On July 28, 1841, the body of a young woman was found floating on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Her name was Mary Rogers and she was something of a celebrity in New York.
Known as ‘The beautiful cigar girl’, Mary was perhaps the first known example of a phenomenon with which we are familiar with today – an ordinary person famous for doing nothing very much at all.
To this day, her death remains unsolved.
And some have even suggested that her murderer was none other than Edgar Allen Poe.
The 21-year-old brunette had worked in the Broadway tobacco shop of John Anderson and her tremendous beauty was said to have brought people from far and wide: Actors, writers, journalists, celebrities, including such luminaries as James Fenimore Cooper – creator of The Last of the Mohicans – and Legend of Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving.
She left Anderson’s employ in 1839 – but not before she had vanished for three days, generating headline news. She was, after all, a celebrity.
However, she turned up again, telling the waiting journalists that she had been tired and had spent some time with friends in Brooklyn. There was speculation that it had all been a hoax to generate more publicity for the store, with the New York Sun also on board to sell more papers.
Then, in 1841, she vanished again.
This time she did not surface alive and well. This time there were no rumours that it was a publicity stunt.
This time she was dead.
The New York Tribune reported:
“A Horrible Murder.
On Sunday morning week, Miss Cecilia Rogers (who formerly attended John Anderson’s Tobacco Store in Broadway, and was known as ‘The Beautiful Cigar Girl’) left her home in Nassau Street for a walk, and at the corner of Theatre Alley she was met and accosted by a young man, apparently an acquaintance, with whom she proceeded toward Barclay Street as if for an excursion to Hoboken. Nothing further was heard of her that day by her friends, and alarmed by her non-appearance, they advertised for her in Tuesday’s papers. Still nothing was seen or heard of her till Wednesday, when Mr. H. G. Luther and two other gentlemen, who were passing the Sybil’s Cave near Castle Point, Hoboken, in a sail-boat, were shocked by the sight of the body of a young female in the water. They brought it ashore. A coroner’s inquest was summoned and it was proved to be the body of Miss Rogers, and it was evident that she had been horribly outraged and murdered! The inquest returned a verdict of murder by some person or persons unknown. We understand that the deceased was a young woman of good character and was soon to have been married to a worthy young man of this city.”
The coroner found marks on her throat that suggested she had been strangled and sexually assaulted. There were signs of a struggle. Articles of her clothing were found two months later in a wood nearby.
Suspicion originally fell on John Anderson but he was cleared.
Eyes also turned to her fiancé Daniel Payne. Eventually, the pressure broke him and he overdosed on laudanum on the shore near to where Mary’s body had been found.
In his pocket was a note that said ‘To the world, Here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.’
Was this an admission of guilt? Or was he so deep in despair and grief that he saw no other way out?
Another man was arrested but he was proved innocent. No further arrests were made. The case grew cold.
Then, one year after Mary’s death, Fredrica Loss, the owner of a New Jersey tavern, stated that Mary had visited her establishment in order to have an abortion. Such procedures were risky then and Mary suffered complications and died, the body being disposed of in the river.
Her version does not explain the strangulation marks.
Again, the case died. Remember, this was before New York had a police force and a proper, structured investigation was not possible.
It was left to Edgar Allen Poe to conduct the first serious investigation of the case.
And he did it through fiction.
Poe most certainly knew Mary Rogers thanks to her tobacco store celebrity. He may even have flirted with her.
Over the years there have been suggestions that he may have been responsible for her death. Novelist Irving Wallace examined the claim in his 1955 book The Fabulous Originals while other researchers have dredged it up over the years. I first read about it in The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts back in the 1970s.
Literary genius he may have been, but Poe was a disturbed, tortured individual. He was a poet with a cruel streak. Drink, drugs, aberrant sex encounters all formed part of his short, turbulent life.
Was he the man seen with Mary before she died?
Was she with him during her first vanishing act?
Did he know more about the murder than he let on?
He died aged 40. ‘Lord help my poor soul’ he said as he slipped away.
The fact is we will never know and there is scant evidence to make it much more than idle speculation.
What is known is that he used the case in his second detective story.
In November 1842, Poe began his three-part tale The Mystery of Marie Roget in the magazine Snowden’s Ladies Companion.
He had already created the genre with The Murders in the Rue Morgue – not just the first detective story but also the first locked room mystery, although the solution, that an orang utang did it, is to modern eyes somewhat ludicrous.
Nevertheless, it introduced readers to the notion of an analytical detective (Poe called the method ratiocination) in the person of C. Auguste Dupin.
In the second tale, he has his detective sitting in a shuttered room, studying newspaper accounts of the murder of the beautiful young Marie Roget, who worked in a Parish perfumerie.
The facts related in the story follow the real-life case closely, making it also (arguably) the first work of faction.
In the end, Dupin concludes that a sailor was responsible and that the death was a crime of passion, although it all ends somewhat lamely, perhaps because the Fredrica Loss revelation was made before the third part was published.
The influence of Mary’s tragically short life on crime fiction did not end there.
Journalist Charles Burdett was said to have reported on the real-life case and is believed to have used elements of it in his 1848 novel The Gambler, or The Policeman’s Story.
This novel is widely recognised as the first American detective novel.
The preface told readers that the events depicted were all factually correct and that he had access to a police officer who investigated the case.
Unlike Poe’s take, Burdett’s novel was an excuse to moralise on the dangers of gambling and few copies survive today.
We will never know now what really happened to poor Mary Rogers.
But she lives on in Poe’s work.
And that will never die.