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.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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