Maybe the time for nevermore is finally here.
For the second year in a row, the mysterious Poe Toaster failed to show up at his the writer's Baltimore grave Wednesday morning. And the curator of the Poe House, who has spent years protecting the famed writer's legacy and fanning the flames of the toaster's legend, is about ready to give up on the ghost.
"I will be here in 2012, but that will be it," said a weary Jeff Jerome, who stayed by Poe's gravesite until 5:45 a.m. waiting for the toaster. "If he's a no-show, I will officially pronounce the tradition dead."
Not that Poe, dead for 161 years, or the toaster, missing for two, are without fans — or potential successors. Jerome said four toaster wannabes showed up at the gravesite with the requisite cognac and red roses. But all, he said, were pretenders to the tradition, not the real thing. Even though the toaster's identity has remained secret — even Jerome swears he never knew a name or clearly saw a face — his general appearance remained constant. None of the four who showed up Wednesday morning matched it.
"They were not our boy," he said. "We can usually tell within a few seconds. We've been seeing this guy for a number of years, and I could tell just by looking at them that they were not the real Poe Toaster."
For some 60 years, the toaster would appear every Jan. 19 to pay tribute to Poe, a Boston native who died on Oct. 7, 1849, in Baltimore under circumstances that have never been fully explained. Arriving at the gravesite without fanfare, he would leave behind three red roses and a bottle of cognac, then quietly disappear into the night.
Last year's no-show was the first since at least 1949. Speculation over the identity of the Poe toaster has raged for years. Many names have been floated, including a Fells Point prankster who died in 2010, an adman who said he started the tradition as a publicity stunt, a father-and-son team — even Jerome himself.
But Jerome, who has been shepherding the tradition since 1977, insists it's not him. And none of the other possibilities has conclusively panned out.
About a dozen people waited Wednesday morning outside the gates of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground on Fayette Street, but as dawn approached, it was clear the true toaster would not be showing up. Jerome eventually opened the gate and allowed the visitors to leave their own tributes on Poe's grave.
Interest in Poe, the writer of such mystery and horror classics as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," remains strong. Here in Baltimore, there's an NFL football team that invokes the name of one of Poe's most famous poems, "The Raven," every time it takes to the field. More than 100 fans gathered at Westminster Hall in November to watch an evening of Poe-related films, and a new movie based on Poe's life recently finished filming in Belgrade, Serbia, with John Cusack playing the melancholy author.
Jerome said he appreciated the enthusiasm of the four would-be toasters, each of whom made far-too-grandiose an entrance to be the real thing. But if the real toaster is gone, he said, it's time to let the tradition die.
"If it is over, let it die a noble death," he said.
And if someone is intent on keeping the tradition going?
"After next year, they'll have to be climbing over the fence," Jerome said. "They'll have to wait until the cemetery gates open during the day."