- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

BALTIMORE The mysterious annual ritual requires the stealth of a cat burglar, an iron will and the tacit complicity of an entire city.

In the middle of a January night, for the past 53 years, a man cloaked in black has crept into a freezing, deserted graveyard in a gritty section of downtown Baltimore and raised a birthday toast to Edgar Allan Poe.

Like a character from one of Poe's dark tales, the man then vanishes, leaving behind a half-empty bottle of cognac, three roses and an occasional note but not a clue as to who he is.

It's a quiet show of respect, as charming as it is mysterious.

Which might explain why no one has exposed the anonymous visitor yet. Unlike other picked-apart traditions, there's no live TV coverage, no exploding flash bulbs, no throngs of well-wishers holding banners as the man makes his lonely pilgrimage in the wee hours of Jan. 19.

"No one wants to ruin such a beautiful, graceful tradition," says Jeff Jerome, director of Baltimore's Poe House and Museum. "People realize that it is something unique and special. If we know who the guy is, the mystery is gone it's ruined. There are some secrets that should remain unknown."

Every year on Poe's birthday, which begins at midnight tonight this year, Mr. Jerome and a small group of Poe enthusiasts he has hand-picked spend the night tucked away inside nearby Westminster Hall, a former Presbyterian church, waiting for the visitor.

After the man's toast, which usually happens sometime between midnight and 6 a.m., the group hurries down to examine Poe's grave and discuss the visit: Was it Martel cognac again? Were the roses red? Was there a cryptic note? Was it even the same visitor as last year?

There are always more questions than answers.

No one, not even Mr. Jerome, who has watched the ritual 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, Mr. Jerome says, it was the same frail figure.

Then, in 1993, the original visitor left a cryptic note saying, "The torch will be passed." Yet another note left later at the scene told Mr. Jerome that the first man in black, who apparently died in 1998, had passed the tradition on to his sons Mr. 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.

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 visit tonight will remain as shrouded in mystery as when it began.

During an annual three-day celebration of Poe's birthday, about 800 people fill Westminster Hall to watch performances based on the author's stories and poems.

After the public event on the night of Jan. 18, the hall is cleared of everyone but the few guests whom Mr. Jerome has invited to see the visitor. From the dozens of letters he receives from Poe enthusiasts around the world, Mr. Jerome picks about 15 to watch the visit. Once the doors are closed, the lights are killed.

"It's a very old stone church, and it gets colder and colder as the night wears on," says Antoinette Smith Suiter, 78, a cousin of Poe's from Rocky Mount, N.C., who watched the toast last year. "It becomes fun, as your teeth chatter."

Guests sit in the dark until about 11 p.m., drinking coffee and hot chocolate and trading Poe stories. At 11, they take up positions at the hall's windows, silently waiting for the visitor to appear out of the shadows.

"By the time he sneaks in, you have worked yourself up into something of a mystery yourself," says Mrs. Suiter. "You feel like you're part of one of Edgar Allan Poe's mystery stories in that dark, gloomy old church."

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