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Mysterious 'Poe Toaster' Returns for Writer's 200th Birthday

To mark the 200th anniversary of writer Edgar Allan Poe's birth, a mysterious visitor again placed three red roses and a half-filled bottle of cognac at Poe's grave in Baltimore before quietly slipping away.

The curator of the Poe House and Museum, Jeff Jerome, said about 50 people waited outside the cemetery of Westminster Presbyterian Church, hoping to catch a glimpse Monday of the elusive man known as the "Poe toaster." The man returns each year in the early morning darkness on Poe's birthday.

Jerome says the visitor did not leave any note, not even to comment on the milestone anniversary. He adds the crowd was smaller than he expected and was better behaved than the rowdy groups that have attended the vigil in recent years.

Poe's enduring literary works, brief life and mysterious death will be marked by an exhibit at two universities in honor of his 200th birthday.

"From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe," opening March 7 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville then moving to the University of Texas, will feature manuscripts of "The Raven" and other works, books, letters and his writing desk. It will also explore Poe's romantic relationships, the decline and resurrection of his literary reputation, and his influence on the genre of mystery literature.

Visitors can take guided tours and hear gallery talks about the 19th-century author, too.

Poe is regarded as a true master of American literature, and "one of the people who changed American literature from being provincial, small-minded, nationalistic literature to something that had standards," said Ray Nelson, a U.Va. professor of American literary history and American poetry.

His macabre writings introduced the idea that literature should "expand or drive the mind beyond its limitations," Nelson said.

Poe was born Jan. 19, 1809, in Boston to actors Elizabeth Arnold Poe and David Poe. After his mother's death in 1811, he was sent to live with prosperous Richmond tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife.

After attending private schools, Poe enrolled at U.Va. in 1826. He was a good student but was forced to drop out after less than a year in part because Allan declined to help cover his gambling debts. Allan ultimately disowned Poe, and money troubles haunted the writer for the rest of his life.

Poe is credited with writing the first modern detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which appeared in 1841 in Graham's Magazine, where Poe worked an editor.

"'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' pits a brilliant mind against a criminal, animalistic act," Nelson said. "It's the model for all the traditional mystery stories, including Sherlock Holmes and the whole British school."

The writer's other works include "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Pit and the Pendulum," which have frightened generations of readers.

Poe is considered the first notable American to try to make a living solely by writing, working at newspapers and magazines in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Richmond and Baltimore. Impoverished, he died in Baltimore under mysterious circumstances on Oct. 7, 1849. He was 40.

Depression, difficulties with drinking, and the loss of key figures in his life — including his mother's fatal illness, a broken engagement and his young wife's death — certainly are reflected in his dark works.

"From Out That Shadow" is a collective effort by U.Va., the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Free Library of Philadelphia and other libraries and museums. The exhibit will run at U.Va.'s Harrison Institute March 7-Aug. 1, and at the Harry Ransom Center Sept. 8-Jan. 4, 2010.