The Real Case that Gave Poe a Murder Mystery

The following article is from the book Uncle John's True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

How did New York City, a famous cigar girl, and Edgar Allan Poe combine to create one of the world’s first murder mystery stories? Read on.


Anyone who enjoys murder mysteries owes a debt of gratitude to Edgar Allan Poe. Before there was a Sherlock Holmes or a Nancy Drew, before the word “detective” was even in common usage, Poe created the character of C. Auguste Dupin, an eccentric Parisian genius who solved murder cases that baffled the city’s police force. Dupin first appeared in April of 1841 in a short story called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and reappeared in two more stories after that. To create his detective stories, Poe did plenty of research on real crimes, including one of his century’s most notorious murder mysteries.


On July 28, 1841, the body of 21-year-old Mary Cecilia Rogers was found floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. The discovery was shocking, not just because the body was battered beyond recognition (she could be identified only by her clothing and a birthmark on her arm), but because Rogers was famous in New York City. One of America’s first celebrities, she was nicknamed the “beautiful cigar girl.”

Until shortly before her death, Rogers had worked at a huge tobacco and cigar shop on Broadway. She had an unusual job: enticing men into the shop. According to legend, she was so beautiful that men would come inside just to see her, and wouldn’t leave without buying tobacco. Some of those admirers even published poems in local papers, singing of her charms. One besotted “poet” wrote, “She’s picked for her beauty from many a belle / And placed near the window Havanas to sell.” Other patrons were more talented, including New York City newspaper reporters and a writer named Edgar Allan Poe.


By July 1841, Rogers had quit her job at the tobacco shop to help her mother run a boarding house on Nassau Street. She had plenty of admirers there, too, including a sailor named William Kiekuck, clerk Alfred Crommelin, and the dashingly handsome (but hard-drinking) Daniel Payne. To her mother’s dismay, Rogers chose Payne and accepted his marriage proposal, though there were rumors later that the young woman was planning to leave him.  

On Sunday, July 25, Rogers told her fiancé that she was going to visit her aunt, who lived uptown. She never made it. When she hadn’t returned home the next morning, Payne took out a missing-persons ad in the New York Sun. Reporters jumped on the story—search teams formed and started combing the city. But Rogers was nowhere to be found...until Wednesday, when her body was pulled from the river.

The coroner found strangulation marks on Rogers’s neck, and part of her dress had been torn off and tied around her mouth and neck with a sailor’s slipknot. Another piece of her dress was missing, and the coroner speculated that it had been used to drag the body to the river. He also noted that Rogers was not pregnant, she had been severely beaten and sexually assaulted, and her body still showed signs of rigor mortis (when a corpse’s limbs go stiff). He concluded that she’d been murdered on Sunday night, just after she left home, and that she may have been killed by more than one assailant, perhaps one of the gangs that plagued New York City’s streets at the time.


The discovery of the beautiful cigar girl’s body launched an intensive inquiry to find out who had killed her. Some people thought she’d drowned accidentally, but that didn’t explain her injuries. One witness claimed to have spotted her on Sunday on the Hoboken Ferry with a “dark-complected man.” Daniel Payne and the other men she knew from the boarding house came under suspicion immediately; newspapers even published libelous stories accusing them of her murder. Payne had to bring witness affidavits to several city newspaper offices to get them to stop calling for his arrest.

About three weeks after Rogers disappeared, a woman named Frederica Loss, who ran a tavern in Hoboken near the spot where Rogers’s body was found, came forward and produced some stained, mildewed pieces of clothing that she said her sons had found nearby. The items looked like things Rogers had owned—one handkerchief was even monogrammed with the initials “MR.” But no one could say for sure that the items had belonged to Mary Rogers, and there were rumors that the belongings had been planted to lure gawkers. Loss’s tavern had been doing a brisk business serving tourists who came to visit the site of Rogers’s demise.  


Despite having several leads, police couldn’t find Rogers’s killer. Every suspect they questioned (including her fiancé, Daniel Payne) had an alibi. But events began to take a strange turn. In October 1841, a few months after Rogers’s death, Payne walked to the thicket near Hoboken where Rogers’s clothes had been found. There, he penned a vague note about his “misspent life” and drank a fatal overdose of laudanum, a liquid form of opium.

Then, in the fall of 1842, one of Frederica Loss’ sons accidentally shot her. On her deathbed, a delirious Loss confessed that on that fateful Sunday, Mary Rogers and a doctor had rented a room in the tavern. Rogers was pregnant, Loss said, and she died in the rented room from complications after the doctor performed an abortion.

That story appeared in all of New York City’s major newspapers and churned up reader interest again. Police found nothing to corroborate the confession, but the case was back in the spotlight. Questions abounded: A botched abortion contradicted the coroner’s report that Rogers had died of strangulation. Had the coroner been lying? Or had the mysterious doctor tried to cover the whole thing up by beating Rogers’s body, simulating a strangulation, and dumping her in the river? Could the wounds from the abortion have looked to the coroner like sexual assault? Maybe Mary Rogers was planning to leave Daniel Payne after all, and when he found out about that and the abortion, he killed her in a fit of rage. Or was Frederica Loss simply a delusional dying woman still trying to drum up business for her tavern? No one knew, and no one ever figured it out. To this day, Mary Rogers’s murder remains unsolved.


In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe wasn’t yet the legend he is today, but he was an up-and-coming writer. He’d held jobs at various literary magazines and had published several short stories, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” starring that early fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin. Poe had always been attracted to stories of supernatural melancholy and horror, and Mary Rogers’s murder caught his attention. He decided to try to solve the case in fictional form, and to write a compelling story in the process. The result was “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” a three-part serial that appeared in a magazine called Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in late 1842 and early ’43. Poe wrote later, “Under the pretense of showing how Dupin...unraveled the mystery of Marie’s assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York.”

Poe’s story went like this: The body of a young woman named Marie Rogêt was pulled out of the Seine River in Paris. The young perfume-shop worker had been brutally beaten and died as the result of some kind of “accident.” Part of her dress had been removed and tied in a sailor’s knot, which was used to drag the body to the river. In the story, Dupin essentially “solved” the crime by implying that Rogêt had been killed by a “naval officer with [a] dark complexion.” But Poe never named names.

“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was a hit for Poe, and so was the final Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter,” published in 1845. It also spawned an entirely new fictional genre: the detective novel, which turned crime-solving into literature.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

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