A mysterious visitor who left roses and cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe each year on the writer's birthday failed to show early Tuesday, breaking with a ritual that began more than 60 years ago.
"I'm confused, befuddled," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. "I don't know what's going on."
The tradition dates back to at least 1949, according to newspaper accounts from the era, Jerome said. Since then, an unidentified person has come every Jan. 19 to leave three roses and a half-bottle of cognac at Poe's grave in a church cemetery in downtown Baltimore.
The event has become a pilgrimage for die-hard Poe fans, some of whom travel hundreds of miles. About three dozen stood huddled in blankets during the overnight cold Tuesday, peering through the churchyard's iron gates hoping to catch a glimpse of the figure known only as the "Poe toaster."
At 5:30 a.m., Jerome emerged from inside the church, where he and a select group of Poe enthusiasts keep watch over the graveyard, and announced to the crowd that the visitor never arrived. He allowed an Associated Press reporter inside the gates to view both of Poe's grave sites, the original one and a newer site where the body was moved in 1875. There was no sign of roses or cognac at either tombstone.
Jerome said the Poe toaster has always arrived before 5:30 a.m. There was still a chance the visit could occur later in the day, but Jerome said he doubted the person would risk a public unveiling by performing the task in daylight, when other visitors could be there.
"I'm very disappointed, to the point where I want to cry," said Cynthia Pelayo, 29, who had stood riveted to her prime viewing spot at the gate for about six hours. "I flew in from Chicago to see him. I'm just really sad. I hope that he's OK."
Pelayo and Poe fans from as far as Texas and Massachusetts had passed the overnight hours reading aloud from Poe's works, including the poem "The Raven," with its haunting repetition of the word "nevermore." Soon they were speculating, along with Jerome, about what might have caused the visitor not to appear.
"You've got so many possibilities," said Jerome, who has attended the ritual every year since 1977. "The guy had the flu, accident, too many people."
Tuesday marked the 201st anniversary of Poe's birth, and Jerome speculated that perhaps the visitor considered last year's bicentennial an appropriate stopping point.
"People will be asking me, 'Why do you think he stopped?"' Jerome said. "Or did he stop? We don't know if he stopped. He just didn't come this year."
There have also been recent controversies over which city should be regarded as Poe's rightful home, with some making the case that the remains perhaps should be moved to Richmond, Va., Philadelphia or Boston, cities with their own Poe legacies.
Jerome said he thinks it's unlikely the dispute is connected to the Poe toaster's no-show. If anything, Jerome felt the visitor might have weighed in on the controversy by leaving a note with the roses and cognac, as has been done in some previous years.
One such note was left in 1993, when the visitor wrote: "The torch will be passed." Years later, another note indicated the man had died in 1998 and had handed the tradition to his two sons.
Sam Porpora, a former historian at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where Poe is buried, claimed in 2007 that he was the original Poe toaster and that he had came up with the idea in the 1970s as a publicity stunt. Jerome disputed Porpora's claims by citing a 1950 article in The (Baltimore) Evening Sun that referred to the annual tribute.
Poe was the American literary master of the macabre, noted for poems and short stories including "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Pit and the Pendulum." He is also credited with writing the first modern detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which appeared in 1841.
He died Oct. 7, 1849, in Baltimore at the age of 40 after collapsing in a tavern.
As for the fate of his annual visitor? That's a new mystery.
Jerome said he will continue the vigil for at least the next two or three years, in case the visits resume.