Se­cret of the Poe Toaster un­masked?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Wi­ley Hall

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 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 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 has 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 Mr. Por­pora com­ing for­ward now?

“I re­ally can’t tell you,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Por­pora’s be­lief that he res­ur­rected the in­ter­na­tional fame of Poe, mas­ter of mys­ter y and me­lan­cho­lia, is ques­tioned by some Poe schol­ars. But they do credit Mr. 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 so­called Poe Toaster.

Con­fronted with Mr. Por­pora’s as­ser­tion that the whole thing is a hoax, Mr. Jerome re­acted like a man who has been punched in the stom­ach by his beloved grand­fa­ther. He is sad. He feels be­trayed. But he is re­luc­tant to punch back.

“He’s like a men­tor to me,” Mr. Jerome said of Mr. 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”?

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

The site needed money and pub­lic­ity, Mr. Por­pora re­called. That, he said, was 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, be­cause Poe loved the stuff even though he couldn’t af­ford to drink it un­less some­one else was buy­ing.

The im­age of the mys­te­ri­ous man in black caught the fancy of Poe fans, and a tra­di­tion grew.

In about 1977, Mr. Jerome be­gan invit­ing a few peo­ple each year to a vigil for the mys­te­ri­ous stranger. The press be­gan chron­i­cling the ar­rivals and de­par­tures of a “Poe-like fig­ure.” In 1990, Life mag­a­zine pub­lished a pic­ture of the shrouded vis­i­tor. 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, sec­re­tary­trea­surer 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,” Mr. Savoye said.

Mem­bers of the Poe So­ci­ety in­sist they re­call mem­bers of the old con­gre­ga­tion — all now dead — talk­ing about the Poe Toaster be­fore Mr. Por­pora made it up, as he claims. Sto­ries since the 1970s re­fer to older news­pa­per ac­counts about the vis­i­tor. A 1950 clip­ping from the Bal­ti­more Evening Sun 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 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 yearly chron­i­cles be­gan.

Dur­ing the same in­ter­view, Mr. Por­pora said, he made up the story 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.

“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?” The vig­ils will con­tinue. “Next Jan­uary 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.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Sam Por­pora, who led the fight to pre­serve the his­toric site where Edgar Allen Poe is buried, says he cre­ated the leg­end of the mys­te­ri­ous vis­i­tor to the au­thor’s grave.

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