With cognac and roses, Edgar Allan Poe's birthday celebrated un

Sunday, January 20, 2002

BALTIMORE -- A small crowd gathered at the old church where Edgar Allan Poe lies buried, waiting, as they do every year, for the arrival of a stranger.

A black-clad man arrived at 2:59 a.m. Friday, marking the poet's birthday with the traditional graveside tribute: three red roses and a half bottle of cognac. Only this and nothing more.

It is a rite that has been carried out by a mysterious stranger every Jan. 19 since 1949, a century after Poe drank himself to death in Baltimore at age 40.

This year's birthday tribute was normal and subdued compared with last year, when the stranger left a note that enraged Baltimore Ravens fans.

Borrowing from Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," the note read: "The New York Giants. Darkness and decay and the big blue hold dominion over all."

Red and blue are the Giants' colors and "the big blue" is a team nickname. The Ravens, who take their name from Poe's most famous poem, were to meet the Giants later that month in Super Bowl XXXV. The Baltimore team ended up winning the game handily.

Jerome said the man, wearing the traditional black hat and coat, with a white scarf concealing his face, appeared to be different from last year's so-called Poe Toaster.

"He appeared to be a younger man," said Jerome, who has witnessed the ritual for 20 years. "He stood erect and walked quickly."

The man made no gestures, other than the secret signal he sends Jerome to show he is the genuine Poe Toaster, as he laid the tribute.

The three roses represent Poe, his wife and his Aunt Maria Clemm, who are buried beneath the newer monument. The cognac is a mystery, Jerome has said, because there are no prominent references to it in Poe's works.

Poe was born in Boston and raised in Richmond, Va. But Baltimore, where he lived for several years in the 1830s, has adopted him as one of its own.

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