Mystery of Poe’s grave deepens

He sneaks into the cemetery every year at night in the dead of winter, the mysterious man in black, to pay his respects at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. And in his wake, he never fails to leave three roses and a bottle of cognac.

For decades this mystery has drawn thousands to the famed poet’s grave in the heart of Baltimore and spawned much speculation. Why the black garb? Why cognac? And just who is this man?

Last week, Sam Porpora, a Poe historian, stepped forward with a shocking announcement: He was the man in black. But instead of solving the mystery, he has only deepened it.

Wizened and white-haired at 92, Porpora is a resident of a retirement home near Baltimore, happy to tell a reporter about his efforts to save the dilapidated church and cemetery where Poe was buried in downtown Baltimore. He talked about almost everything except the man in black, the three roses and the cognac.

“Oh, you want to know about that?” he asked. He leaned in and said, “It was me.”

Ever since he made his announcement, the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore has been flooded with calls about Porpora’s claim.

Museum curator Jeff Jerome, after all, was the one who noticed the roses and cognac and brought the event to light 30 years ago. Ever since, as curator of the Poe House and Museum, he has protected the mysterious legend watching but never interfering or letting others interfere with the ritual.

If anyone could confirm Porpora’s claim with some authority, it would be Jerome. So as more people called, he agonized over what to say.

“It’s not Sam,” Jerome said finally. “He’s like a mentor to me and I love him, but, believe me, it’s not him.”

Jerome said, after struggling to find a more delicate way: “There are holes so big in Sam’s story, you could drive a Mack truck through them.”

The two men met in 1976. Jerome was 24, a photographer for a food industry publication. Porpora, then 61, was the man who had almost single-handedly saved from disregard and decay Westminster Presbyterian Church, where Poe was buried.

Under Porpora, Jerome became a tour guide. Early on, he came across a decades-old article that mentioned briefly an “anonymous citizen who creeps in annually to place an empty bottle (of excellent label) against the tomb of Poe.”

So on a whim in 1977, on Poe’s Jan. 19 birthday, Jerome stopped by the author’s grave and was astonished to find a bottle and three roses.

Other Poe devotees began accusing Jerome of making up the incident, so he brought others with him in following years. In 1981, peering together from the catacomb windows, they saw someone dressed in a black fedora, white scarf and black coat walking in the darkness.

About the same time, Porpora was being forced out of his role as Poe’s local guardian. Many say he was let go because of his flair for the dramatic. Porpora had begun embellishing his tours with historically dubious stories. He talked of a mass burial grave at the church from the Revolutionary War that was later debunked and of a visit to the cemetery by Poe, which some historians doubt had occurred.

So when Porpora announced that he had invented the rose-and-cognac tradition, others in Baltimore’s Poe community were unconvinced.

Among the many problems with Porpora’s claim, the biggest is his insistence that he began the ritual as a stunt to garner attention for the church in 1967. But church members had talked about the tradition dating back to 1949.

Digging through archives at the Maryland Historical Society, Jerome found the article that had led him to discover the cognac and roses. It was dated 1950. And there are other inconsistencies in Porpora’s story, which has changed a bit since he first made his claim.

In some versions, he made up the tale for a newspaper story, which appears to have run in 1976. In others, he was the figure in black.

Porpora attributes people’s doubts to how popular and speculative the tradition has become since he says he began it. For Jerome, however, there is no doubt: Porpora’s claim could not be true. The 1950 article is proof.

A few years ago, the mystery man left a note for Jerome, along with the bottle and roses, that said, “The torch will be passed.”

The next year, he said, a noticeably younger man appeared with another note. The man in black had passed away, the note read, but his two sons will continue his tradition.

The last note from the two sons contained something else, personal information, Jerome said, that he just can’t talk about.

Jerome insists that he still does not know the identity of the man or those of his successors.

“But if I found out who did it, I wouldn’t even tell my wife,” he said.

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