In 1838, a girl named Mary Rogers disappeared from her home in New York City. Miss Rogers wasn’t just any girl, though—she was famous for her beauty, which was on display at the cigar store in Lower Manhattan where she worked as a salesgirl. The owner of the store, John Anderson, knew Mary from his neighborhood and was clever enough to realize that someone with her looks would bring in business; the men who came to the store to see her and flirt with her had to eventually buy something, didn’t they?
Mary Rogers became the talk of the town quickly enough, despite being, as one newspaper described her, “unencumbered by position or achievement.” So when she disappeared, there was a flurry of dismay in the papers. A note apparently written by Mary alluded to the idea of suicide, but one newspaper, in a rather waggish tone, suggested that she had eloped with a handsome, mysterious stranger.
Mary came home after a few weeks. She just said she had been visiting friends and no one ever found out whether that was true or not. She soon stopped working at the cigar store and instead helped her mother run a boarding house. On a hot Sunday in July 1841, Mary disappeared again. A few days later her body washed ashore in Hoboken.
The murder investigation got off to a sluggish start; New York City didn’t really have a police force, just a shaky system of poorly regarded constables and local magistrates. Unsurprisingly, the first big concern was over who should pay for the investigation. Her body had been found in New Jersey, so they should pay, said the New York City government. She lived in New York, had most likely been murdered there and had just happened to end up in New Jersey, so they should pay, argued NJ. Some things never change.
Fortunately, the tabloid press of the day knew a good story when they saw one—a beautiful girl might be able to sell some papers, but a beautiful, dead girl would undoubtedly sell many more. James Gordon Bennett, editor of the Tribune, had had a great success covering the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett, though in a fashion considered shockingly lurid. He sensed a repeat of that success in the death of Mary Rogers and led the charge to find her murderer, effectively shaming the authorities into action. Many of the other papers professed disgust at Bennett’s over the top style, but had to follow to keep up. Theories about Rogers’ murder appeared in all the newspapers: she was killed by one of the dangerous gangs that roved through the city; she was murdered by her fiancé, a man with his own bad reputation; she was killed by a sailor—after all, her bonnet had been tied under her chin with a knot only a sailor would know. One newspaper insisted that she was not dead, stating with authority that the body had decomposed too much for one who had likely been murdered only one or two days before. They suggested that she had eloped and had been seen in Pittsburgh. One of Mary’s ex-suitors thought that she had been kidnapped and forced to work in one of Hoboken’s notorious houses of prostitution, and had been murdered by a client.
Things got more complicated when the sons of a Hoboken innkeeper found pieces of Mary’s clothes scattered around a nearby thicket. No sooner had this evidence come to light then Mary’s fiancé visited the ostensible crime scene and, showing a fine sense of melodrama, killed himself with an overdose of alcohol and laudanum.
All of this made for good fun for the newspapers for a few months but no progress was made. Suspects were interviewed by the police but they all were able to provide alibis. Eventually another big murder case grabbed the attention of the newspapers and the people became preoccupied with that, forgetting about Mary Rogers.
In Philadelphia, Edgar Allan Poe didn’t forget. He had followed the case closely and now had an outrageous idea. His 1841 story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring C. Auguste Dupin, a French man who solved a murder case using logic and deduction, had been a success. Poe, as always in dire financial straits and needing another hit, proposed a story based closely on the Mary Rogers case. However, his version, set in Paris, would feature Dupin and would end with Dupin solving the murder.
Poe’s story was to be serialized in three parts but right before the publication of the third part, new theories surfaced about Mary Rogers’ murder. Hoboken was not only known for its fine river views and prostitutes, but was also a good place to get an abortion if a girl couldn’t afford the high-end Fifth Avenue services of the notorious Madame Restell (even back then, Hoboken thrived on the concept of being “just like Manhattan, but cheaper!”). Now it was proposed that Mary Rogers had died during a botched abortion, her body thrown into the Hudson as a cover-up.
None of this was part of Poe’s plan. Suddenly he had to revise his conclusion to at least leave an opening for the new theory, while not completely contradicting all the groundwork he had laid in the two previous parts.
How did Poe save his story? Did he solve the murder? Did anyone ever solve the murder? What did it all mean, anyway? This is the stuff of Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder.
Stashower, a mystery writer and biographer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was, I would guess, attracted to this story for all the reasons set out in the title. You’ve got Mary Rogers, a beautiful girl who was famous for being famous, an irresistible parallel to all the forgettable starlets in our own tabloid era. You toss Poe into the mix, and his life story and larger-than-life personality are always good fun. Then there is the curious notion of “the invention of murder.” Presumably Stashower and/or his publisher were referring to the idea of the murder mystery/detective story, or the sensationalism of the true crime drama; murder played out as sport or parlor game in the pages of the newspapers.
Stashower carefully traces the steps of Mary’s last day, the search for the missing girl, the discovery of her body, and the subsequent murder investigation, both by the press and the police, such as they were. All of this seems well-researched and is clearly laid-out. The various personalities involved—Mary’s fiancé, her ex-suitor, her mother, and the innkeeper in Hoboken where her body was found—are all nicely sketched; the group, as a whole, seems like the cast of a musty nineteenth century melodrama. Intertwined in the Mary Rogers’ material, Stashower squeezes in a Poe mini-biography, picking up in closer detail Poe’s efforts to write his story based on Mary Rogers’s murder, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and his attempt to save it as events spiral out of his control (always a problem when you’re dealing with real life in real time). If you’re familiar with Poe, there’s nothing new here, but as noted, Poe is always entertaining.
In all, that’s the ideal word for this book—it’s entertaining. It’s easy to read. You’ll zip through it pretty quickly. So what is there to complain about? Welllll…
For starters, the “invention of murder” thing is a bit of a stretch. In describing the rise of James Gordon Bennett and the Tribune, Stashower explains about how Bennett made his name writing about the Helen Jewett murder of prostitute and the trial that followed. Wouldn’t it seem, then, that that would be the real “invention of murder,” that is, a murder sensationalized by the press, a story devoured by a public both shocked and thrilled by such low-life material? If Stashower posits Bennett’s pursuit of the Mary Rogers’ case as an attempt to recapture the, shall we say, magic of the Jewett case, it’s hard, then, to give that full credit to the Rogers’ murder as a landmark in American pop culture.
(and yes, I realize that this post is now longer than the book, but whatever)
My other main complaint is that there are numerous missed opportunities here to really explore the time period. Stashower briefly describes the lack of a police force and later covers how a few suspects were taken in and interrogated about the Rogers’ murder. But I never got a real sense of what happened in the 1840s when a crime took place in New York City. How did they investigate a murder? What was required to bring in a suspect for questioning? How many murders were there in 1841? Were many solved? Was it dangerous walking around in the city? Stashower explains how Bennett repeatedly hammered home the idea that the dangerous gangs that plagued the city were responsible for Mary Rogers’ murder, but we don’t really learn much about the gangs—who they were, what they did, what kinds of crimes they were involved in. I would have liked to be brought into the dark side of the city more, to really see more about the criminal world of the time.
I also found myself wondering about how extraordinary Mary Rogers’ employment was at that time. Was she noticed because she was exceptionally beautiful and was working in a store? Or was it fairly common for girls to be working as sales clerks and she just stood out because of her looks? What was it like working in a shop? Was it unusual for a girl to go out walking by herself on a Sunday as Mary did on the day she disappeared? Did people usually go over to Hoboken on hot summer days to get away from the stifling city? What was the scene there like? I guess I’m just interested in a lot more details than are given about the time period, and as a result, the book never really transports me to another time and place.
I feel almost guilty complaining, though. This book got stellar reviews when it came out and most people seem satisfied by it. The research seems solid; I only caught one factual error, which compared to other books I’ve read lately, is practically miraculous. That should be enough. The book is well-organized and that should be enough. It is fast-moving, easy to follow, and, again, entertaining, and that should be enough. All of these are excellent qualities that should add up to a good book that I should praise without reservation and I should be satisfied, and it all should be enough. But I am restless and curious and wondering and so it is not.