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A telltale Poe-pourri

It’s the bicentennial of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, creator of the detective yarn. Where better than the city of idiosyncrasy – Baltimore – to celebrate?

By Correspondent / January 8, 2009

He is Baltimore’s sad-eyed genius. He doesn’t want for admirers, and hasn’t for the 160 years since he was found, Oct. 3, 1849, in a tavern, dressed in rags, haggard, incoherent; he was four days away from the end of his life, at age 40. The tavern was not far from where he rests today, in a bricky urban cemetery, softened by birch trees and maples, black-barked and leafless, where a path winds among tombstones bearing the names of generals who fought the English wars, politicians, high-born merchants, but of only one poet.

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Every Jan. 19, his enamored constituents assemble late at night at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Hundreds stand bunched and bundled against the cold, till dawn, if necessary. They await a man in a black cloak, broad-brimmed hat, and a scarf that conceals his face. He arrives suddenly, deposits a half bottle of French cognac and three roses at the poet’s tomb, then disappears. He is known as the Poe Toaster and has earned a place in the popular legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. He personifies a small mystery in a Gothic city that loves them, and idiosyncrasies of other sorts as well. (Think John Waters.) I recall, long ago, an old newspaper man telling me of a Baltimore mayor – whose name he refused to surrender – who placed flowers on the grave of John Wilkes Booth. “Booth at least was among the higher order of assassins,” he allegedly said. “We must make the most of the few illustrious dead we have.”

The story smells of Confederate dust, and is probably apocryphal. But it reinforces the conviction, held by some, that Baltimore lives a quarter turn behind nearly everywhere else; it is a guarder of secrets, of which it has many.
This January will mark not only the 60th anniversary of the Poe Taster’s ceremony, but, of greater significance, the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. Barring a blizzard, the cemetery entrance will swarm with grave watchers.

Over the years, relatively few have disturbed the Poe Toaster at his work: None have penetrated his disguise, though it is known that the one who arrives this Jan. 19 will not be the original. Jeffrey A. Savoye, president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, and Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House, have been informed through an anonymous letter from the originator that “the torch has been passed” to his two sons.

So why has no one succeeded in unmasking the man? Maybe it’s for want of trying hard enough. Maybe Baltimoreans embrace the mystery so much they prefer it to its resolution.