On a Wednesday morning in July 1841, three men in a sailing-boat saw a body in the water off Castle Point, Hoboken. It was the dead body of a beautiful brunette, Mary Cecilia Rogers, just 21 years old. According to the New York Tribune ”it was obvious that she had been horribly outraged and murdered”. Her clothes were torn, her petticoat was missing and a piece of lace from the bottom of her dress was embedded so deeply her throat that it had almost disappeared. An autopsy led to the conclusion that she had been “brutally violated”.
Mary Cecilia Rogers worked as a salesgirl for John Anderson, who had a cigar shop on Broadway. In 1840, New York was even more “Victorian” than London, and young unmarried girls were not to be found behind shop counters, particularly not if the shops were frequented exclusively by young men. Mary drew many new customers to the shop, but – as Thomas Duke noticed in his Celebrated Criminal Cases of America (1910) – “she did not hesitate to repl all undue advances”.
One day in January 1841, Mary failed to appear. Her mother had no idea where she was, nor had her employer, Mr. Anderson. The police searched for her, the newspapers reported her disappearance… but six days later, Mary reappeared, looking tired and rather ill.”
I visited some relatives in the country,” she said.
Her mother and her employer corroborated the story, but then there began to circulate a rumour that she had been seen with a tall and handsome naval officer, and only a few days after returning, Mary gave up her job abruptly. A month later she announced her engagement to the clerk David Payne, who was one of the boarders of her mothers boarding-house in Nassau Street.
On Sunday, 25 July, at 10 a.m., Mary knocked on her fiancé’s door and said she was going to see her aunt in Bleecker Street. Payne also wanted to spend the day away from home, but he would call for her that evening. Towards the evening however, a violent thunderstorm came on and he decided not to call for Mary, but to let her stay the night with her aunt. “When Payne returned from work and learned that Mary was still away,” Colin Wilson writes in his book World Famous Unsolved Crimes, “he rushed to see the aunt in Bleecker Street – a Mrs Downing – and was even more alarmed when she told him that she had not seen Mary in the past forty-eight hours.”
Daniel Payne – who did not go see the corpse, although he had searched for Mary all over New York – was interrogated by the police, and released. A large reward was offered, but a week passed without any clues. Then the coroner received a letter from some anonymous man, who wrote he had not come forward before from “motives of perhaps criminal prudence”. This man claimed to have seen Mary Rogers on the Sunday afternoon of her disappearance. She stepped out of a boat with six rough-looking characters and walked with them into the woods, laughing and apparently under no kind of constraint. Soon afterwards a boat with three well-dressed men came ashore, and these men asked if someone had seen a young woman in the company of six men. When the anonymous writer told them he had seen this girl, the trio turned their boat and headed back for New York.
“The next important piece of information came from a stagecoach driver named Adams,” Colin Wilson reports, “who said he had seen Mary arrive on the Hoboken ferry with a well-dressed man of dark complexion, and that they had gone to a roadhouse called Nick Mullen’s. This tavern was kept by a Mrs Loss, who told the police that the couple had ‘taken refreshment’ there, then gone off into the woods. Some time later she had heard a scream from the woods; but since the place ‘was a resort of questionable characters’ she had thought no more of it.”On 25 September, the missing petticoat of Mary Rogers was found by children playing in the woods. They also found a white silk scarf, a parasol and a handkerchief marked “M.R.” Soon after, Daniel Payne committed suicide in this spot. Now a gambler named Joseph Morse was arrested, because he had been seen with Mary on the evening of her disappearance. But he could prove he had been that afternoon at Staten Island with another young lady, and was released.
In the following year, Poe’s Mystery of Marie Rogêt was published in three parts in Snowden’s Ladies Companion. “There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural,” he started his famous detective story, “by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them. (…) The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of MARY CECILIA ROGERS, at New York. (…) When, in an article entitled The Murders in the Rue Morgue, I endeavored, about a year ago, to depict some very remarkable features in the mental character of my friend, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, it did not occur to me that I should ever resume the subject.”