La Bonita Cigarera

Katy Emck

  • The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in 19th-Century New York by Amy Gilman Srebnick
    Oxford, 238 pp, £18.99, February 1996, ISBN 0 19 506237 X

‘The death of a beautiful woman,’ Edgar Allan Poe wrote, ‘is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’ Mary Rogers, ‘the Beautiful Cigar Girl’ whose corpse was fished from the Hudson in New York in 1841, was the prototype for many subsequent mystery tales – not least Poe’s own story, ‘The Mysterious Death of Marie Roget’. The unsolved mystery of Mary’s death gave form and substance to the fears for unprotected women in a city full of roaming gangs of men and lone rakes, twirling their moustaches with predatory know-how as they loitered in city bars, hotels and public parks. Amy Srebnick’s book shows that Mary Rogers – her virtue, her gruesome death, her role as fallen woman – was a catalyst for the mythologisation of New York and for some of the city’s most important mid-19th-century refoms.

Mary had migrated to New York in 1837 at the age of 17, along with her mother Phebe and thousands of others. Like so many women of her age and class who found employment in New York’s burgeoning stores, eating houses and cheap lodgings, she earned money by ministering to the needs of working men. In the four years she lived in New York, she also had a number of shadowy boyfriends. She had come to the city from Lyme, Connecticut, where both sides of her family were long established in the community. But her mother had gradually lost property, support and social standing in Lyme after the deaths of two husbands and three children. Desperation seems to have prompted the move. The likelihood that Mary was in fact the illegitimate offspring of Phebe’s eldest daughter (who had died in 1830) adds to the image of two women dislodged from a role in their traditional community.

On arriving in New York, Phebe and Mary went to live with the Broadway tobacconist John Anderson, doing domestic work in exchange for their board. Later, Mary went to work in Anderson’s shop. It was here that she began to be called ‘The Beautiful Cigar Girl’ and became a well-known figure to men involved in the marketing of words and images. Anderson’s was a favourite haunt for politicians, publishers, gadflies and journalists. There were customers from several nearby newspaper offices and – most important of all – from Tammany Hall, the headquarters of the Democratic Party. Anderson, who was becoming a successful businessman, had political aspirations himself and was connected with the Tammany Hall crowd. Crucially, he knew and was known by James Gordon Bennett, the Democrat editor of the Herald, who made Mary Rogers into a hot media property after her death.

Women who did saleswork – ‘public and exposed’, according to one contemporary writer – were magnets in an urban environment where the distinction between sexual and commercial consumption was increasingly unclear. An article in the Herald described such women as ‘brilliant luminaries’ attracting male ‘butterflies’. They boosted sales but were thought to be vulnerable to ‘rich rascals’ who would seduce and ruin them. At the same time, there was a culture of male rakishness in the big city. The ‘young sports’, as they were known, were patrons of Anderson’s. Their interests lay in ‘the Sports of the Ring, the Turf, City life, such as Sprees, Larks, Crim-Cons, seductions, rapes’. When Mary died, Bennett’s paper promoted the idea that she had been gang-raped and beaten by a group of Anderson’s clients. It was a story, told in the Herald’s aggressive way, that was tailor-made for the very people on whom it cast suspicion. The journalists and the ‘young sports’, after all, bought cigars from the same shop. But the fact that Mary had worked at Anderson’s played into a wider collective fantasy of the city as a den of male iniquity.

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