BALTIMORE — It is what Edgar Allan Poe might have called "a mystery all insoluble": Every year for the past six decades, a shadowy visitor would leave roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on Poe's grave on the anniversary of the writer's birth. This year, no one showed.
Did the mysterious "Poe toaster" meet his own mortal end? Did some kind of ghastly misfortune befall him? Will he be heard from nevermore?
"I'm confused, befuddled," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. "I don't know what's going on."
The visitor's absence this year only deepened the mystery over his identity. One name mentioned as a possibility was that of a Baltimore poet and known prankster who died in his 60s last week. But there is little or no evidence to suggest he was the man.
Poe was the American literary master of the macabre, known for poems such as "The Raven" and grisly short stories like "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.
In the history of the Poe toaster, little is certain.
The annual tribute began in 1949 – unless it started earlier, or later. The first printed reference to the tribute can be found that year in The Evening Sun of Baltimore. The newspaper mentioned "an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)" against the gravestone.
Every year since 1978, Jerome has staked out the grave at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground. Year after year, he said, he and various friends and Poe enthusiasts would watch from inside the Presbyterian church as a figure dressed in black, with a wide-brimmed hat and a white scarf, would leave three roses and cognac and steal away.
There is an alternative tale of the toaster's origins, one that Jerome vehemently disputes. Sam Porpora, the former historian at Westminster Hall, claimed in 2007 that he was the original Poe toaster, saying he came up with the idea in the late 1960s as a publicity stunt. But the details of Porpora's story seemed to change with each telling, and he acknowledged that someone had since made the tradition his own.
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.
In 2001, as the Baltimore Ravens – named in honor of the bird in Poe's most famous poem – were preparing to face the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, the toaster left a note that praised the Giants and said the Ravens would suffer "a thousand injuries." Then in 2004, amid tense relations between the United States and France over the invasion of Iraq, a note said Poe's grave was "no place for French cognac" and that the liquor was being left "with great reluctance."
Beyond Porpora, no one ever stepped forward to take credit for the tradition. But one name emerged Tuesday as a possible candidate: David Franks, a Baltimore poet and performance artist who died last week.
Franks was a Poe aficionado and an outrageous prankster who dressed with a "19th-century literary flair," said Rafael Alvarez, a friend of Franks and president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.
Franks once photocopied his private parts on a Xerox machine at a Social Security office and put the images on display. Decades ago, he posed as a disabled poet in a wheelchair, solicited donations from the crowd, then thanked everyone and got up and walked away.
Jerome said he doubts Franks was the toaster: "I looked at some images of him, and he doesn't look at all like the person we've seen over the years."
Alvarez also said Franks wasn't a sports fan, and "his politics were more French than American."
The toaster's annual appearance has become a pilgrimage for Poe fans, some of whom travel hundreds of miles. About three dozen stood huddled in blankets during the overnight cold Tuesday, hoping to catch a glimpse. At 5:30 a.m., Jerome emerged from the church to announce that the toaster had not arrived.
As the longtime guardian of Poe's legacy in Baltimore and the occupant of a prime viewing spot, Jerome has often had to respond to skeptics who believe he knows the Poe toaster's true identity – or is the toaster himself.
"If I was doing it, that is fraud, pure and simple. I could lose my job," Jerome said.
Jerome said the only thing he has kept secret is a signal – a gesture the toaster has predictably made each year at the grave – that even now he is not willing to reveal.
As for why the visitor didn't show this year, "you've got so many possibilities," Jerome said. "The guy had the flu, accident, too many people."
Jerome said that perhaps the visitor considered last year's elaborate 200th anniversary celebration of Poe's birth an appropriate stopping point.
"People will be asking me, 'Why do you think he stopped?'" Jerome said. "Or did he stop? We don't know if he stopped. He just didn't come this year."