There's no mystery to Poe's allure

On the eve of the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe's birth, multiple cities are laying claim to this master of the macabre with commemorations ranging from a Victorian séance in Richmond, Va., to a period costume contest in Baltimore, to a debate in Philadelphia over which city has legitimate claim to his legacy.

"All these cities have a (Poe) site. But it seems like suddenly people are coming out of the woodwork claiming Poe belongs to them," says Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. "I find it very amusing. After the 200th birthday, these people will drop Poe like an empty bottle of amontillado."

The author of dark classics such as The Raven and The Cask of Amontillado and regarded as the father of detective fiction, Poe got around during his lifetime. Born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1809, he spent his childhood in Richmond and later lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York before his still-unexplained death at age 40 while passing through Baltimore.

Poe is among the most celebrated of American writers, and four museums are dedicated to his memory. The oldest is a namesake museum in Richmond, established in 1922. It claims the largest collection of Poe artifacts, including manuscripts, clothing and a lock of his hair.

Raised in Richmond by foster parents after the death of his mother, Poe was preparing to return when he died, says museum executive director Katarina Spears. And though the homes in which he lived have long been demolished, his ties to the capital and the state (he attended the University of Virginia) are extensive.

For its part, the Richmond museum will throw a 24-hour birthday bash, starting at 11:59 a.m. on Sunday. Festivities include a Champagne toast at midnight and a 2 a.m. Victorian séance "guaranteed" to bring the author back from the dead, says Keith Kaufelt, a museum guide and occasional Poe impersonator (who will be working that night).

In Philadelphia, where Poe had some of his most productive years while living on Seventh Street from 1838 to 1844, new exhibits open Saturday. The house is a national historic site operated by the National Park Service since 1978.

And in the Bronx, N.Y., the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, where the author wrote the poems Annabel Lee and The Bells, has been restored to its appearance in 1846-49, when Poe occupied it. Actor Tristan Laurence will give a performance there on Sunday.

Poe lived in the row house on Amity Street in Baltimore for only about three years in his early 20s. But his father was from there, and Poe is buried in Westminster Burial Ground there. Birthday festivities will run this weekend and Jan. 31-Feb. 1, with a multifaceted program at Westminster Hall, the former church near Poe's grave. Highlights include actor John Astin (of Gomez Addams fame) channeling Poe.

If you ask Jerome, Baltimore has done more than any other city to promote Poe's image. In the 1870s, the original grave was moved to a more prominent spot and a monument was erected. The Amity Street row house became a namesake museum in 1949 (and is now owned by the city). Fans voted to name the football team the Ravens in a salute to the poem. And every year since about 1949, a mysterious figure known as "the toaster" leaves three red roses and a half-empty bottle of good Cognac on Poe's grave on the writer's birthday.

Jerome says it would be easy to figure out the person's identity, "but that would ruin the tradition. To quote Poe: 'There are some secrets that suffer themselves not to be revealed.' That's one of them."