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Sorrow for the lost 'Poe Toaster': No cognac, roses left at grave

January 19, 2012 | 10:42 am

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For the third year in a row, the “Poe Toaster” -- who regularly marked the birth of Edgar Allan Poe with a tribute of three roses and cognac -- failed to make the  nocturnal trip to the writer’s original grave in Baltimore, thus apparently ending a tradition that lasted more than half a century.

Thursday is the anniversary of the 1809 birth of Poe, who helped invent the genres of mystery, science fiction and horror. If writers such as Lee Child, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King are now literary lions, it is because they are prowling through the tracks first laid by Poe, who died in Baltimore at the young age of 40. His famous poem, "The Raven," was the inspiration for the city's professional football team, which is playing for the AFC Championship on Sunday.

In an annual observance of Poe’s birth, a mysterious person -- reportedly dressed in black, flaunting a white scarf and wearing a wide-brimmed hat -- would visit the graveside monument at Baltimore’s Westminster Hall, a former church, and leave three roses and half a bottle of cognac.

While there is a dispute over what killed Poe, alcoholism was likely a contributing factor, along with a host of other conditions including tuberculosis and a broken heart.

If science should someday prove that those weren’t the reasons for the death of Poe, who wrote in the early American Romantic tradition, then the writer’s fans would probably demand they be included anyway. Such has been the long-suffering writer’s hold on the imagination of generations of readers.

Part of that hold included the mystery of the “Poe Toaster.” The sightings and gifts were first reported as early as 1950. There were no visitations in 2010 and 2011, so Thursday marked the third year without the charm of roses and liquor –- the end of the line, as far as some Poe devotees are concerned.

Early Thursday morning, Jeff Jerome, curator of the city's Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, told reporters that the visits were likely nevermore. Having again spent the night inside Westminster Hall, Jerome sealed the tradition behind a wall.

“I more or less resigned myself that it was over with before tonight,” Jerome, who has been curator of the Poe House since 1979, said in a telephone interview. “I knew it was coming and it was sort of like it was anticlimactic. It’s over with.”

Born in Boston, Poe was well traveled and seemingly lived everywhere, including the Bronx (where another Poe house stood, not to mention the aptly named bar, Poe Cozy Nook). A street in Manhattan is also informally named for him because he lived on that West Side block.

He also lived in London, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., before dying in Baltimore. He was originally buried in the Westminster Burial Ground but was moved in 1875 to a more prominent spot there. His wife, cousin and object of his literary ardor, Virginia, was moved to be near him as well.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: A flashlight shines on items left on the gravestone of Edgar Allan Poe by people imitating, or pretending to be, the mysterious "Poe Toaster" in Baltimore early Thursday. Fans waited long past a midnight dreary to see if the true "Poe Toaster" would return after a two-year hiatus. Credit: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

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