Poe visitor goes offline

Brian
Brian Jones
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Lost amid the more important headlines this week was a small news item declaring that the so-called Poe Toaster was no more.

There was no actual evidence the fellow is nevermore - as several seemingly clever headline writers put it - but he did miss his cue for the first time in 60 years.

Lost amid the more important headlines this week was a small news item declaring that the so-called Poe Toaster was no more.

There was no actual evidence the fellow is nevermore - as several seemingly clever headline writers put it - but he did miss his cue for the first time in 60 years.

Every year since 1949, an anonymous visitor has slipped into an old church graveyard in downtown Baltimore in the early hours of Jan. 19 - Edgar Allan Poe's birthday - and put three roses and a half-full bottle of cognac on Poe's grave.

He never spoke publicly or declared who he was or why he performed the tribute, and thus was dubbed the Poe Toaster.

In recent years, dozens of spectators have gathered to witness the event. According to the informal rules, observers kept a respectful distance and silence, and didn't approach or speak to the mysterious visitor.

Apparently, even journalists refrained from sticking microphones in the man's face, which is somewhat amazing, given that far less interesting people are interviewed daily.

Tantalizing tribute

Every Jan. 20, newswire stories would quote Poe fans who travelled to Baltimore for the occasion.

This year, according to The Associated Press, some of them came from places as various as Texas, Massachusetts and Chicago.

And every year, millions of readers would follow the exploits of the legendary Poe Toaster. In the modern vernacular, you could say his simple action "went viral."

Debate has raged about why the Poe Toaster, although anonymous, became so famous. After all, tributes at gravesites of famous people occur all the time. Jim Morrison's in Paris comes quickly to mind, along with plenty of others - Marx, Hendrix, Lenin, J.F.K., the crowd in the Pantheon.

Poe's had a unique element of mystique and drama. The visitor always wore a broad-brimmed hat to darken his face, and arrived before dawn.

Questions aplenty

Additionally, there was the question: why Poe? Yes, he was a writer of considerable genius, widely credited with pioneering horror stories as well as detective fiction.

But there are any number of writers of equal greatness.

Perhaps the visitor was moved by the tragedies in Poe's life: orphaned at age three, widowed in his late 30s, dead at 40. Perhaps he revered a writer who could pen famously macabre tales, but could also compose poems of heartbreak and loss.

Toaster targeted

Some years ago, controversy emerged when it was alleged the Poe Toaster was a hoax.

The allegation was that the Poe literary society in Baltimore dreamed up the "tribute" as a way to boost local interest in their group. Caught by surprise when the overnight laying of roses and cognac drew widespread interest, the society allegedly kept its ruse secret.

As with most conspiracy theories, it has a fatal flaw: the human tendency to blab. If the Poe Toaster were not authentic, someone would likely have tattled by now.

In 1993, a note was left with the roses and cognac, reading, "The torch will be passed." Fans of the Poe Toaster speculated he was too old to continue his nocturnal visits, and had let his son, or sons, in on his secret.

The Toaster's non-arrival this week has fuelled more speculation - perhaps he died, or was too sick to make the trip.

Then again, a man in Baltimore who has witnessed the event every year since the 1970s told reporters at the site that last year was the 200th anniversary of Poe's 1809 birth, and maybe the Poe Toaster deemed it a good time to end the tradition.

Jan. 19, 2011 might reveal more. If not, and the Poe Toaster's identity and motives remain a mystery forever, his legend will likely be solidified along with that of his hero.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at bjones@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Associated Press, The Telegram

Geographic location: Baltimore, Texas, Massachusetts Chicago Paris

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