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the beautiful cigar girl

17 april 2008

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder has, to be fair, nothing to do with the invention of murder, either as an activity or as a cultural concept. I suspect that some marketer decided that a terrific historical true-crime story wasn't enough – that, as with so much popular history these days, we had to be treated to an incident that changed the way everybody thought about something forever. The 1841 murder of minor New York celebrity Mary Rogers didn't change crime or detection, and it altered the course of Edgar Allan Poe's literary career only by a few degrees. But it remains a fascinating, evocative, and truly chilling tale.

Mary Rogers was, for 1830s New Yorkers, a mild celebrity whose "notoriety [was] unencumbered by position or achievement" (19). She was famous for being famous. 170 years later, she would have had her own morning TV show, but in Old New York she had to settle for being a clerk at a Broadway tobacco shop. In the days before cable and the Internet, male New Yorkers satisfied their primal urge to gaze harmlessly at hot women by buying cigars from Mary Rogers.

And then she was suddenly, gruesomely, dead. She vanished from her mother's boarding house in lower Manhattan and washed up, deceased, on the Jersey shore of the Hudson River. If there had been a 24-hour news cycle in 1841, her face would have been on every news channel. As it was, there was almost a 24-hour news cycle in those days, with morning and evening papers and the grimy "penny press" inflating theories about Rogers's death with every report. The Rogers case became one more stepping-stone in the progress of James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald toward periodical primacy in the cutthroat Gotham media world.

It was the Gangs-of-New-York era, of course, and paranoia about gangs of ruffians ran high. But there was no evidence that Rogers had been killed by a gang. Much more plausible was the theory that she had been killed by a jealous or enraged lover. Her body bore marks of strangling, and seemed to have been dragged by means of an improvised towline made from scraps of her own clothing. No less a detective than C. Auguste Dupin pointed out that a gang disposing of a corpse would have no need to fabricate such a rig.

But, you object, C. Auguste Dupin never existed except in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Of course, this is where the story moves from macabre to full-bore bizarre. The magistracies of two states were making no progress in the Rogers murder case when the desperate Poe saw a lucrative writing opportunity. Having created Dupin for the purposes of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe was eager to bring him back in a sequel. But he was stung by one criticism of "Rue Morgue" that would hardly occur to us today. Detractors pointed out that it was no big deal for Dupin to solve a case that his own creator had devised solely for him to unravel. If Dupin was really such a great sleuth, Poe reasoned, he ought to be able to solve baffling murders in the real world.

Stashower would like to be able to say, one feels, that Poe and Dupin really did corner Mary Rogers's killer. It would be a satisfying conclusion to anyone who wishes that Gil Grissom had been sent over from Las Vegas to process the JonBenet Ramsey crime scene. But Poe, working purely from newspaper accounts, had nothing but bluff and speculation to guide him. Translating the scene to Paris so that Dupin could be brought in on the case, and revising "The Mystery of Marie Rogt" frantically as events developed, Poe could at best only hint in a shadowy way that Dupin had found a solution. But since there was no real-life solution, Poe resisted unequivocal accusations (and most likely had no prime suspect in mind anyway).

The public attention in the Rogers case eventually fastened, justly or unjustly, on a prominent Manhattan abortionist, "Madame Restell." Rogers's death was the result of a botched abortion, claimed some analysts. (Stashower points out that this doesn't square with Rogers being strangled, of course.) Much of the most interesting material in Stashower's book concerns the cultural history of abortion in 19th-century America. In a sense, the Rogers case is not about the invention of murder, but it is about the invention of abortion as a proscribed activity. In the early 19th century, para-health-care-providers like Madame Restell offered advice, drugs, and surgery to women in a primeval, and often dangerous, attempt to provide family-planning services. Objection to their practices crystallized not because they were back-alley lethal: all surgery was back-alley lethal in 1841, and your local apothecary was a cheerful provider of poisons. Still less were anti-choice activists of the period concerned about the unborn. Abortion had a specific anti-patriarchal insolence that infuriated Mary Rogers's many oglers:

If women could so easily rid themselves of the evidence of sexual congress . . . the "coin of maidenhood" would be forever debased. "Madame Restell's Preventative Powders have counterfeited the handwriting of nature," [Manhattan editor George] Dixon insisted. "You have not a medal, fresh from the mint, of sure metal; but a base, lacquered counterfeit, that has undergone the sweaty contamination of a hundred palms." (297)
There was no evidence that Rogers had ever met Restell or indeed ever been pregnant, though of course anything was possible. But as late as 1846, a lynch mob descended on Restell's house with cries of "Who murdered Mary Rogers?" (344). A powerful nexus involving male sexual fantasy, male possessiveness, and female sexual assertion led ultimately to the outlawing of abortion practices in most American states, and Mary Rogers was at the center of this controversy in New York State.

Meanwhile, Rogers faded gradually from the headlines while Poe gradually entered the canon of American literature. "Marie Rogt" is the least of his three Dupin stories, not nearly as interesting as "Rue Morgue" or "The Purloined Letter." But it retains a certain eerie quality, all the more heightened because it is the one case that Dupin could never solve. Somewhere in the metropolis of New York, on a summer evening in 1841, a young woman died at the hands of a still-obscure assailant, for reasons that remain equally obscure. If, as Poe claimed, "the death . . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world," then the inexplicable death of a beautiful woman is among the most sinister.

Stashower, Daniel. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the invention of murder. 2006. New York: Berkley, 2007.