No roses, no bottle of cognac: 'Toaster' fails to show at Poe grave

Talk about a midnight dreary.

Dozens of fans of Edgar Allan Poe were left standing out in the cold Tuesday when a mysterious nocturnal visitor didn't keep his standing date to toast the author at his Baltimore burial plot.

The so-called Poe Toaster's absence yesterday for the first time in more than 60 years has renewed the decades-long fascination with the visitor's identity. It's also an ominous indication that a beloved local ritual, a cherished example of Baltimore quirkiness, might be coming to an end - a possibility that the poet's partisans hurry to deny.

"I keep thinking, 'Maybe the Poe Toaster has the flu,' " says Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House.

"I've been doing this since 1977, and there was no indication he wasn't going to show up. In past years, he has left various notes. You'd think, if he was ending it, he would have the courtesy to have left a note saying, 'Hey Jeff, it's time to move on.' "

Every Jan. 19 since 1949, someone had placed three red roses in a pattern along with a half-empty bottle of cognac on the grave of the author of such suspense classics as "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

No one knows who he - or she - or they - might be. While there's been no dearth of conjectures in the past as to the identity of the anonymous visitor, in the past 24 hours the speculation has run rampant. A new name is even being bandied about: David Franks, a 61-year-old Fells Point poet and prankster who died last week.

It's important to state straight-out that there is no smoking gun. Franks apparently never claimed either publicly or privately to be the Toaster. But his friends say it sounds like a trick he might have pulled and would have delighted in keeping to himself.

"David Franks, more than anything, loved a good prank," said Rafael Alvarez, the current president of the Poe Society of Baltimore and a former Baltimore Sun reporter. "The more out-there the prank, the better."

Franks was known for such performance-art projects as "conducting" an orchestra of Baltimore Harbor tugboats. He also once posed as a repairman to sneak into the Social Service Administration building and photocopy parts of his body.

Over the years, a great many Baltimoreans have claimed to be the masked visitor, or have been outed by others.

In 2001, Jerome thought that the role was played by a father and two sons, but that hypothesis was based on a note left at the grave in 1993 reading, "The torch will be passed."

Six years later, a then-92-year-old former restaurateur and ad man named Sam Porpora said he dreamed up the stunt, but discrepancies were later detected between his recollections and the historical record.

Others have pointed the finger at Jerome himself - an honor he denies.

Surely, this whodunit might have been cleared up years ago by administering a simple DNA test. Perhaps because the secret is so enjoyable a topic of discussion and adds so much to the city's mystique, officials have shown a certain disinclination to solve the puzzle.

For instance, Jeff Savoye of the Poe Society says he once came face to face with the black-coated figure. "Even though he was walking toward me, he had a scarf around his face," he says, adding that Poe advocates agreed among themselves not to attempt to identify the cemetery's annual guest.

"Even way back in the early years, I knew that if I unmasked the person, the wrath of the public would fall on me," Jerome says. "For every person who wanted to know who he was, there were 20 who said, 'Don't you dare.' I would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail."

If the culprit wasn't Franks - who would have been just 11 months old at the time of the inaugural visitation on Jan. 19, 1949 - the plot thickens.

Why, for instance, did the visits stop now, and why did they stop so suddenly? Was the milestone year of 2009, which marked the bicentennial of the poet's birth, always intended to be the final toast?

"If it was going to end, 2009 would be the perfect year to end it," Jerome says. "So many people have said, 'I hope it's not over. It was such a nice tradition.' But maybe it has just run its course. It wasn't going to last forever."

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, immediately distances himself from such uncivic doubts.

"It can't really be over," he says. "There's got to be someone out there prepared to take up the mantle and pick up the bottle."

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Not just anyone who turns up with three roses and a bottle of cognac can take over the job; Poe's grave lies behind an high brick wall and locked gate.

"Someone would have to be pretty young and strong to get over it," Jerome says. He has never revealed the method by which the Toaster actually slipped inside. Withholding that detail, he says, will help distinguish the actual perpetrator from the pretenders.

If the mystery man came down with a case of cold feet, he wasn't the only one.

More than 30 well-wishers, including many from out of state, kept a fruitless vigil for six or seven hours on the sidewalks outside the cemetery in the 25-degree chill early Tuesday. It didn't dawn on the group until, well, about dawn that they'd been waiting in vain.

Chicago resident Cynthia Pelayo and her husband booked a flight to Baltimore just so they could witness the tribute. They were among tourists from such far-away locations as Texas, Massachusetts and Georgia.

When the evening began, the crowd was in high spirits. They sang several choruses of "Happy Birthday" and read aloud from "The Raven."

Gradually, the mood became more glum. Strain their ears though they might, the crowd could hear no rapping, no gentle tapping of footsteps on the grave site floor. It wasn't until 6:40 a.m. that Pelayo and her husband, dogged to the last, wandered weak and weary back to their hotel room.

"I got a story," says Pelayo, who is studying for a master's degree in writing, "but it's a disappointing story. It's really sad that the ritual was broken."