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Baltimore: The mystery of the 'Poe Toaster'

For 54 years, a mysterious stranger has left roses and cognac on Poe's grave on the writer's birthday.
For 54 years, a mysterious stranger has left roses and cognac on Poe's grave on the writer's birthday.

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BALTIMORE, Maryland (AP) -- A brilliant pale moon hangs in a sky the color of coal, casting shadows on snow-covered tombstones. The cemetery is empty, quiet and cold.

In a nearby, drafty old church, 16 people feel the chilly air penetrate almost to the bone as they huddle near arched windows, pressing their noses against the freezing glass, staring at the deserted graveyard.

On the sidewalk outside Westminster Hall, a former Presbyterian church, dozens of people equipped with video cameras and binoculars also wait, trying to keep warm beneath thick blankets.

"I'd be terrified if I was him," says Joe Sainclair, an 11th-grade English teacher from Mountaintop, Pennsylvania. "He knows he's being watched -- that all these people are waiting just for him. I'm scared for him."

Each January 19, he comes, a man cloaked in black who celebrates Edgar Allan Poe's birthday by slipping into Westminster Cemetery and leaving three red roses and half a bottle of cognac at Poe's grave.

And each January 19, Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum, invites 15 or so hand-picked spectators to witness this annual ritual from the inside. Guests spend the night cloistered in the dark church, sipping coffee and hot chocolate and waiting for a glimpse of the elusive visitor.

The tradition was first documented in 1949, a century after Poe's death. No one, not even Jerome, who has seen every visit since 1976, knows the identity of the so-called "Poe Toaster." Jerome is eager to keep it that way, screening the dozens of requests he gets each year to make sure applicants share an abiding interest in the author and a willingness to help preserve the visitor's secret.

Jerome kills the lights in the hall around 11 p.m.

The vigil begins.

'A nice mystery'

About half the witnesses are veterans of multiple watches. Many have walkie-talkies to track the crowd's movements outside the hall and to keep watch for the visitor, who could show up any time before 6 a.m. The watchers fret that an overly eager fan on the street could ruin the tradition

Sharon Bayly, a postal worker from Salisbury, Maryland, who has attended 10 watches, spends the night peering under a raised stain-glass window at the street crowd.

Anita Gross keeps an eye out for the
Anita Gross keeps an eye out for the "Poe Toaster" from Westminster Church.

"After all these years, it still gives you such a rush," says Bayly, who is dressed in an oversized purple Baltimore Ravens football jersey, a walkie-talkie in her hand.

Then there are the first-timers, most filled with giddy excitement about the adventure to come.

Sainclair, a first-timer, has a life-size fake raven with real feathers and an eight-inch Poe beanie doll that he plans to pose on Poe's grave for a picture alongside the cognac and roses.

"It's like this town's own little Poe mystery story," he says. "Thankfully, it's one mystery Baltimore seems content not to have solved."

Teri Hensel, an English teacher from Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, is another first-timer. She moonlights as Poe's Annabel Lee at Poconos resorts.

As the night passes, the crowd outside swells to about 40 people. The veterans say they've never seen so many before.

On a corner across the street, a man with a bushy mustache, a large backpack and a huge pair of binoculars scans the entrances to the cemetery. Anita Gruss, a high school athletic director in Centreville, Maryland, recognizes him from the year before; he'd spent the entire night in the doorway of an abandoned home, only to miss the visitor in the end, she says.

"They're Poe soul mates," says Gruss about the crowd. "They feel some connection that brings them down here, just like us."

Gruss has spent 12 years looking for the "Poe Toaster." But she admits that she's occasionally scared that someone on the street will reach over one year, grab the visitor's cloak and try to ruin the mystery.

Martha Womack, a high school English teacher from Farmville, Virginia, who is known on her Web site as Precisely Poe, compares the visitor's mystery to that of Scotland's Loch Ness monster.

"What if you could drain the loch?" asks Womack, a veteran of nine watches. "You'd find either that you've killed the monster, or that it never was there to begin with. Either way, it's ruined. This is a nice mystery, and there are too few of those left."

"There's an unspoken agreement between us and the gentleman that we will preserve his anonymity and make sure he can perform his task safely," says Christopher Scharpf, a Baltimore copywriter who has been to all but one of the watches since Jerome started inviting guests in 1983.

And what would he do to stop someone from unveiling the visitor's secret?

"I'd take a bullet for him," Scharpf says with a grin. "The legend must live on."

Only this, and nothing more

"It's 3 a.m.," a voice crackles from a walky-talky. "Do you know where your 'Poe Toaster' is?"

Outside, the trees -- their branches stripped clean of all foliage -- cast a skeletonlike silhouette against the dark sky. It's so cold, a banana left in a car has frozen solid, turning black. A few people tremble. One man looks for an antacid.

Then, about 3:24 a.m., a large man, his face hidden beneath a dark hood, walks down the street past a window, a package tucked to his side.

"This is him!" someone shouts, his voice bouncing around the hall's high, vaulted ceilings.

Curator Jeff Jerome examines the roses left by the
Curator Jeff Jerome examines the roses left by the "Poe Toaster."

The man walks past the little gate leading into the cemetery, close enough to a couple smoking cigarettes in an SUV that they could flick a butt from their window and hit him.

Then he stops, turns on his heels and, in an instant, he's through the gate, ducking low and disappearing into the shadows.

Watchers stumble down the stairs to the first floor, sprinting toward the back window that overlooks Poe's grave.

After several long minutes, the mysterious visitor creeps out of the dark and up to Poe's grave, which is obscured from the people on the street by a mausoleum and some trees. He gently puts his hand on the tombstone, bows and places something on the grave. Then he slips into the shadows.

After a minute or two, he appears again, nearly slipping on a patch of ice before regaining his balance and disappearing into the black of night.

"He made it!" the watchers yell, tumbling outside to examine the half-empty bottle of Martel cognac and three red roses on the grave, the cold air like a slap to the face.

"The flowers look deader than Poe," someone says, and the watchers laugh.

"No," Jerome says, beaming as he picks up the roses. "They're perfect."

Just before dawn, the regulars pack up their walky-talkies and leave; Sainclair and his beanie Poe head back to Pennsylvania.

And on the corner, the man with the bushy mustache still has his binoculars trained on the cemetery gates. He and the others on the street have seen nothing. The visitor has won again.

After 54 years, he's still a mystery.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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