Behind the mask

What we don’t know about the Valentine’s Phantom — and why that’s a good thing
By JEFF INGLIS  |  February 13, 2008

The identity of Portland’s Valentine’s Phantom is the city’s best-kept secret, bar none. And that’s not changing here, so if that’s what you expect from this article, turn the page and see what someone else will do for love, because we won’t do that.

In a city where secrets are few and far between — the PortlandPSST blogger; how much Reynolds Wrap the Tinfoil Man uses each year; the real meaning of the “Tracing the Fore” sculpture — this one has lasted. And lasted.

Each year since 1976, someone (or some group) hangs white pieces of paper with bright red hearts on doors, windows, and walls all over town, and caps off the display with a few large banners and flags slung from prominent buildings (though not the Time and Temp Building yet — we’re waiting...). A similar phenomenon has been going strong in Montpelier, Vermont, since the early 1990s, and someone from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, posted a Craigslist note in December expressing interest in bringing the tradition there.

The most surprising thing is that people don’t actually want to know who is doing it. Even here in the office, as we tried to score an interview with one of the perpetrators, we didn’t want to know. It would have been an anonymous interview. It’s much nicer to not know, really. (One person we talked to did relay a message said to be from the Phantom, saying the Phantom doesn’t want to be contacted, and that if the Phantom wanted to surface, it would have happened long ago.)

The first report of a Valentine Phantom in Portland was in the February 14, 1976, issue of Portland’s Evening Express: a photo and a long caption describing the sudden appearance of red hearts on white paper taped all over the city on Valentine’s Day morning. (The three-year-old girl pictured with the unexplained decorations, now an adult living in Wisconsin, says she remembers it “like it was yesterday,” and has a copy of that picture in her family photo album, but disclaims any knowledge of the people behind the hearts.)

There have been other media mentions throughout the years, in local papers and TV stations, and even on CNN. But only once has anyone actually interviewed the Valentine’s Phantom (and nobody has asked him, or her, or them, whether “Phantom” is the preferred term — “Bandit” is the word as often used in conversation).

That was back in 2005, when Portland City Council candidate Carol Schiller claimed to have started the tradition in the early 1980s (see “City Council Race Hearts Up,” by Beatrice Marovich, October 21, 2005).

As we said earlier, the Valentine’s Phantom doesn’t like publicity, but he apparently likes even less the idea of someone else taking credit for his work. He promptly responded with both paper evidence and a phone call to the Phoenix offices, in which he provided, among other tidbits, a receipt from a now-defunct Forest Avenue printing shop, purportedly for making the signs for the 1977 banditry (see “She Said, He Said,” by Sam Pfeifle and Sara Donnelly, November 11, 2005). And he offered more info on the phone, including the night-time temperature on February 13, 1979 (8 degrees), and the number of people helping out that evening (six).

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