Monday, November 2, 2009

Mary Rogers, the Beautiful Cigar Girl

When Mary Rogers, the young clerk at John Anderson’s tobacco store, disappeared in July 1841, Manhattan’s literary elite took notice. James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Edgar Alan Poe all frequented Anderson’s shop and were enchanted by the beautiful cigar girl. When her battered corpse was found on the shore of the Hudson River, they helped make her death a national story. Though many have speculated on the identity of Mary Rogers's killer, her death remains one of America’s great unsolved mysteries.

Date:  July 25, 1841

Location:  Hoboken, New Jersey

Victims:  Mary Cecilia Rogers

Cause of Death:  Strangulation

Accused: Daniel Payne, others.


Mary Rogers, the beautiful cigar girl, was so well known in Manhattan that when she went missing for several days in 1838 the New York newspapers reported her disappearance, suspecting suicide or foul play. Mary had only been visiting friends without telling her mother. When she returned, the press reported that her disappearance had been a hoax, possibly a publicity stunt orchestrated by her employer John Anderson.

Mary Cecilia Rogers was 17 when she began working at Anderson's tobacco shop and he paid her well because her "dainty figure and pretty face" brought many admirers into the store. They included some of the most famous writers of the day as well as reporters and editors of the many New York newspapers.

On Sunday, July 25, 1841, Mary went out after church to visit a relative, Mrs. Downings. That afternoon a severe thunderstorm hit New York and when Mary didn't return that evening her mother assumed she had stayed with Mrs. Downings to wait out the storm. Monday she learned that Mrs. Downings had not seen Mary and had not been expecting her. This time Mary did not return. Soon after, the battered body of a young woman was found near Hoboken, New Jersey, on the shore of the Hudson River. The coroner found finger marks had been found on her throat, suggesting she had been strangled. The body was identified as Mary Rogers by her former fiancĂ©, Alfred Crommelin.

The discovery whipped the New York City newspapers into a froth, as they competed with each other to uncover suspects and theorize what had happened. Chief among the early suspects was Daniel Payne, Mary's boyfriend at the time of her death. The gangs of New York were also accused, causing the papers to put the blame on police incompetence.

Several weeks later, some articles of women's clothing, including a handkerchief with the initials "M. R.", were discovered near the spot where the body had been found. Mrs. Frederica Loss ran a tavern called Nick Moore's House, not far from where the body was found She remembered that a young woman had come in with a man on July 25. They dined at the tavern and left. Later in the evening Mrs. Loss heard a scream outside.

Though Daniel Payne had an airtight alibi for the time of Mary's death, he continued to be a suspect. As the weeks progressed his sanity began slipping away. He started drinking heavily and had reported seeing Mary's ghost. On October 7 he took a ferry to Hoboken, got drunk at Mrs. Loss's tavern then went outside and drank enough laudanum to kill himself. He died at the same spot Mary had. In his pocket was a note that said, "May God forgive me for my misspent life." Though some took this as admission of guilt, most believed he had been driven mad by despair.

A year later, Frederica Loss was shot, apparently accidently, by her son. On her deathbed she confessed that Mary Rogers had come to her tavern that Sunday night with a tall and dark doctor who performed an abortion on her. Mary had died of complications and Mrs. Loss's son had taken her body to the river. Although it contradicted some of the facts of the case – the strangulation marks on Mary’s neck, and the coroner’s assertion that the girl had been "a person of chastity and correct habits" – Mrs. Loss’s story became the popularly accepted truth.

Newspaper offered several speculations as to the identity of Mary Roger’s seducer and killer, but the police did not accept Mrs. Loss’s story and no arrests were ever made. Eventually the papers lost interest as well.

Literary interests have kept the story of Mary Roger's death alive. In 1842 Edgar Alan Poe published Mystery of Marie Roget, a retelling of Mary's story set in Paris, France. Later writer's continued to speculate on the identity of her killer, accusing Daniel Payne, Alfred Crommelin, John Anderson, and others In his 1955 book The Fabulous Originals, Irving Wallace suggested that Poe himself may have been Mary's killer. However, none of the theories have been convincing enough to solve the mystery. Mary Roger's death is destined to remain one of America's great unsolved crimes.

The Murder Mystery of Mary Rogers
"The Mystery of Marie Roget" by Edgar Alan Poe

Srebnick, Amy Gilman. The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York New York (Studies in the History of Sexuality). New York: Oxford UP, USA, 1997.

Stashower, Daniel. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. New York: Berkley Trade, 2007.

Wallace, Irving, Fabulous Originals: Lives of Extraordinary People Who Inspired Memorable Characters in Fiction, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1955


Unknown says:
May 16, 2017 at 9:13 PM

I read she had died from a botched abortion.

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