CLOSE
Andrew Lenoir
Andrew Lenoir

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Fox Photos/Getty Images
arrow
History
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
arrow
crime
The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity
The Barnes Railway Bridge
The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER