Monday, January 19, 2004

BALTIMORE — This year it was nearly “nevermore” for French cognac in an annual tribute at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.

For 55 years, in the middle of the night, a man has slunk into the small cemetery where Poe is buried to leave a tribute of French cognac and three roses at his grave.

This year, however, the French cognac was left reluctantly to mark the writer’s birthday. And the mysterious visitor made a point of saying so in a note placed at the grave.

“The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac,” the note read. “With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is place [sic]. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!”

Nothing more was written in the note, and it was not clear what the sudden aversion to French cognac would be to the mysterious visitor. But it appeared to be a reference to French opposition to the war in Iraq.

The note was left wrapped up with three red roses tied in green paper and a half-filled bottle of Martell cognac in red wrapping.

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, who has watched the cemetery every Jan. 19 since 1976, said he was nervous about making the note public because of its political tone. But he eventually showed it to a reporter.

“I’m the person that picks the items up,” Mr. Jerome said. “Is it up to me to interpret these and be the judge of what shouldn’t be released? … If I do that, then I’m setting myself as a censor.”

The black-hooded man entered a church gate just before 3 a.m. yesterday . He climbed a fence and landed on a flat tombstone. He walked carefully on the icy cemetery grounds before reaching Poe’s original grave. He put his left arm on the tombstone and paused before placing the cognac and roses at the grave. Then he slipped into the shadows, avoiding onlookers on the street.

It all took less than 10 minutes.

For about a dozen people who waited for hours inside a dark, former Presbyterian church for the mysterious visitor, the anticipation leading up to the performance of the tradition was thrilling.

“It’s kind of like Christmas morning,” said Bethany Diner of Baltimore. “You know it shows up, but the anticipation and the buildup and how it’s going to happen is 10 times more fun.”

Nobody knows the identity of the “Poe Toaster.” The visit was first documented in 1949, almost a century and a half after Poe’s death in 1809. For decades, it was the same frail figure.

But in 1993, the original visitor left a cryptic note stating, “The torch will be passed.” Another note left later told Mr. Jerome that the first man, 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.

In 2001, the Poe Toaster enraged Baltimore Ravens football fans by leaving a note that borrowed from Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” The note read: “The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all.”

Red and blue are the Giants’ colors, and “the Big Blue” is a team nickname. The Ravens, who take their name from Poe’s most famous poem, were to meet the Giants later that January in the Super Bowl. The Baltimore team ended up winning the game.

Poe is best-known for poems such as “The Raven” and horror stories “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

He died in Baltimore at 40 after collapsing, delirious, in a tavern. The circumstances of his death are not clear. Some researchers have blamed a fever, while others point to the late stages of alcoholism or to rabies.

Poe was raised in Richmond and attended the University of Virginia. But Baltimore, where he lived for several years during the 1830s, has adopted him as one of its own.

The visitor’s three roses are thought to honor Poe; his mother-in-law, Maria Lemma; and his wife, Virginia, all of whom are buried in the graveyard.

The significance of the cognac is a mystery.

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