Edgar Allan Poe's 1842 murder mystery novella The Mystery of Marie Rogêt tells the story of Marie Rogêt, a beautiful young Parisian woman whose body is found, battered and bruised, in the Seine River. The tale captivated audiences during its day—perhaps, because, save for the victim's name and the location of her death, the story was true. In creating his story, Poe explicitly borrowed details from the real-life slaying of Mary Cecilia Rogers, a young New Yorker known to many as the “Beautiful Cigar Girl” who worked in a downtown tobacco shop.
Born in 1820, Mary was the only daughter of a widowed boarding-house owner. After Mary's father died when she was only 17, the young woman took a job at John Anderson's tobacco shop. She soon began earning a more-than-common wage, as she so easily attracted new customers in to the store.
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Mary was so well-known for her beauty, in fact, that patrons traveled to the tobacco shop solely to see the Beautiful Cigar Girl at work behind the counter. Daniel Stashower notes in his book, The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder, that everyone from journalists to famed writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper sought out the shop. One scribe was so moved by Mary's presence that he immortalized her in a poem. As Stashower puts it, "Mary achieved a curious form of celebrity, becoming perhaps the first woman in New York to be famous for being talked about."
Then, in 1841, tragedy struck. On Sunday, July 25, Mary told her mother and fiancé Daniel Payne that she was going to visit family in New Jersey. She would be back the next day, she said. When Mary failed to return by Monday afternoon, her mother assumed it was due to nasty weather. But when the sky darkened and Mary was nowhere to be seen, her mother grew worried. Strangely, this wasn't the first time Mary had been reported missing. Just three years before, The New York Sun reported that Mary Rogers had vanished. She reappeared a few days later, and many thought it was a publicity stunt by the newspapers to increase their readership.
This time, however, it was different.
On Wednesday, July 28, Mary's body was found in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. A group of men had spotted something strange in the river, rowed out to it, and dragged back what soon would be identified as Mary's battered body. The young woman's dress and hat were ripped, and she appeared to have endured a struggle.
Speculation swirled about just what had transpired. Some said Mary died during a botched abortion and her body was discarded in the Hudson. Others blamed the fiancé Daniel Payne, suggesting that a heated quarrel erupted between the young lovers and ended in death. Still others contended she had been caught up in gang-related violence.
With so many theories swirling, Edgar Allan Poe stepped in. Using his technique of “ratiocination” (a thought process guided by rational reasoning and deliberate inference), Poe wrote The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. The novella featured Poe's legendary protagonist C. Auguste Dupin.
Changing just a few key details, and having Marie work in a perfumery, Poe recreated the story of Mary's murder, publicly attempting to sort through the details alongside police detectives. The author hoped to process the case through his writing, unravelling its mystery and possibly revealing the truth of Mary's fate. Many consider it to be the first true crime novel: a fictional piece of writing based on a real-life crime.
Unfortunately, there was no conclusive ending to the mystery of Mary Rogers' murder, either in fiction or in the real world. Less than three months after her death, Mary's fiancé went to the place where her body had been found and committed suicide. He left a note that read, “To the World—here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” Then, a year later, a woman in Hoboken came forward, definitively declaring that the girl's death had been the cause of a faulty abortion; this claim, however, was never confirmed.
Like Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, investigators never cracked the case of the New York beauty's death. Mary Cecilia Rogers' demise remains unsolved to this day—yet the tale of her charmed life and tragic, mysterious end lives on.
Featured photo: Alchetron; Additional photo: Find a Grave