She’s picked for her beauty from many a belle
And placed near the window, Havanas to sell
For well her employer’s aware that her face is
An advertisement certain to empty his cases.
Mary Cecilia Rogers, famed beauty who worked as a cigar girl at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium in New York, was found floating in the Hudson River near Sybil’s Cave on July 28th, 1841. Clothes torn and face marred by cuts and bruises, Mary appeared to have been strangled before her body was dumped. Her tragic end inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and the crime’s national sensation led to changes in the press and New York law enforcement.
As the beautiful young woman had numerous admirers – including Edgar Allan Poe himself, Washington Irving, James Fenimoore Cooper and newsmen from local papers – Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie wonder whether one of these men developed an obsession strong enough to lead to murder.
James Boulard and Henry Mallin are out walking when one of them spots something peculiar floating on the Hudson River. They untie a boat moored along the shore, paddle out to see what it is and are surprised to find the decomposing corpse of a young woman. She is later identified as Mary Rogers by her former fiancé, Alfred Crommelin.
The next scene flashes back to a disagreement Mary has with her mother about her new job at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium. Although the shop’s owner, John Anderson, pays her twice as much as what she earned at her family’s inn, Mrs. Rogers believes it’s highly improper for her daughter to work at a store for men. Yet, her mother’s lack of support does not deter Mary. She finds working in the city to be exciting and feels valued by her employer, who remarks that she sells far better than he could have ever dreamed.
When Mary disappears for several days in 1838 and a suicide note is found, the story is plastered all over The New York Sun, exemplifying a new type of press that rose with the “Penny Press Movement.” Front-page stories that were once dedicated to political legislation are now replaced with sordid gossip, local scandal and shocking tales of murder. However, the papers turn their attention elsewhere when Mary returns home unharmed.
One night, Daniel Payne, a boarder at the Rogers’ family inn, joins Mary and her mother for dinner. He flirts with Mary, and they become engaged in June of 1841. Mrs. Rogers strongly disapproves, preferring her daughter to marry her former fiancé Alfred Crommelin. Despite Mary breaking off their engagement, she and Alfred remain friends.
While Mary is working, a man named Charlie comes into the cigar shop. He makes a sexually inappropriate comment and remarks upon the troubles in Mary’s relationship with Daniel. Mary becomes embarrassed but refuses to talk about her fiancé’s drinking problem and verbal abuses.
On one occasion, Mary tries to get Daniel to stop drinking by presenting him with an ultimatum – leave her or leave the bottle. Daniel becomes angry. He tells her not to bargain with her future husband and likens her work at the tobacco shop to that of a burlesque performer. Their arguments scare Mary and, with the added pressure from her mother to break off the engagement, she begins to have doubts.
Mary meets with Alfred for lunch and confides in him her reservations about Daniel. She instructs him to look after her mother and her family’s affairs if anything should happen to her. Worried, Alfred asks Mary what she thinks will happen, but she brushes off the question.
After a fight with Daniel, Mary tells him that she is visiting her aunt, Mrs. Downing, in Brooklyn--just a twenty-minute carriage ride from Mary’s home--and will return before dinner. Daniel promises to meet her at the carriage stop and walk her home. A violent thunderstorm hits later that evening but Mary does not come home even when it clears the next day. Mrs. Rogers, Daniel and his brother place an ad in The New York Sun with a very detailed description of Mary, hoping that someone will report seeing her.
Days later, she is found dead in the Hudson River.
Authorities question Mrs. Downing and learn that she did not even expect a visit from Mary. Although Daniel has an airtight alibi, police are bothered by his refusal to identify the body. John Anderson withholds information about a substantial loan he gave Mary not long before she left on her mysterious trip.
After examining Mary’s body, Coroner Gilbert Merritt of Hoboken rules the death a homicide. The bruising on Mary’s neck and wrists lead Gilbert to deduce that she had been bound and strangled. He also determines that she had been raped by three or more assailants. Investigators, unfortunately, are unable to find any helpful leads.
Local newspapers harangue New York law enforcement for mishandling Mary’s case and one editor even creates a reward fund for anyone who can provide vital information. Soon after the announcement of the reward fund, a woman named Frederica Loss comes forward with a torn piece of dress, gloves and a handkerchief embroidered with the initials “M.R.” Allegedly her three teenage sons found the items in a thicket near their family tavern, and she had forgotten about the whole thing until now.
Frederica tells a detective that she saw Mary enter and leave the tavern with a tall, dark-complexioned man. She then heard a scream outside but chose to ignore it. Her timing and convenient “new evidence” is suspicious and many believe she fabricated it to win money from the reward fund.
Without any real evidence or leads, the investigation slows and the newspaper headlines become fewer and fewer. All is peaceful in New York until October 7, 1841 when Daniel Payne’s corpse is discovered near Sybil’s Cave. Investigators and newsmen alike are sucked back into the intrigue of Mary Rogers’ case.
Was Daniel murdered by the same person who killed Mary or was he done in by someone else? Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories to find out.