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No-show doesn’t deter Poe fans from annual ritual

Cynthia Pelayo traveled from Chicago to Baltimore to stand overnight in the shivering cold at the gates of a cemetery, waiting for someone who never showed up.

This year, she’s willing to do it again.

It’s a plot twist Edgar Allan Poe himself would no doubt find rather amusing. The mysterious visitor who left three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave on the anniversary of the writer’s Jan. 19 birth failed to make his annual visit last year, breaking a ritual that began some six decades ago.

End of story? Hardly. If anything, it only deepened the mystery, attracting more curiosity to a puzzling tradition with tantalizing clues but no real rhyme or reason.

“It was obviously disappointing that he didn’t show up, but it was very Poe-like,” Pelayo said. “The year that we went, the ‘Poe toaster’ didn’t show.”

So Pelayo and her husband are making the pilgrimage again, joining those who will stake out the downtown Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, hoping for the merest glimpse of the unknown man dressed in black, wearing a white scarf with a wide-brimmed hat.

“I think we’re going to have a larger crowd,” said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. “After all these years, I shouldn’t be amazed.”

Poe was the American literary master of the macabre, writer of haunting poems such as “The Raven” and grisly short stories including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” ”The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He is also credited with writing the first modern detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He died in 1849 in Baltimore at age 40 after collapsing in a tavern.

Jerome has become the unofficial overseer of the unusual birthday tradition. Every year since 1978, he and a handful of Poe enthusiasts have watched from inside the Presbyterian church for the Poe toaster’s arrival, while dozen of Poe fans would keep watch outside the locked gates of the cemetery. The first printed reference to the tribute goes back to 1949, when The Evening Sun of Baltimore mentioned “an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)” against the gravestone.

But, last year, there was nothing. And that’s caused quite a stir.

“Just in the past two weeks, I’ve been contacted by five people wanting to be the new Poe toaster,” Jerome said. “I’m going, ‘Oh, no, I knew this would happen.’ The guy didn’t show up last year, but I keep telling people before you start trying to jump over the gates leaving bottles of whiskey or whatever, keep in mind that maybe the guy just had car trouble. Maybe he was sick. I have this vision of seeing a long line of wannabe Poe toasters lining up at the Poe grave, each taking their turn bringing in roses and cognac. I don’t want this to happen.”

“If in fact this tribute is finished, if it’s over with, I want it to die a peaceful death.”

In fact, Jerome returned later in the day last year to find the grave marker littered with bottles and broken glass from fans who tried to make up for the no-show with their own tributes.

“The first thing that came to my mind was the grave of Jim Morrison, how trashy that usually looks, people leaving all kinds of junk,” Jerome said. “If you want to pay tribute to Poe, bring flowers on the 19th.”

If the toaster doesn’t show this year, Jerome intends to return for one more year before giving up the vigil. If the toaster is done for good, the answer to the biggest questions of all might never be known: Who was the mysterious visitor, and what was his motive?

It hasn’t always been the same man. In 1993, the visitor began leaving notes, starting with one that read: “The torch will be passed.” A note in 1998 indicated the originator of the tradition had died and passed it on to his two sons.

Jerome, from his vantage point at the church window, noticed the change and now recognizes the figure and gait of each of the two brothers. It’s always one or the other — never both in the same year.

Also, the toaster gives a signal that only the people inside the church recognize. Jerome will not reveal the signal because it’s his safeguard against impostors.

It has long been thought that the sons don’t take the ritual as seriously as their father did, as evidenced by a note left in 2001 referencing the Super Bowl and another in 2004 implying criticism of France over its objections to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Many Poe fans were upset with those notes, and Jerome speculates the brothers might have finally decided it was time to end the visits, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth in 2009.

“What a better time to end a tribute than on Poe’s bicentennial,” Jerome said. “That’s just me speculating, but then again, you think they would have left a note saying it’s over with. ‘We’ve fulfilled our promise to our father, we did the best we could, and it’s now over.'”

Or maybe the angst over last year’s no-show will shame the brothers into resuming the tradition. Whatever the circumstance, there is widespread hope that the toaster will return — and that his identity will remain a secret.

“Part of me would love to know after all these years,” Jerome said. “Another part of me says, ‘Jeff, if you know who it is, that diminishes the magic of the moment.'”

Pelayo couldn’t agree more.

“In the age of the Internet, there’s very little mystery,” she said. “And something like this, a tradition that’s been going on for 60 years and we don’t understand why or who it is, we think it’s just very magical. I wouldn’t want to know who it is. I hope it continues. I hope he returns.”