Former historian claims to be creator of Poe gravesite visitor

For decades, a mysterious figure crept into a churchyard to lay three roses and a bottle of cognac at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. Now, a 92-year-old man who led the fight to preserve the historic site says the visitor was his creation.

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.

Sam Porpora shares memorabilia and talks about his fascination with Edgar Allan Poe and the mystery behind an annual visitor to Poe's gravesite. ((Gail Burton/Associated Press))

Now, a 92-year-old man 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."

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 Porpora coming forward now?

"I really can't tell you," Porpora answered. "I love Poe. I love talking about Poe. I had a lot to do with making Poe a universal figure. I'm doing it because of my love for the story."

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 Porpora, a former advertising executive, with rescuing the cemetery at Westminster Presbyterian Church where the writer is buried.

"I don't know what to say," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House in Baltimore, who has nurtured for years the legend of the so-called Poe Toaster. Confronted with Porpora's assertion that the whole thing is a hoax, 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.

"He's like a mentor to me," Jerome said of Porpora. "And I can tell you that if it weren't for him, Westminster Hall may not be there. But 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?"

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

The site needed money and publicity, Porpora recalled. That, he said, is when the idea of the Poe toaster came to him.

Three roses

The story, as 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, 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.

In about 1977, 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.

For Jeffrey A. Savoye, secretary-treasurer of the E.A. Poe Society of Baltimore, the tradition acquired a life of its own.

"Even if Sam's story is true, so what? It's a tradition. It's a nice tradition, whether it dates back to 1949 or the '70s," Savoye said.

Members of the Poe Society insist they recall members of the old congregation — all now dead — talking about the Poe toaster before Porpora says he made it up.

Older newspaper accounts

Stories since the 1970s refer to older newspaper accounts about the visitor. Jerome found a 1950 newspaper clipping from The (Baltimore) Evening Sun that mentions "an anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle [of excellent label]" against the gravestone.

Porpora's account isn't consistent. He said he invented the stranger in an interview with a reporter in 1967, 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, 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.

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

"For us, it was a one-time thing. If I could have brought Edgar Allen Poe back to life, I would have — that would have been the biggest promotion of all," he said. "But who would have thought people would jump on it the way they did?"

Jerome said the vigils will continue.

"Next Jan. 19, I'm going to keep the vigil — same as I've always done," he said. "Either he shows or he doesn't show. Either others join me or they don't. My guess is, this will not affect anything."