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, 9780195062373
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‘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.

Mary’s image as a solitary woman surrounded by predatory men was compounded by the fact that she had been a boarding-house keeper. In 1840, she and Phebe set up an establishment in Nassau Street. They had a rapid turnover of young, single males who had come to New York to find work, and Mary became romantically involved with at least two of them. She was said to have ‘fascinating manners’ – a phrase which suggests a general feeling that her morals were the cause of her misfortune. Her love-life, the source of so much speculation after she died, was active and somewhat distressed. Srebnick wonders whether she was initially involved with John Anderson. Years after she died, Anderson was plagued by remorse and it seems likely that at some point he had paid for her to get an abortion. She had one other relationship, with a man who has never been identified, before her affairs with her lodgers.

Between 1840 and 1841 she was involved with Arthur Crommelin, a well-spoken and somewhat officious man, probably a clerk, who protested rather too much, in testimonies after her death, that Mary was a model of propriety. However, Crommelin left the boarding-house in Nassau Street a month before Mary died because she had transferred her affections to another client, a cork-cutter named Daniel Payne. Payne was a notorious drinker and a denizen of the Bowery. On Sunday morning, 25 July 1841, Mary told Payne that she was off to visit her aunt. Payne, apparently, gave it no more thought. But when she had not arrived back by the following day, he started to search for her. Crommelin began searching on Wednesday. He found Mary’s body on the same day, on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, in a spot named the Elysian Fields.

The body had been dredged from the river. It was severely bruised and bloodied at the mouth. There were vaginal injuries and ‘a piece of fine lace trimming’ tied so tightly round the neck that it could not be seen behind folds of flesh. That night the coroner examined the body and ‘indicated that Mary had been raped and beaten and that she had been injured sufficiently to cause her death’. The cause proper was given as strangulation. The popular consensus was that Mary had been murdered by one or more of the ‘rowdies’ about whom levels of fear and fantasy were running so high. Lodgers, ex-lodgers and neighbours were hauled in for questioning. New York’s penny papers were soon vying for the most sensational coverage.

Initially, Mary’s dissolute fiancé Daniel Payne was the prime suspect. By mid-August suspicion had fallen on Joseph Morse, a wood-engraver and neighbour of the Rogers’s. At the time of Mary’s disappearance Morse had had a very public fight with his wife over the fact that he’d slept with another woman. Rumours were circulating that Mary had been seen with an unidentified man that day – Morse, now a known wife-batterer, was a perfect candidate. He fled New York and was run to ground by the police. On 8 October, Payne died from drink, leaving a note in his pocket that read: ‘God forgive me for my misfortune in my misspent time.’

Nothing was proved against any of the suspects, which only made the stories issuing from the investigation more compelling. Two papers published Morse’s deposition, describing a night of cruising and adultery. He had taken a young woman to Staten Island, where he ‘kept her mind employed until the last boat departed’ and then persuaded her to go to a hotel with him, where he tried, but failed, ‘to have connexion with her’. Another suspect’s account of his Sunday sex habits was also printed. When Morse’s real lover came forward, her version of their affair was rushed into print. The popular press was flexing its young muscles.

New York’s penny press began in 1833 with the publication of the (aptly named) Sun. Instead of the dry, mercantile news of the established papers, the Sun ran local stories, full of human interest. In 1835 Bennett started up the Herald. Crime was its main subject. Documentary reportage from New York’s criminal justice system merged with older narrative forms – gallows confessions, cautionary tales – which appealed to the readers’ gut instincts.

Mary Rogers’s decaying body was the most cautionary tale of all. Lengthy descriptions in the papers of its putrefying state served, according to Amy Srebnick, ‘as a prolonged allegory of urban fragmentation and social decay’. The body, ‘on which the worms were revelling at their will’, became implanted in the public imagination.

On 14 August, the Herald published a great chunk of the coroner’s report. Reading it now brings to mind the ghoulish procedure of Jodie Foster’s autopsy scene in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, it may be that the Mary Rogers case is where scenes like that originated; Srebnick writes that the Mary Rogers mystery marked ‘the point at which the saga of violent female death became a critical, even defining, aspect of modern urban culture’.

The queasy ‘detection’ of beautiful female corpses is still a staple of popular culture. As editor of the Herald, Bennett laid the foundations of the genre. He had already broken new ground in 1836 in his reporting of the axe-murder of Helen Jewett, one of the city’s most famous prostitutes. The Herald’s enthusiastic coverage of this sex-and-chopping saga was typical of what would become a virulent combination of nationalism, moral outrage, prurient reportage and aggressive attacks on anyone at odds with his own brand of Jacksonian populism. The Herald made enemies, and so did Bennett; at the time Mary Rogers’s body was discovered, a junta of city newspaper editors had the upper hand in the ‘moral wars’ and presumably the circulation war. Bennett seized on her story as a way of wooing back the Herald’s readership.

The Mary Rogers mystery brought debate about rising crime levels to a head. Even as Bennett gave the case lurid coverage, he used it to claim the moral high ground from other city editors; the ‘blood of Mary Rodgers is crying for vengeance from the depths of the Hudson’. He started up a Committee of Safety, which proposed reform of the city’s criminal justice system. Other papers dutifully endorsed the Herald’s demand for reform, playing up what Srebnick describes as ‘the sense of social mayhem’ in New York. In 1845, the Police Reform Act was introduced and the New York police force embarked on a comprehensive modernisation. Until then, the City had supplemented its constables and marshals with a nightwatch of regular citizens who held other jobs in the daytime. They were not paid regular salaries, and increased their earnings with private rewards offered by the victims of crime or their families. The system was open to abuse. The 1845 Reform Act created a professional, salaried police force and ‘codified surveillance as an aspect of public policy’. The city was to be protected from suspicious persons, bawdy houses and unruly congregations of gamers, idlers and tipplers. Mary Rogers, who liked a good time, might not have been too pleased.

As it turned out, she wasn’t raped and murdered for her sins at all, but died in the course of her second abortion. This version of events was supplied a year after her death, by the innkeeper Frederika Loss, who confessed that Mary had died on her premises, where the operation took place. Loss’s son had dumped the body in the river after dark. The signs of violence on the corpse may have resulted from the exertions of getting it to the river; or they man have been an attempt to disguise the real cause of death. Srebnik does not say. But with Loss’s disclosure, in the autumn of 1842, the fate of Mary Rogers was linked to the city’s most famous abortionist, Madame Restell. It’s unlikely that Restell performed the operation, but she had won notoriety in 1841, around the same time as Mary, when the Herald seized on her as a ‘madame killer’ and published transcripts from a trial in which she was accused of performing a fatal abortion. As New York’s favourite female victim, Mary Rogers was a perfect foil for New York’s favourite female villain. When in 1846 a Philadelphia woman accused Restell of stealing her baby a crowd was reported to have gathered outside her house, crying: ‘Haul her out!’, ‘Where is Mary Applegate’s child!’, ‘Who killed Mary Rogers?’ In the end, the Restell witch-hunt precipitated a new abortion law which made both the abortionist and the client criminally liable

Mary Rogers comes out of all this looking rather better than she may, in fact, have been. There was a spate of novelised versions of the story. In the words of one of them, ‘the reputation of her charms, of her modesty, and of her exceeding grace in conversation, for she was a like affable to all, spread through the city, and La Bonita Cigarera became the theme of every man’s conversation.’ Virtuous, gentle, choosing to work in the lion’s den because she is poor rather than because she enjoys it, the ‘modest, sensible, industrious’ but sexy Cigar Girl is preyed on by aristocratic seducers and demonic abortionists, and drawn into the maelstrom of big-city vice. Along with Madame Restell, she becomes a stock figure in the sentimental melodramas of the day.

Oddly enough, it was Poe’s own interpretation of the mystery that fuelled so many of these later, sensationalist versions. ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’ was dry and intellecutalised; it anatomised and demolished the lumbering hypotheses put forward by the penny press. In a sense, it was a critique of the Bennett school of journalism. The first version of ‘Marie Roget’, published in 1842, proposed that Mary had been murdered by a sailor boyfriend rather than a marauding gang. ‘I really believe,’ Poe wrote at time, ‘not only that I have demonstrated the falsity of the idea that the girl was the victim of a gang, but have indicated the assassin.’

However, Poe got it badly wrong and had to revise his ‘solution’ three years later, after Mary’s abortion had come to light. He did so in a brilliant and thoroughly sneaky way, changing a mere 150 words in the 20,000-words story when it was republished in his collected Tales – not easy in such a closely reasoned piece. He excised definite assertions about the scene of the murder, and the identity of the culprit, while keeping his line of reasoning unbroken. Then he insinuated the possibility of a death from abortion at Frederika Loss’s inn. In fact, he was so eager to claim the glory of a successful detection for himself that he lied outright in the revised version: ‘It may not be improper to record ... that the confessions of two persons ... made at different periods, long subsequent to the publication, confirmed, in full, not only the general conclusion, but absolutely all the hypothetical details by which that conclusion was attained.’

Srebnick’s heroic classification of Mary Rogers’s cultural history is sometimes over-zealous. Repeatedly, ‘the quintessential newspaperman’, ‘the entrepreneur’, ‘the wood engraver’, ‘the boarder and cork cutter’, ‘the abortionist’ are invoked as ‘a cast’ of ‘urban characters’: stock figures in Srebnick’s scholarly detective drama, just as they were in their 19th-century representations – a habit which undermines her attempt to ‘“find” Mary, to restore her as a person’. ‘Nothing is more vague than impressions of individual identity,’ Poe said, as he picked over the Mary Rogers case. Perhaps this, after all, is the ‘poetry’ of the beautiful dead woman. The fetishistic display of what remains of her only serves to make her more elusive. Yet from between the cracks in Srebnick’s sprawling topography of dismal, sanitised or otherwise tendentious Mary Rogers tales, another Mary Rogers still has the power to ‘fascinate’. Srebnick aptly invokes Poe’s description of her as ‘a young woman gay but not abject’, and notes that on the morning of her death she was ‘wearing a white dress, leghorn hat, and carrying a parasol, dressed for a hot midsummer day’.

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