The Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe &
The Haunted Catacombs
This is a portion from the book
the Grave: The History of America's Most Haunted Cemeteries" by
Troy Taylor (January 2001)... This text comes from the chapter entitled
Located in Baltimore is one of the most compelling cemeteries on the east coast, although many people are unaware that a portion of it even exists. It is called the Old Western Burial Ground and it holds the remains of people like Edgar Allan Poe, the son of Francis Scott Key, the grandfather of President James Buchanan, five former mayors of Baltimore and fifteen generals from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Not all of the cemetery is easy to find, for the Westminster Presbyterian Church (now Westminster Hall), was built over a large portion of the cemetery. These graves and tombs date back to a century before the church was built. Much of the cemetery, where Poe is buried, is still accessible above ground in the churchyard but a large portion of the graveyard can only be reached by way of the catacombs underneath the building. It is here where the ghosts of this eerie graveyard are said to walk. Strangely though, these restless spirits are not the most enduring mystery of the Western Burial Ground.
This famous and unsolved mystery involves a man who has been seen in the graveyard for more than fifty years. Whoever this strange figure may be, he is always described in the same way. Dressed completely in black, including a black fedora and a black scarf to hide his face, he carries a walking stick and strolls into the cemetery every year on January 19, the birth date of Edgar Allan Poe. On every occasion, he has left behind a bottle of cognac and three red roses on the gravesite of the late author. After placing these items with care, he then stands, tips his hat and walks away. The offerings always remain on the grave, although one year, they were accompanied by a note, bearing no signature, which read: "Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you."
There have been many stories that claim the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe haunts his gravesite but the man in black seems to be quite tangible, although who he is remains a riddle. In addition, scholars and curiosity-seekers remain puzzled by the odd ritual he carries out and the significance of the items he leaves behind too. The roses and cognac have been brought to the cemetery every January since 1949 and yet no clue has been offered as to the origin or true meaning of the offerings.
The identity of the man has been an intriguing mystery for years. Many people, including Jeff Jerome, the curator of the nearby Edgar Allan Poe house, believe that there may be more than one person leaving the tributes. Jerome himself has seen a white-haired man while other observers have reported a man with black hair. Possibly, the second person may be the son of the man who originated the ritual. Regardless, Jerome has been quoted as saying that if he has his way, the man’s identity will never be known. This is something that most Baltimore residents agree with. Jerome has received numerous telephone calls from people requesting that no attempt ever be made to approach the man.
For some time, rumors persisted that Jerome was the mysterious man in black, so in 1983, he invited 70 people to gather at the graveyard at midnight on January 19. They had a celebration in honor of the author's birthday with a glass of amontillado, a Spanish sherry featured in one of Poe’s horror tales, and readings from the author’s works. At about an hour past midnight, the celebrants were startled to see a man run through the cemetery in a black frock coat. He was fair-haired and carrying a walking stick and quickly disappeared around the cemetery’s east wall. The roses and cognac were found on Poe's grave as usual.
The "Phantom Toaster" was captured on film in the July 1990 issue of LIFE Magazine. This mysterious figure comes to the burial ground every January. His identity remains a mystery
Not in an effort to solve the mystery, but merely to enhance it, Jerome allowed a photographer to try and capture the elusive man on film. The photographer was backed by LIFE Magazine and was equipped with rented infrared night-vision photo equipment. A radio signal triggered the camera so that the photographer could remain out of sight. The picture appeared in the July 1990 issue of LIFE and showed the back of a heavyset man kneeling at Poe's grave. His face cannot really be seen and as it was shadowed by his black hat. No one else has ever been able to photograph the mysterious man again.
Legend has it that the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe has been seen near his grave and in the catacombs of the church. The author died mysteriously in Baltimore and thus came to be buried there. He had lived in the city years before, but had only been passing through when he perished under mysterious circumstances. At the time of his death, Poe had been on his way to New York to meet his beloved mother-in-law. He was bringing her back to Richmond, Virginia, where the author was to marry his childhood sweetheart. His first wife had perished from tuberculosis years before.
The trip came to a tragic conclusion when, four days after reaching Baltimore, Poe was found barely conscious and lying in a gutter on East Lombard Street. He was rushed to a hospital but he died a short time later.
The entire time in the hospital was spent with Poe crying and trembling and he once screamed the name "Reynolds"... although who this could have been also remains a mystery. He died on October 7, 1849.
Some said Poe's death was caused by alcohol, others say that he was in a psychotic state and even rabies has been blamed. Other writers believe that he may have been drugged and murdered as the clothes that he wore were not his own and the walking stick he carried belonged to another man. There have been literally dozens of theories posed as to what caused Poe’s death but no one will ever know for sure. Perhaps the fact that his death remains unexplained is the reason why Poe’s ghost remains in the Old Western Burial Ground.
And it’s not the only place associated with Poe that claims to have a ghost. For Poe’s death to have come in Baltimore is strangely ironic as it was here in 1829 that he struggled to begin his writing career. He lived in a house on North Amity Street with his aunt and his cousin, Virginia Clemm, a young girl he married six years later. Poe’s years in Baltimore were a time of poverty and debt and marked him for life. He lived in an attic room that is accessible by a narrow, winding staircase and a doorway so small that an average-sized adult is forced to crawl through it. Although visitors to the house have reported unexplained cold spots in the place, Poe’s ghost is not believed to haunt it. However, there have been spectral sightings of a heavyset woman with gray hair and period clothing of the early 1800’s.
The house was vacant between 1922 and 1949, when it became a historical site and museum. Since the 1960's, the sounds of hushed voices have been heard and visitors have reported being touched by invisible hands and have seen doors and windows open by themselves.
The Western Burial Ground Catacombs
Without a doubt, while the mystery concerning Edgar Allan Poe is the most famous aspect of the Western Burial Ground, it is not the only one. The catacomb beneath the church holds secrets of its own. While restored and kept in good condition today, visitors to this place will still get an eerie chill as they walk about this gothic chamber of horrors. Graves and crypts hold the bodies of those long since deceased and yet stories of the not so distant past tell of unexplained disinterment and a strange fascination that drew a number of people to commit suicide here in the years between 1890 and 1920.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit this place a few years ago and found it to be both fascinating and spooky. While I had no supernatural encounters while roaming the catacombs and tunnels, others have not been so lucky. There are a number of stories told of visitors who have come here and who have felt icy spots that have no explanation, have felt the soft caress of unseen hands and have heard the startling whispers of voices that should not exist.
Guided tours of the subterranean cemetery are available on Sunday afternoons, but organized searches for ghosts here have been few. One outing, in August 1976, brought ten ghost hunters to the graveyard in search of the ghost of a little girl who has been reported here over the years. Robert Thompson, the leader of the group and at that time, behind a drive to restore the cemetery, stated that while the ghost hunters didn’t spot the small spirit, the investigation did not come up empty. "We didn’t see anything," he recalled in an interview, "but we sure heard things.... like footsteps. It scared the heck out of me is what it did".
- Beyond the Book Excerpt -Mystery Man Makes Annual Pilgrimage to Poe Grave
This news piece appeared on wire services after last year's appearance by the mysterious man in black!
January 20, 2000
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Beneath the glistening stars of a winter's night, a mysterious black-clad stranger made his yearly pilgrimage to the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, leaving behind three red roses and a bottle of French cognac. For more than half a century, a man wearing a black hat, black overcoat and white scarf has appeared between midnight and dawn on Jan. 19 in the gothic graveyard at Westminster Church to toast the author on his birthday.
In a tradition true to the spirit of the author famous for his eerie tales, no one knows the identity of the visitor or has ever guessed the origin or true meaning of the ritual at the grave where Poe lies buried alongside his wife Virginia and aunt Maria Clemm. This year, the stranger -- believed by some to be a son of the man who originated the ceremony in 1949 -- drank his toast at about 2 a.m. EST Wednesday, paused briefly with his hand on the obelisk tombstone and disappeared like the "dream within a dream" that was Poe's mournful image for the transience of human life.
The crowd that usually gathers outside the churchyard's brick wall to catch a glimpse of the visitor was kept indoors by sub-freezing temperatures.
"Everybody always wants to know who the guy is," said Jeff Jerome, curator of Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, who has held a pre-dawn vigil for the stranger inside Westminster Church each year since 1978. "But to quote Poe himself: 'There are some secrets that do not permit themselves to be revealed.' And this is one of them," he said.
Born in Boston in 1809, Poe is best known for his poem "The Raven" and for darkly conceived stories such as "The Telltale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." Jerome said the roses left behind at the grave are obvious tributes to Poe, his wife and his aunt. But the cognac's role in the ritual is a mystery unto itself. The curator maintains that Poe never mentioned the liquor in any of his stories, poems, essays or letters.
Author Troy Taylor at the Original Burial Site of Edgar Allan Poe
© Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor.
All Rights Reserved.