The Unsolved Murder That Fascinated 1840s New York (and Edgar Allan Poe)
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.
The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1885 // Public Domain
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 New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public Domain
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."
The New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public Domain
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.