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Solved: The mystery of the 'Poe toaster': Aging historian claims to have created legend of the shadowy grave visitor

WILEY HALL Associated Press
August 16, 2007 at 5:09 AM EDT

BALTIMORE — The legend was almost too good to be true. For decades, a mysterious figure dressed in black, his features cloaked by a wide-brimmed hat and scarf, crept into a Baltimore churchyard to lay three roses and a bottle of cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe.

Now, a man in his 90s who led the fight to preserve the historic site says the visitor was his creation.

"We did it, myself and my tour guides," said Sam Porpora. "It was a promotional idea. We made it up, never dreaming it would go worldwide."

Mr. Porpora is an energetic, dapper fellow in a newsboy cap and a checked suit with a bolo tie. He's got a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile, and he tells his tale in the rhythms of a natural- born storyteller.

No one has ever claimed ownership of the legend. So why is he coming forward now?
"I really can't tell you," he said. "I'm doing it because of my love for the story."

Mr. Porpora's belief that he resurrected the international fame of Poe, that master of mystery and melancholia, is questioned by some Poe scholars. But they do credit Mr. Porpora, a former advertising executive, with rescuing the cemetery at the former Westminster Presbyterian Church, now called Westminster Hall, where the writer is buried.

"I don't know what to say," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the nearby Poe House, who has nurtured for years the legend of the so-called Poe Toaster. Confronted with Mr. Porpora's assertion that the whole thing is a hoax, Mr. Jerome reacted like a man who's been punched in the stomach by his beloved grandfather. He's sad. He feels betrayed. But he's reluctant to punch back. "To say the toaster is a promotional hoax, well, all I can say is that's just not so." Could it be, to quote Poe, that "all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream?"

Mr. Porpora's story begins in the late 1960s. He'd just been made historian of the church, built in 1852 at Fayette and Greene Streets. There were fewer than 60 congregants and Mr. Porpora, in his 60s, was one of the youngest. The overgrown cemetery was a favourite of drunken derelicts.

The site needed money and publicity, Mr. Porpora recalled. That, he said, is when the idea of the Poe toaster came to him. The story, as Mr. Porpora told it to a local reporter then, was that the tribute had been laid at the grave on Poe's Jan. 19 birthday every year since 1949. Three roses - one for Poe, one for his wife and one for his mother-in-law - and a bottle of cognac were placed there, because Poe loved the stuff even though he couldn't afford to drink it unless someone else was buying.

The romantic image of the mysterious man in black caught the fancy of Poe fans and a tradition grew. Poe wrote such horror classics as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven.

In about 1977, Mr. Jerome began inviting a handful of people each year to a vigil for the mysterious stranger. The media began chronicling the arrivals and departures of a "Poe-like figure." In 1990, Life magazine published a picture of the shrouded individual. In 1993, he left a note saying "the torch would be passed." Another note in 1998 announced that the originator of the tradition had died. Later vigil-keepers reported that at least two toasters appeared to have taken up the torch in different years.

Members of the E. A. Poe Society insist they recall members of the old congregation - all now dead - talking about the Poe toaster before Mr. Porpora says he made it up. Stories since the 1970s refer to older newspaper accounts about the visitor. Mr. Jerome found a 1950 newspaper clipping that mentions "an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)" against the gravestone.

Mr. Porpora's account isn't consistent. He said in an interview with a reporter in 1967 that he invented the stranger, but the story to which he refers appeared in 1976. Shortly afterward, the vigils and the yearly chronicles of the stranger's visits began. During the same interview, Mr. Porpora said both that he made the story up and that one of his tour guides went through a pantomime of dressing up, sneaking into the cemetery and laying the tribute on the grave.

Mr. Porpora acknowledges that someone has since "become" the Poe toaster.


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