Never More Doubt

Edgar Allan Poe historian Sam Porpora says he began the tradition of leaving roses and cognac at the poet's grave, but others don't believe him.
Edgar Allan Poe historian Sam Porpora says he began the tradition of leaving roses and cognac at the poet's grave, but others don't believe him. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007

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?

This 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 still dresses with the impeccable conviction of a former ad man. A resident of a retirement home near Baltimore, he often spends his afternoons telling stories to whomever he can find in the lobby. Sitting with a visitor this week, Porpora held a stack of old photos and news clippings.

"What do you want to know?" he asked, not pausing for an answer. He rattled off story after story -- about his childhood and 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 this week, 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 and 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."

Sitting in a creaky chair at the Baltimore house where Poe once lived, Jerome searched for the right words. To criticize Porpora would be akin to attacking his own father, he explained. If it weren't for Porpora, Jerome might not have become a Poe fanatic. And yet, 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.

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