Teacher takes firsthand report on Poe grave ritual back to school


January 21, 2000|By Peg Adamarczyk | Peg Adamarczyk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAROL MAID, reading resource teacher at George Fox Middle School, was among the witnesses early Wednesday to an eerie annual graveside ritual marking the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe.

She served as one of the observers who watch for the Poe Toaster -- the mysterious visitor who stops by the grave near the western edge of downtown Baltimore every Jan. 19, leaving a half-bottle of cognac and three roses.

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, has been overseeing the ritual since 1977 while trying to protect the privacy of the mystery visitor. He chooses the witnesses based on applications giving their qualifications and interest in being a part of the event.

This year, Maid made the grade -- and it was an experience she will never forget.

She arrived at Westminster Hall -- formerly Westminster Presbyterian Church -- in Baltimore about 10: 30 Tuesday night and joined the select group for a tour of the church, its unusual catacombs, and the graveyard where Poe is said to rest alongside his young bride and mother-in-law.

An eerie omen to the evening was seeing two black cats roaming the churchyard. "It added ambience to a dramatic evening," Maid said.

After the grand tour, she took up one of several surveillance posts inside Westminster Hall, watching a back entrance to the area through a clouded, tiny window.

"We were told that since there was a fair amount of construction going on around the area, that this would probably be the logical place where the so-called Poe Toaster would enter," she said.

Her shift at the back entrance ended without incident. Then it was on to a post at the front windows of the hall, watching for anything out of the ordinary. Cars circling the block or anyone on foot were prime suspects in the drama.

About 1 a.m., one of the observers noted an interesting-looking man approaching Westminster Hall from across the street. He wore a cream-colored coat and dark fedora, and carried what looked like an artist's portfolio case. And he shuffled when he walked -- a mannerism noted by past witnesses to the event.

But the unknown walker headed away from the area, toward a parking garage, and disappeared. Disappointed but not disheartened, the group continued to wait.

About 40 minutes later, the cream-coated stranger reappeared from the garage and walked toward the former church. As he approached, he stopped and looked over the building for a few seconds -- the air of anticipation inside the hall growing.

But then he turned and continued on his walk -- the wrong man.

A few seconds later, a cry went out: "We've got him!"

The Poe Toaster was observed coming in the back alley entrance. "He wore a short, brown coat and a black, I think, stocking cap," Maid said. "He also had on dark pants and no gloves."

He was walking rapidly, but with a limp, she remembers. "We never saw his face."

The group believed that the other man they had so intently watched across the street was a decoy. "Jeff thought that he was a red herring," Maid said.

The Toaster's rite took little more than a minute.

"I saw him put the top on the cognac bottle. I think that's what he did; his back was turned towards me so I never saw him make a toast," she said.

After placing the three roses and cognac bottle on Poe's grave, the Toaster turned toward the church and proceeded through the catacombs under the building, climbed onto a tabletop grave and scaled the fence to depart.

"He had his hands over his face so we could not see him when he turned towards us; then he was gone in a flash."

Maid adds, "I had a great time; it was such a wonderful experience being selected to be with a great crew of Poe fans and to be a part of this exciting tribute to him."

What's more, she returned to the pupils at George Fox Middle School with her own version of "Once upon a midnight dreary."

Springing ahead

The first snowfall of the new year notwithstanding, some of the first signs of a coming spring -- sports sign-ups -- are on the calendar.

The Greater Riviera Recreation Council (GRRC) annual spring sports sign-ups are scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. tomorrow, Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 at Sunset Elementary School, 8572 Fort Smallwood Road.

For busy parents, it's one-stop shopping, with seven area sports groups participating -- a sport for just about everyone, from preschooler through adult.

GRRC member groups participating in the sign-ups are: Riviera Little League & Girls Softball League; Pasadena Clinic League; Havenwood Little League; Havenwood Girls Softball; St. Jane's Soccer; and Buccaneers Boys and Girls Lacrosse.

Costs, and practice and game schedules, vary from group to group. Most offer family discounts.

One constant among the groups is that new players must provide a birth certificate photocopy for their records.

Information: Ed Vinson, 410-255-3293.

Eating for education

Have a great meal, and help some of Pasadena's best and brightest on their higher education quest, by attending the Pasadena Business Association's annual scholarship bull and oyster roast from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. March 4 at Kurtz's Beach.

Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. All proceeds benefit the PBA scholarship fund for annual awards to seniors at Chesapeake and Northeast high schools.

Information: Berry Griebel, 510-590-7755; Lois Simpson, 410-360-5900; or Debbie Romano, 410-761-1444.

No mere plastic

The auxiliary of Lake Shore Volunteer Fire Company is sponsoring a Tupperware bingo Jan. 30 in the Mountain Road fire hall.

Doors will open at noon. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Information: 410-360- 2629 or 410-255-6099.

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