The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

by Daniel Stashower

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower

Congrats to Stashower for introducing me to a true crime that I knew next to nothing about. Sometime, somewhere, in some article or book or other I knew that Edgar Allan Poe had based one of his stories on the murder of Mary Rogers, but that is about it. I looked forward to learning a bit more about the whole affair. And MAN, affair it was. Really this book tells two stories. The first is of Edgar Allan Poe, a lonely, kind of ungratious, impetuous writer. The second is of Mary Rogers, a young girl with secrets who happens to get killed and to this day no one knows exactly who did it. I hate to admit it, but the Poe stuff was very secondary and when the story switched to follow him it always took me a couple paragraphs (or pages!) to actually care again. Not a good sign, but overall, I enjoyed the book.

History tells us that Poe was a bit of a drunk. No one disputes that. Apologists will speak of genetic conditions. Self medicating for mental illness. Stress. Condemners will point out he drank, married his underaged relative, and was always in debt. The book starts with Poe writing a letter peddling a story idea to a friend because he needs a little money. The story will be about a french girl named Marie Roget who is murdered in a manner that mimics the famous death of Mary Rogers of New York. He was hoping to drum up a little publicity by using a well known murder and also offered to give fresh insight to an unsolved case. Poe’s greatest works had already been written, as Stashower points out, but he hadn’t received notoriety or monetary comfort. He was better known as a merciless literary critic, but was hoping his fortunes would turn. The Mary Rogers case was an interesting one. She and her mother (or grandmother??? another mystery!) moved to New York City to the household of John Anderson and Mary began work behind the cigar counter in Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium. She became known in several newspapers of the day as the ‘beautiful cigar girl’. It was the first case of a person becoming ‘famous’ if you will for simply being. When you look at the Kardashian phenomenon of today, it all started with Mary Rogers.

There was a fair amount of supposition and misinformation spread at the time, but the rough facts are these. In October 1838 Mary disappeared. Later that day, her mother found a suicide note. The note was taken to the Coroner who said that is seemed Mary had indeed meant to commit suicide… though there was no body but this was the 1830s and lets just imagine that things were done differently then. People supposed that Mary had taken up with a widower and was then disappointed in love. She re-appeared later (some newspapers reported she’d only been gone a few hours) and life resumed as usual. Even now there are theories upon theories about whether or not that first disappearance happened (even though newspapers reported it at the time) or whether it was a publicity stunt by John Anderson. She soon left cigar counter work to run a boarding house with her mother. It is at this home that she receives the attentions of two suitors, one ne’er do well to whom she becomes engaged Daniel Payne and Alfred Crommelin. She ends engaged to Payne but leaves a few urgent messages for Crommelin to return to the boarding house to meet her. On Sunday July 25th 1841 Mary told her fiance she was going to her aunt’s to attend church and would not be home until evening and arranged to meet him at an intersection so he could walk her home safely. He never saw her again.

Her body was later discovered near Elysian Fields (the other side of the Hudson) and that created confusion as to which jurisdiction should lead the investigation, which had dropped the ball, which was to blame, etc. Since Mary was a citizen of New York and her body had been found floating in water… lets just say, no one wanted to be responsible. Several theories emerged, as did several suspects. Her body had been battered and a horrific sexual assault seemed to have taken place. She’d been strangled by a sailor’s knot. They even arrested a man for her murder, who turned out to be innocent. When Poe offered his version of the story, it was meant to come out in installments and the murder was unsolved. By the time the third and final bit was going to be released, there was a break in the case.

I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I will give you a hint, they may or may not have found the primary crime scene and it may or may not have been near an illegal abortion clinic. Reviews were mixed about Poe’s Marie Roget story, as they were about the real Mary’s murder. Stashower captures the time well, but his transitions are lacking. True crime junkies and Poe enthusiasts will enjoy this one.

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