The Visitor keeps date with Poe

Ritual: A stranger emerges from the early-morning shadows, moves to a grave and leaves gifts for a long-dead writer. Visitor keeps date at Poe's grave

January 19, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Thy soul shall find itself alone --

Alone of all on earth -- unknown

The Cause -- but none are near to pry

Into thine hour of secrecy.

-- Edgar Allan Poe, "Spirits of the Dead," 1827

Cold the night, sacred the mission. Early this morning, it is universally assumed, The Visitor again eased into Westminster Hall at Fayette and Greene streets. At the towering monument bearing the name Edgar Allan Poe (and his young wife and mother-in-law), The Visitor left the tell-tale gifts: three roses (red, typically) and a half-empty bottle of cognac.

Maybe this cloaked man touched the monument with his hand. Maybe this mystery man looked up into the first-floor window of the dark, mousy-quiet church and tipped his black hat. For inside, Jeff Jerome -- curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum -- sat prying into the hour of the Visitor's privacy.

Jerome spent last night in the church with a few "independent witnesses" -- including a schoolteacher from Norfolk and a Poe follower from Nashville who happens to share the poet's birthday -- today.

Poe started life 190 years ago today; The Visitor started his graveside ritual 50 years ago. Jerome started keeping watch 22 years ago.

"I can't bow out of this because there is a responsibility here," Jerome says. "We witness the event. We don't try to catch the guy."

Jerome and his witnesses make sure no one bothers the Visitor, because he is Baltimore's dark lone ranger. Who among us would unmask him? Who among us might feel inspired to stake out these burial grounds, pounce on the fellow, and reveal him? We got you!

No one, in 50 years and counting, has violated a gentleman's agreement between the Visitor and Baltimore. He comes, weather be damned, every Jan. 19. His secret has been safe with us.

"It's innocent, it's touching and it's genuine," says Jerome, a Poe romantic. "Perhaps this person suffered in a way Poe did ... there are people out there who make pilgrimages here to pay homage."

Even mysteries parole a few facts. Four years ago, the Visitor left a note at the church for Jerome's eager eyes: "The torch will be passed. Some traditions must end and others take their place." Did this mean the gig was up? Jerome wondered and worried. He had thought about the day when the ritual might die -- what would he do then? Probably some sort of public ceremony.

But the next year, a younger man appeared after midnight and left the roses and cognac. "The speculation," Jerome says, "is that Dad had gotten too old to be coming down to the cemetery." So, his son took his place.

No one knows for sure. This is the point. This is why Jerome fields dozens of calls each year from the world's press, all asking one simple question: Did he show? We need to know this every year. And each year, Jerome confirms the appearance, reports the time of the visit, describes the visitor's clothing, and offers play-by-play of the late-night movements inside the burial grounds.

As part of his ritual, the first contact Jerome makes to report the visit each year is the Associated Press in Baltimore.

"I have a special affection for the story ever since I sat up with Jeff," says AP news editor Laura Rehrmann. It was Jan. 19, 1994, in the middle of a nasty ice storm, when reporter Rehrmann experienced her Baltimore baptism.

"We sat there in the dark of the church. It's a little spooky, very quiet, no chit-chat. We had our noses pressed against the icy windows peering into the darkness, looking for anything that moved," she says.

At 3: 15 a.m., as noted in the ensuing AP story, "a shadowy figure in a dark coat and Fedora carefully picked his way across the glaze, placed his hand a moment on the headstone, and was gone." And Laura Rehrmann was there, in the dark, with Jeff Jerome, prying into the Visitor's hour of privacy. Yet, there was no effort, no desire, to expose the secret.

"It made me feel part of the city," she says. "Everyone should do it once."

Then, as quietly and quickly, the story slips away by Jan. 20 -- gone for another winter, another night watch, another confirmation: Yes. He showed up.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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