BALTIMORE (AP) - From the tombstone of Edgar Allan Poe, one can reach the street by taking a narrow dirt path between two tall stone mausoleums and crouching for a few steps underneath a portion of Westminster Hall.
This was a favorite getaway route for the Poe Toaster, the mysterious man in black who for decades left three roses and an unfinished bottle of Martell cognac at Poe’s grave on the birthday of the father of macabre fiction.
The tradition ended four years ago, just as mysteriously, when the visitor failed to appear.
Ahead of Poe’s 204th birthday on Saturday, the person who has overseen an annual cemetery vigil since the 1970s talked in detail about the story behind it.
Baltimore native Jeff Jerome revealed a few things, but he claims not to know the answer to the biggest question of all: Just who is or was the Poe Toaster? Jerome himself has become such a prime suspect that he repeatedly denied it, without prompting, during an interview. If he were the toaster, for example, why would he have ended the tradition, given all the publicity it brought to the nearby Poe House and Museum? Jerome was the museum’s curator before it was closed by the city last fall.
“If I was doing it,” he said, “I probably would continue it.”
He’s also keeping coy about one vital bit of trivia: the signs the visitor made at the gravesite to identify himself as the one and only Poe Toaster.
“A year, two years, my death bed, I don’t know,” Jerome said. “One of these days I’ll reveal the signs.”
Whoever the toaster is or was, he apparently never set out to make a public spectacle of himself, performing his nighttime deed for decades at Westminster Burying Ground with hardly anyone noticing.
Poe, a literary critic, poet and author of fiction, died in 1849 in Baltimore at age 40 after collapsing in a tavern.
He was known for haunting poems such as “The Raven” and dread-inducing short stories like “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.”
When Jerome became a tour guide for Westminster Hall in 1976, he found a 1950 clipping that made a passing reference to roses and cognac left every year at Poe’s grave. Other members of the church backed up the story, and the caretaker who lived across the street claimed to take the cognac home and drink it every year.
On Jan. 19, 1977, Jerome said he was astonished to find the cognac and flowers at the grave.
The tradition was still alive.
The next year, he decided to wait in his car for a glimpse of the person, but he missed his chance when he had to leave for a few minutes to find a bathroom.