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Crowd gathers at grave site to honor Poe's birthday

The Poe Toaster makes his tribute to Edgar Allan Poe in honor of the writer's 208th birthday. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

With a black scarf wrapped around his face, the man pulled four roses from his coat pocket – three red and one white. He then placed them, one by one, on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.

The anonymous man poured a glass of cognac and sipped, then placed the bottle on the grave. He touched the memorial. And soon, he was gone.

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A quiet crowd outside Westminster Hall looked on Saturday afternoon, gathered to celebrate the birthday of the famous writer.

"Baltimore loves Poe," said Jeff Jerome, curator emeritus of the Poe House and Museum. The writer died in Baltimore in 1849 under still-mysterious circumstances.

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Starting in the 1940s, a succession of people who came to be known as the "Poe toaster" would appear at the writer's grave to honor his birthday. But after 2009, the toaster was a no-show.

So in 2015, the Maryland Historical Society and other groups held auditions for a new toaster. People came from around the country, Jerome said.

"The audience chose him to continue this tradition," Jerome said of the man who appeared Saturday. "Not to replace the original Poe toaster, but to do something where everybody during the daytime can witness the tribute."

The new toaster began last year, Jerome said. No one knows the man's identity. Those who auditioned did not submit their names.

"We have an email for him, but that's about it," he said.

Jerome said he first opposed the idea of replacing the original toaster.

"My initial thought was, 'It's over with, let it die,'" Jerome said. "But more and more people were saying, 'I wish he'd come back.'"

During his appearance Saturday, the toaster also performed the violin.

Jerome said he believes the three red roses placed on the grave represent the three people buried under the monument — the writer, his wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, and her mother, Maria Clemm.

The white rose may represent friendship, he said.

Michelle Fakeri of Pasadena brought her 14-year-old son to see the tradition. He is home-schooled and studied Poe this month.

"This fell right into place," she said.

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They were among about 150 people gathered Saturday, which was two days after Poe's 208th birthday. They listened to viola performances and dramatic readings of Poe's works — poems such as "Alone" and "Annabel Lee," the short stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado."

They raised paper cups of apple cider to toast.

Organizers also raffled off a Poe birthday cake, which was won by Jim DiPangrazio of Bel Air.

DiPangrazio attended the celebration with his wife, Cindy, and daughters Morgan, 16 and Hayley, 12.

"It's really a very neat event," he said. "I'm glad [the toaster] is back."

The cake, covered in gray icing, said, "In pace requiescat" — Latin for "rest in peace" and the last line of Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado."

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