Three red roses and a bottle of cognac. These enigmatic offerings, placed at the grave of beloved suspense writer Edgar Allan Poe, have long been at the heart of one of the city's real-life mysteries. Who leaves the presents each year on Jan. 19, his birthday? Who is the so-called Poe Toaster?
Sam Porpora, a life-long Poe lover, claims to be ready to share some answers. The 92-year- old one-time restaurateur and ad man said that he dreamed up the tradition in the late 1960s, as a publicity stunt to aid the cash-strapped church that owned Westminster cemetery, where the great author is said to be buried.
"It was a great promotion," said Porpora, who was involved with the preservation of the historic cemetery for years. "I restored Poe to greatness."
After alerting the media, Porpora said, he retired from the toasting business, and isn't sure who has kept up the famous midnight presentation for all these years. "I never dreamed it would take off like it did."
He kept his part to himself until he casually mentioned it in a recent conversation with a public relations official at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, where Porpora is a resident.
Others familiar with the tradition tell a different story. Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House and Museum, said that his research indicates that the grave ritual dates to 1949, the 100th anniversary of the death of the writer, who died mysteriously in Fells Point at age 40.
Jerome said that, over the years, several people have claimed a connection to the toaster. Few, however, have Porpora's pedigree. He was a parishioner of Westminster Church at Fayette and Greene streets, a caretaker for the adjoining cemetery, and a longtime tour guide who knew all the graveyard's nooks and crannies.
"He is very enthusiastic about Poe and Baltimore history," said Jerome. "It really wasn't until I met Sam Porpora" - in the late 1970s - "that I started rediscovering Poe."
But Jerome said he cannot substantiate Porpora's claim. Porpora's daughter, Kathy Gibbons of Bel Air, said she wasn't aware of his role, but that she wouldn't put it past her mischievous father.
At Charlestown, Porpora frequently holds court after lunch, telling Poe stories and reciting from "Annabel Lee," his favorite Poe poem.
"He tells a very interesting yarn," said Jeffrey Savoye, secretary and treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society, who says he's not sure he believes Porpora's claim.
But, to Poe, perhaps a good story is the greatest offering of all.