William Grimes: The 1841 Murder That Made Edgar Allan Poe New York’s Star Detective

Roundup: Talking About History

Murder in the city casts a peculiar spell, a mixture of horror, fascination and relief. One more member of the herd has been picked off, but it was somebody else who attracted the invisible, anonymous hand that could strike anyone at any time. When the victim is a beautiful woman, sex enters the equation, and you have front-page news.

That was certainly the case in the summer of 1841, when Mary Rogers, a young saleswoman at John Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium on Lower Broadway in Manhattan, disappeared and turned up a few days later floating in the Hudson River. Her baffling murder, a sensation at the time, attracted the attention not only of the city’s fire-breathing newspaper editors, but also of Edgar Allan Poe, who assigned his fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, to solve the crime. Their converging stories are the twin strands that Daniel Stashower neatly ties together in “The Beautiful Cigar Girl,” his atmospheric, suspenseful re-creation of a crime, a city and a writer as doomed as the victim he wrote about.

Mary Rogers, a stunner described as “ethereal and hypnotically pleasing,” was hired to stand behind the cigar counter for one reason: to attract men. This strategy was highly successful. Young clerks, sporting gents, aspiring poets and newspaper reporters all made a point of dropping by Anderson’s to feast their eyes. The beautiful cigar girl may well have been, Mr. Stashower writes, “the first woman in New York to be famous for being talked about,” an “It” girl for the pre-electronic age.

“It is a most curious thing,” one newspaper observed. “Her notoriety is unencumbered by position or achievement.”

It was of more than passing interest, then, when two day-trippers to Hoboken, N.J., spotted Miss Rogers’s body in the river. Both sides of her neck showed finger-shaped bruises. Buried deep in the flesh was an improvised garrote, made from a strip of fabric ripped from her underskirt and tied, the coroner noted, in a sailor’s knot. ...

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