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Politics casts shadow on annual Poe toast

Gravesite note -- along with cognac -- takes shot at French
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was nearly “nevermore” for French cognac Monday in an annual tribute at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.

For 56 years, someone has marked the writer’s birthday by slinking into the small cemetery where Poe is buried to place French cognac and three roses on his grave in the middle of the night.

This year, however, the mystery visitor included a note with a possible reference to French opposition to the war in Iraq.

“The sacred memory of Poe and his final resting place is no place for French cognac,” the note read. “With great reluctance but for respect for family tradition the cognac is placed. The memory of Poe shall live evermore!”

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, has watched the cemetery every Jan. 19 since 1976. He said he was nervous about making the note public because of its political tone.

“I’m the person that picks the items up,” Jerome said. “Is it up to me to interpret these and be the judge of what shouldn’t be released or not released? If I do that, then I’m setting myself as a censor.”

The black-hooded man appeared just before 3 a.m., walking carefully on the icy cemetery grounds. After placing the roses and a half-filled bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave, he slipped into the shadows.

For about a dozen people who waited for the visitor, the anticipation was thrilling.

“It’s kind of like Christmas morning,” said Bethany Dinger of Baltimore. “You know it shows up, but the anticipation and the buildup and how it’s going to happen is 10 times more fun.”

No one knows the identity of the so-called “Poe Toaster.” The visit was first documented in 1949, a century after Poe’s death at age 40. For decades, it was the same frail figure.

But in 1993 the original visitor left a cryptic note saying, “The torch will be passed.” A later note said the man, who apparently died in 1998, had passed the tradition on to his sons.

It wasn’t the first time the note included a topical subject. In 2001, the visitor enraged Baltimore Ravens fans by appearing to back the New York Giants in the upcoming Super Bowl. The Ravens, who take their name from Poe’s most famous poem, ended up winning the game.