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Controversy doesn't deter 'Poe toaster' from annual visit to grave

BALTIMORE - Undeterred by controversy, a mysterious visitor paid his annual tribute at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe early Saturday, placing three red roses and a half-filled bottle of cognac before stealing away into the darkness. Nearly 150 people had gathered outside the cemetery of Westminster Presbyterian Church, but the man known as the 'Poe toaster' was, as usual, able to avoid being spotted by the crowd, said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House and Museum. The tribute takes place every Jan. 19 - the anniversary of Poe's birth. The visitor did not leave a note, Jerome said, electing not to respond to questions raised in the past year about the history and authenticity of the tribute. Sam Porpora, a former church historian who led the fight to preserve the cemetery, claimed last summer that he cooked up the idea of the Poe toaster in the 1970s as a publicity stunt. 'We did it, myself and my tour guides,' Porpora, a former advertising executive, said in August. 'It was a promotional idea.' Porpora said someone else has since 'become' the Poe toaster. Jerome disputes Porpora's claims and says the tribute began in 1949 at the latest, pointing to a 1950 article in The (Baltimore) Evening Sun that mentions 'an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label)' against the gravestone. Jerome invites a handful of Poe enthusiasts to join him inside the church every year but withholds details of the tribute in an effort to help the toaster maintain his anonymity. He said the visitor no longer wears the wide-brimmed hat and scarf he donned in the past. In 1993, the visitor left a note reading, 'The torch will be passed.' A later note said the man, who apparently died in 1998, had handed the tradition on to his two sons. This year's visitor was the same man who has come to the grave site many times in the past, Jerome said. 'We recognize him from his build, the way he walks,' he said. 'It would be very easy for us, visually, to see if this were a different person.'