The Unsolved Murder That Fascinated 1840s New York (and Edgar Allan Poe)

Andrew Lenoir
Andrew Lenoir

Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote, "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." Images of dying women recur throughout Poe’s fiction, but one such story, at least, is based in fact. In the 1840s, the murder of "The Beautiful Cigar Girl" obsessed Poe and the public—and to this day it remains one of New York City’s most notorious unsolved crimes.

On July 28, 1841, two New Yorkers were wandering along the Hoboken shoreline near the spring at Sybil’s Cave, then a popular tourist attraction, when they spotted a body bobbing 200 yards out in the Hudson River. As they waited on shore for the coroner to arrive, a man approached them, claiming to recognize the corpse from her clothing. The body, he said, belonged to the late Mary Cecilia Rogers.

The circumstances of her birth are murky, but Mary Rogers was probably born in Lyme, Connecticut in 1820. She and her widowed mother, Phoebe, moved to Manhattan in the 1830s and entered into an emerging single, female working class: Mary took a sales job at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium, while her mother later opened a boarding house at 126 Nassau Street.

Anderson's Tobacco Emporium was a fixture of New York’s emerging social scene, especially popular with young men and local writers such as Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. But while the patrons came for owner John Anderson’s tobacco—he would eventually amass a fortune selling "Anderson’s Solace Tobacco"—they stayed for his employee Mary, who was dubbed "The Beautiful Cigar Girl" by the local press. Within a year of starting the job, Mary was a Manhattan celebrity, even sparking a short-lived hysteria when she failed to appear for work one day in 1838. Though it made headlines, this earlier "disappearance" was written off as a publicity stunt for Anderson’s shop.

 
Stunt or no, it was not long afterward that Mary departed from her position at Anderson’s, returning home to help her mother run her business. While her life was more private at the boarding house, she still managed to find herself the center of male attention. Although Mary had several admirers among her mother’s lodgers, she soon turned her attention to Daniel Payne, a cork cutter and boarder who became her fiancé some time in the summer of 1841.

As fate would have it, Daniel Payne also became the last person to see Mary Rogers alive.

On the morning of July 25, Mary had left the Rogers’ boarding house saying she was going to visit an aunt uptown. What happened after that—as the hours without word from her turned into days—is anyone’s guess.

At the time, some said she had simply run away, perhaps in another attempt to garner attention. Payne, however, worried about the gangs of robbers and rapists whose exploits then filled the penny papers. After two days of searching, and growing convinced that Mary had been kidnapped, he took out a missing persons notice.

 
The post caught the eye of Arthur Crommelian, Mary's ex-boyfriend and a former boarder at her mother's house. Crommelian took his search across the ferry to Hoboken, arriving just in time to witness the recovery of Mary’s body from the Hudson River and to identify the corpse. After police questioning—and once the authorities were convinced that Crommelian’s arrival on the scene didn’t implicate him in the murder—police turned their attention to their chief suspect: Daniel Payne.

Not only was Payne the last person to see Mary alive, but rumors had started circulating that the couple had been fighting and that Mary had threatened to call off the marriage. After Payne produced an alibi, however, solid leads disappeared.

Meanwhile, papers across New York and New England took up a running color commentary. In Ellicottville, New York, one reporter lamented the "slovenly manner in which the coroner at Hoboken performs his duties," while outside Philadelphia, other papers wondered if the death had been a suicide. Even New York Governor William H. Seward got involved, announcing in several New York papers a $750 reward for any information that helped solve the crime.

In early September, there seemed to be a break in the case. A group of local boys playing in a field not far from Sybil’s Cave came across bundles of bloody clothing strewn about some bushes. After their discovery (in what came to be known as "the Murder Thicket"), their mother, Frederica Loss, who operated the nearby Nick Moore House pub, alerted the police.

The police questioned Loss, whose account was published in the New York Herald. According to Loss, Mary had checked into the Nick Moore House on the fateful night with an unknown man. The pair had gone out and never returned. Loss claimed that she didn’t think too much of it at the time, but remembered hearing screams coming from the woods later that night. Although it seems a bit suspicious that she had never shared these details with authorities before, the police were apparently satisfied with her answers and left their inquiry at that.

Less than a month later, on October 7, Daniel Payne made his own pilgrimage to the "Murder Thicket," followed by a drinking binge across Hoboken. During the night, he bought and drank a bottle of laudanum, overdosing on a bench outside Sybil’s Cave. Pedestrians found his body only a few hundred yards from where Mary had been discovered. A note found in Payne's pocket read: "To the World—Here I am on the spot. God forgive me for my misfortune in my misspent time."

 
Without easy answers, the press once again imagined their own version of events. As an early working woman in an urban center, Mary became a kind of symbol: her name a shorthand for the era’s problems, a warning to parents about what disasters might befall their daughters in the big city. Many papers even claimed (without evidence) that Mary had been a prostitute—a very different sort of working girl.

The New York public might have been satisfied with this, but in Philadelphia, Edgar Allan Poe was not. A former New Yorker, he remembered Mary Rogers from her first 1838 "disappearance." As the news of her ultimate fate reached him, Poe became fixated and followed every detail.

In November 1842, over a year after Mary’s death, Poe published the first part of "The Mystery of Marie Rogȇt," his second detective novel and sequel to "Murders at the Rue Morgue." Transporting the crime and its characters to Paris, Poe changed the names but kept most other details. He was so confident in his deductive skills, he even claimed to have solved the real-life case in the story's introduction. "All argument founded upon the fiction is applicable to the truth: and the investigation of the truth was the object."

Illustration from "The Mystery of Marie Rogȇt," 1852. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
Though his story was popular with the public, the police wrote off Poe's theories. (Despite promising to solve the crime, Poe wasn't very clear about the identity of the killer—he never named a specific person.) And the same month, another untimely death brought authorities a new possibility.

On November 6, 1842, Frederica Loss was accidentally shot by one of her sons. She spent the next 10 days dying in agony, babbling incoherently in a string of broken English and German. Hallucinating, she claimed that the spirit of a young woman was tormenting her, and then made her final confession. As the New York Tribune reported it [PDF], Mary had in fact come to Hoboken "in company of a young physician, who undertook to procure for her a premature delivery"—an illegal abortion. Mary had died in the operation, after which Loss's sons had dumped the body in the river, and scattered the clothes to avoid suspicion. (In later years, some would suspect that Loss was working as an assistant to the notorious Hoboken abortionist Madame Costello.)

Following their mother’s death, the two eldest Loss sons were briefly charged in connection with Rogers’s murder—implicated, at least, in the illegal disposal of a body. The lack of hard evidence, other witnesses, and Mrs. Loss’s condition during her confession were too much for the court, however, and the case against them was quickly dismissed. Before long, the police and public gave up looking for answers.

The mystery of Mary Rogers was left to history and literature. When Poe died in 1849, authorities were no closer to finding the murderer of Mary Rogers. To this day, the case remains unsolved.

In 1881, John Anderson died in Paris, after years of increasing instability and claims that the ghost of Mary Rogers haunted him. The reasons for Anderson's guilt, if indeed there were any, are unclear, but even if Mary’s spirit didn’t really stalk him, the unsolved crime and public speculations created an infamous association he was never able to shake. As Daniel Stashower noted in his book The Beautiful Cigar Girl, not only did Anderson claim that Mary’s ghost visited him, he also blamed his employee’s fate for his failure to cross over from business into New York politics.

Later, a strange detail came out in the legal battle over Anderson’s fortune—a years-long court case where the long-dead Rogers was resurrected more than once. In 1887 The New York Times coverage quoted one counsel's suggestion that "John Anderson gave Poe $5000 to write the story of Marie Rogȇt in order to draw people’s attention from himself, who, many believed, was her murderer."

Whether Anderson's offer was made or accepted, we may never know, but the suggestion casts a lingering suspicion. It’s just one of many uncomfortable questions in a mystery that refuses to rest.

Additional sources: The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder; The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

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Jashen

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.

 

Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.

 

Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.