe Toaster” was a no-show for a third year in a row, leaving another unanswered question in a mystery worthy of the writer’s legacy. Poe fans had said they would hold one last vigil this year before calling an end to the tradition.

“It’s over with,” Mr. Jerome said wearily. “It will probably hit me later, but I’m too tired now to feel anything else.”

It is thought the tributes — by an anonymous man who wears black clothes, a white scarf and a wide-brimmed hat and leaves three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at Poe’s original grave on the writer’s birthday — date to at least the 1940s. Late Wednesday, a crowd gathered outside the gates of the burial ground surrounding Westminster Hall to watch for the mysterious visitor, yet only three impersonators appeared, Mr. Jerome said.

The gothic master’s tales of the macabre still connect with readers more than 200 years after his birth, including his most famous poem, “The Raven,” and short stories such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered the first modern detective story.

Mr. Jerome, who first was exposed to Poe through Vincent Price’s movies, believes people still identify with Poe’s suffering and his lifelong dream to be a poet. He has kept a vigil for the “Poe Toaster” each year since 1978 and built up a team of other dedicated Poe fans who stay awake all night to scan the shadows of the burial ground for the visitor.

“I’ve been part of a ritual that people around the world read about,” he said. “I’ll miss it.”

One Poe tradition may have ended, but Mr. Jerome said a reading of tributes by Poe fans at the gravesite planned for Thursday night may develop into a new ritual to mark the writer’s birthday.

Mr. Jerome said that wherever he travels, he’s asked whether the “Poe Toaster” is real. He believes the mystery of the “Poe Toaster” tradition will remain in the public consciousness despite the end of the visits.

That mystery is what has kept Jessica Marxen, 33, a programmer from Randallstown, Md., coming back to watch for the “Poe Toaster” for years. She and her sister Jeannette, 31, an administrative assistant, got involved after Mr. Jerome visited their high school and recruited them as volunteers at the Poe House. Though she has watched for the “Poe Toaster” for years, Jessica Marxen said she wouldn’t want to know who he is.

“There are so few mysteries,” she said. “It’s a throwback to a more romantic time when people could have secrets.”

Poe, who was born in Boston, lived in Baltimore, London, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond. During a visit to Baltimore in 1849, he died under mysterious circumstances at age 40. The cause of his death has been the subject of much speculation over the years, with theories ranging from murder to rabies.

Poe was buried in his grandfather’s lot in Westminster Burial Ground, in what is now downtown Baltimore. In 1875, his body and that of his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, were moved to a prominent spot by the entrance with a memorial marker. The body of his young wife and cousin, Virginia, was exhumed and reburied with him 10 years later.

Baltimore recently cut funding for the museum at the rowhouse where Poe lived with relatives from 1832 to 1835, before he found fame as a writer. It must close if it does not become self-sustaining by June.

The annual graveside tribute first was mentioned in print in 1950 as an aside in an article that appeared in the Evening Sun of Baltimore about an effort to restore the cemetery, Mr. Jerome said. When Mr. Jerome spoke to older members of the congregation that once worshiped at the church, they recalled hearing about a visitor in the 1930s.

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