A mysterious visitor who each year leaves roses and cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe 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 year on 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.
"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 away 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."
Jerome said he will continue the vigil for at least the next two or three years in case the visits resume.
"So for me it's not over with," he said.