She was known as «The Beautiful Cigar Girl,» but the 1841 murder of 20-year-old Mary Rogers remains one of the most baffling unsolved murders in the history of New York City.
Rogers was a clerk in the upscale John Anderson’s Tobacco Shop in downtown Manhattan. She was an amazingly beautiful girl, and famous writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving became her regular customers. Poet Fitz Green-Halleck was so smitten by her, he wrote a poem in Rogers’ honor. Many of the tops newspaper editors and writers were also frequent customers at Anderson’s, some just to get a brief glimpse of Rogers’ beauty.
On Sunday morning, July 25, 1841, at a Nassau Street boarding house owned by her mother, Rogers told one of the boarders, her fiancee Daniel Payne, that she was going out for the afternoon to visit her sister, a Mrs. Downing. That night, New York was hit by a severe thunderstorm, and Rogers did not return to the boarding house. Both her mother and Payne figured that because of the storm, Rogers was spending the night at her sister’s house. Yet the next day, Rogers’ sister told them that Rogers had never shown up at all, nor had she expected her to visit. Joined by Roger’s ex-fiancee, Alfred Crommelin, they searched the city, but could not find any trace of Rogers. Unfortunately, this was not the first time that Rogers had disappeared. In October 1838, Rogers’ whereabouts were unknown for several days. When she returned, she said she had visited a friend in Brooklyn, even though she had not told her mother, or her employers of her intentions.
This time, the mother placed an ad in the New York Sun daily newspaper asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of a young lady, aged 20, last seen on the morning of the 25th, who was wearing a white dress, black shawl, blue scarf, Leghorn hat, light colored shoes, and light-colored parasol. No one responded to that ad.
On Wednesday, July 28, at Sybil’s Cave in Hoboken, New Jersey, three men spotted something floating and bobbing on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They jumped in a rowboat and quickly rowed to the area where the object was located. When they got there, they found the body of a young woman. They tired pulling the body onto the rowboat, but after a few unsuccessful attempts, they tied a rope under the dead woman’s chin and rowed toward shore.
When the coroner examined the body, he found a red mark, the shape of a man’s thumb, on the right side of her neck, and several marks on the left side of her neck, the size of a man’s finger, indicating she had been strangled and her body dumped into the river. Crommelin, after reading the accounts in the newspapers of the body found in the Hudson River, traveled to Hoboken and identified the body as that of Mary Rogers.
Because of her popularity with the press, Rogers’ death became front page news in all the New York City newspapers. Members of the press cast suspicion on her fiancée Daniel Payne, who had told the police that on the day of Roger’s disappearance, he had visited his brother and had spent the day bouncing to and from several bars and restaurants. To prove his innocence, Payne, produced sworn affidavits from witnesses, saying he was indeed where he said he was on the day Rogers’ disappeared.
The mystery of Rogers’ death soon disappeared from the newspapers. The New York City police, which then consisted of motley night-time Watchmen and day-time Roundsmen, who were untrained and lowly paid commoners with little incentive to solve crimes, decided not to investigate any further since the body was found in New Jersey. The New Jersey police felt Rogers had most likely been killed in New York City and that the murder investigation was not their problem.
Frederica Loss owned a tavern called Nick Moore’s House near Hoboken, New Jersey, not far from where Mary Rogers’ body had been found On August 25, 1841, two of her sons, who were playing in the woods, found various articles of women’s clothing, including a handkerchief with the initials M.R. Mrs. Loss immediately notified the police. This new discovery ignited an investigation by the New Jersey police, since they now decided Rogers had indeed been killed in New Jersey. But nothing became of the investigation and it soon ended.
Throughout the years, several criminologists tried to explain who killed Mary Rogers and why. Yet no credible evidence ever materialized and no one was ever charged with the crime. A year after Rogers’ death, Edgar Allen Poe, obviously saddened by the tragedy of «The Beautiful Cigar Girl,» wrote his famous novel «The Mystery of Marie Roget.» The novel was set in Paris, and duplicated the events that had occurred in Rogers’ death. In the novel, Poe’s famous detective Austin Dupin concluded that the murderer was a naval officer of dark complexion, who had previously attempted to elope with Marie (Rogers), which explained her first disappearance in 1838. He then killed her in 1841, when she refused to marry him a second time.
Poe’s novel closely mirrored the most credible explanation of Mary Rogers’ death, which was put forth by author Raymond Paul in the early 1970s. Paul’s theory was that Daniel Payne murdered Rogers, but not on the Sunday she disappeared, for which Payne had a solid alibi, but on the following Tuesday. Because Mary’s body was still in rigor mortis when she was found, she could not have been dead for more than 24 hours. Rigor mortis starts scant hours after a person dies, but then after 24 hours, it gradually dissipates.
Paul concluded, from the evidence compiled more than 130 years earlier, that Payne had gotten Roger’s pregnant, and on Sunday July, 25 1841, he ferried her off to Hoboken to have an abortion. While her mother and former fiancée were looking for Rogers, Rogers was recuperating from the abortion in a Hoboken inn. Payne then returned to Hoboken on Tuesday, July 27, to pick Rogers up and bring her back to New York City. When Rogers told Payne she was breaking off their relationship, Paul concluded Payne strangled her and dropped her body into the Hudson River. Paul also deduced from the circumstances that Rogers’ brief disappearance in 1838, was for the same reason; to have an abortion.
After Rogers’ death, Payne started drinking heavily. On October 7, 1841, Payne, after making the rounds of several New York bars, purchased the poison laudanum. He took the ferry to Hoboken and went to Nick Moore’s House, where he got properly drunk. Soused, he staggered, holding a bottle of brandy, to the spot in the woods where Rogers’ clothes had been found. He wrote on a piece of paper, «To the world here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.» He put the note in his pocket, drank the laudanum and washed it down with the brandy. Then he laid down and died.
The newspapers and the New York City police, thinking that Rogers had been killed on a Sunday for which Payne had an airtight alibi, figured Payne had committed suicide, because the love of his life had been murdered. Yet, the police investigation had been so cursory, incomplete and totally inefficient, they never considered the fact that it was impossible for Rogers to have been killed four days before she was found, because her body was still in the state of rigor mortis.
Although the murder of Mary Rogers has never officially been solved, her death was not in vain. The complete incompetency of the New York City police force, combined with pressure from an outraged New York City press and populace, compelled the city to totally revamp its policing procedures. Starting in 1845, Watchmen and Roundsmen became obsolete, as New York City finally created a police force, comprised of men trained specifically to prevent and investigate crimes.
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