`Poe Toaster' leaves a message

Visit: Out of the darkness, a mysterious man again drops birthday gifts at the writer's grave -- along with a brief slap at the French.

January 20, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Taciturn yet opinionated, a mysterious man in black visited the gravesite of Edgar Allan Poe in yesterday's pre-dawn darkness and left a note to accompany his usual tribute of cognac and three roses to mark the author's birth nearly 200 years ago.

"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" placed at the grave.

"The memory of Poe shall live evermore!" the note concluded.

At least four times in the past 56 years, the dark-clad figure has left a message at the grave along with his tribute of spirits and flowers.

Some speculate that yesterday's message concerned French opposition to the U.S.-led war with Iraq - a political commentary that does not please Jeff Jerome, curator of the city's Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum.

In 2001, Jerome says he fielded hundreds of calls from upset Ravens fans when the so-called "Poe Toaster" left a message that cursed their team on the eve of the Super Bowl.

"I'm telling people: Don't shoot the messenger," Jerome said. "This is a charming tribute when he is not making political comment. I don't want to get phone calls from people in France complaining. ... It should just be the literary tradition without comment on world events or sporting events or football games."

Since 1949, a dark figure has visited the author's grave at the Westminster Burying Grounds and deposited a half-filled bottle of cognac and three roses to mark the anniversary of Poe's birth on Jan. 19, 1809.

Though most Poe enthusiasts are not sure what the cognac means, many believe the roses represent Poe, as well as his wife and mother-in-law, who are also buried in the city cemetery.

A crowd of about 20 people huddled outside while Jerome and about 10 others watched from Westminster Hall at Fayette and Greene streets yesterday morning to see the annual event.

Just after 2 a.m., a man wearing a black coat and white scarf over his face appeared from the darkness and crept toward Poe's grave over slick, icy ground, Jerome said.

After leaving his note, Martell cognac and roses, the man slipped back into the night before most in the crowd realized he had visited the grave.

"Most people didn't see him," Jerome said. "They were too busy chatting."

The original "Poe Toaster" died in 1998, and his sons are continuing the tradition, said Jerome, who believes yesterday's visitor was the same one who left the inflammatory note about the Ravens in 2001.

Last year, no note was left.

"The other one seems to be keeping with tradition," Jerome said. "This person likes to voice his opinion."

Poe died in Baltimore in 1849. He is regarded as one of America's most famed poets and writers, whose work dripped with suspense and mystery.

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