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He came upon a morning frigid. Six-foot-five and walking rigid.

Carrying on a ritual that has remained shrouded in mystery for 48 years, an unknown visitor placed a bottle of cognac and three red roses on the grave of poet Edgar Allan Poe at Westminster Church in Baltimore in the icy darkness at 4:45 a.m. Sunday, Poe's birthday.This year's visitor held the 15 Poe aficionados who watched silently from the warmth of the church spellbound. The torch, passed two years ago to an apparently younger man, had been passed again, this time to a towering, lean giant, more daring and flamboyant than his predecessors.

"Seeing this dark figure coming down the street with his cloak flowing, the wide-brimmed dark hat, all black - I don't think I will ever forget what I saw last night," said Jeff Jerome, the Poe House curator, who has watched the ritual for 15 years. "It was mesmerizing watching this guy,"

The stranger did not creep into the rear of the cemetery to the site of Poe's original grave. Instead, he strode up to the monument at the front of the church, where Poe was reburied in 1875, drank a long toast, then bent over and kissed the relief image of the poet carved into the monument.

Then, as quickly as he swept in, he left.

"This guy looked sinister, but when he went to the Poe monument it was just a tender and touching moment to see this dark, brooding figure do something so touching," Jerome said.

The three roses are thought to represent the poet, his wife, and her mother. All are buried in the tiny, brick-walled cemetery.

Poe is best-known for his bleak tales of horror, such as "The Raven," and "The Telltale Heart."

The identity of the visitor dressed in black topcoat and fedora has remained a riddle since the ritual began in 1949, a century after Poe died.

The aging visitor believed to be the original carried on the tradition until 1993, when he left a cryptic note saying, "The torch will be passed."