BALTIMORE — The mystery man was dressed for the cold rather than tradition, and some spectators were not quite as respectful as in years past.
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But for the 56th year, a man stole into a locked graveyard early on Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday and placed three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on the writer’s grave.
Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, who has seen the mysterious visitor every Jan. 19 since 1976, gathered with about 20 people Tuesday night to glimpse the ritual.
“It was absolutely frigid,” Jerome said of the sub-20 degree temperature.
No one, not even Jerome, knows the identity of the so-called “Poe Toaster.” The visit was first documented in 1949, a century after Poe’s death.
This year, the visitor arrived at 1:10 a.m. in a heavy coat and obscured his face with a black pullover, Jerome said. He was not wearing the traditional white scarf and black hat.
Cognac and roses
“He put the roses and cognac at the base of Poe’s grave and put his hand on top of the (tomb) stone. He paused and put his head down,” the museum curator said. He left after about five minutes, Jerome said.
The visitor’s three roses are believed to honor Poe, his mother-in-law and his wife, all of whom are buried in the graveyard. The significance of the cognac is unknown.
People who stand vigil usually respect the visitor’s desire for anonymity, which, along with the visitor’s quick moves and the cover of darkness, have kept his secret well.
But this time, some spectators “created a nuisance,” Jerome said. Some entered the locked cemetery; others confronted Jerome after the stranger had departed and demanded that he reveal his identity.
‘The torch will be passed’
For decades, a frail figure made the visit to Poe’s grave. But in 1993 the original visitor left a cryptic note saying, “The torch will be passed.” A later note said the man, who apparently died in 1998, had passed the tradition on to his sons.
Poe, who wrote poems and horror stories such as “The Raven” and “The Telltale Heart,” died Oct. 7, 1849 in Baltimore at the age of 40 after collapsing in a tavern.
Bethany Dinger, 32, first became fascinated with the writer while doing volunteer work at the Poe House in high school. Wednesday was her third time watching the ritual.
“It’s always amazing — you know it’s going to happen and then it’s just, ‘wow, he’s here,’ ” she said. “We’re just so in the moment — there’s no talking” while the visitor pays homage.
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