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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.

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Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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