Most people would steer clear of a cemetery after dark, especially one that contains the remains of a figure as forlorn as Edgar Allan Poe.
For 60 years, an enigmatic individual – known locally as The Poe Toaster – paid an annual midnight visit to Poe’s grave. This person (or persons) would leave a simple tribute of a partially consumed bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s grave. That tradition ended in 2009 on the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth. Sadly, sometime this past weekend, the master of the macabre had another midnight visitor; one who left a scarlet stain on the dead poet’s marble monument.
Jeff Jerome, the now retired curator of the Poe House and Museum, discovered the discoloration when he stopped by for a visit early Sunday morning.
“It appears to me that it was a deliberate pour (of some liquid) on the stone. If a bottle was thrown and then hit the monument there would have been a splash effect. In my many years associated with the graveyard, I’ve seen smashed bottles on the monuments, and this was no random splatter.”
Jerome alerted Mark Redfield, the former spokesman for the non-profit group Poe Baltimore. Redfield subsequently dropped by the cemetery on Sunday evening to have a look at the damage for himself.
“The stain is wide and the length of the monument, and is purple in color. It was odorless and seemed to have seeped into the stone. My best guess is that it was wine.” Redfield agreed with Jerome’s assessment that the stain was the result of a deliberate pour, wondering if it might not be the consequence of a misguided fan.
Redfield told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that he has been in touch with Mary Jo Rodney, the head of Westminster Hall. “She is fully aware of what happened and has assured me they will be taking whatever action is needed to have the monument cleaned.” Redfield noted that the monument has some other areas of staining and oxidation where it could use some minor restoration but said, “Westminster Hall is insured for acts of vandalism.”
Poe died and was buried in Baltimore in 1849, in a family plot in the rear of the Westminster Burial grounds. His unmarked grave soon fell into neglect, a situation which alarmed his surviving relatives. A monument was commissioned around 1860 by his cousin, Neilson Poe, but was destroyed in a freak railroad accident before it could be set. A second and grander monument came about through the efforts of George W. Childs of Philadelphia, a Baltimore school teacher named Sara Sigourney Rice, and thousands of children who were able to contribute through the Pennies for Poe campaign. In 1875, Poe’s remains were moved to the northwest corner of the cemetery and there re-interred beneath the new monument beside his wife, Virginia and his aunt, Maria Clemm.
The marble monument measures almost seven feet tall and tapers downward from about three to four feet wide. The front features a bronze bas-relief bust of the dead poet, with Poe’s full name in capital letters on the base. Each of the other sides carries a different inscription for Maria Clemm, Virginia and Edgar Allan Poe. It is the west side of the monument – the one with the inscription for Edgar – which was damaged by the act of vandalism.
Chancing upon the malicious mischief on Monday morning was Rob Task of Houston, Texas. Task told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that he is a literature fan and was using his time in Baltimore to visit sites associated with Poe.
“I wanted to go to the house/museum too, but I just found out it has been closed. That’s really unfortunate.” Task wondered if the stains on the monument were an overt act of vandalism, and he stressed if that was indeed the case, it was certainly, “Tragic.”
Holly Warren, a pediatric nurse at neighboring University of Maryland Medical Center, was visiting the grave on behalf of a patient when she witnessed firsthand the vandalism.
“A patient asked if I would mind slipping by and taking a photograph for him. I guess he heard about the vandalism through social media.” Warren said.
A New Jersey native, Warren admitted that, although she has lived and worked here for over eight years, Monday was her first actual visit to Poe’s grave. “I walk by here all the time, Warren said, “I’ve just never taken the time to stop in for a visit.”
Warren said the vandalism was, “Not nice,” and added, “It just ruins (the experience) for other people.”
The damage to the grave site is just the latest trouble to befall Poe’s Baltimore legacy. In 2010, the City of Baltimore cut its annual funding of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum. The internationally known attraction continued to operate on reserve funds for another 18 months until the city finally shuttered it in September, 2012. Shortly after its closing, the museum was the target of vandals, who adorned the entry with graffiti and then made off with the front stairs.
Editors Note: Plans to refurbish and reopen the museum by October 2013 are slowly moving forward. In the meantime, Poe Forevermore will be staging a fundraising event June 28th at Westminster Hall. The event which will present three classic Poe tales in an old style radio format, is the work of Tony Tsendeas and Mark Redfield and will feature actors John Astin, Patty Coleman, Mary Anne Perry, Chris Pfingsten and David Crandall. Information about this event may be found here.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”