Ciao, amici. Is there anything worse than a violent, senseless murder? How about a violent, senseless murder that’s never solved?
That’s the case of Mary Rogers.
Mary was renowned for her beauty. When her father died, she took a job at a tobacco shop in New York City. The seventeen year old quickly began to earn a higher-than-average salary because customers came from far and wide to see her, substantially increasing the store’s profits. The “Beautiful Cigar Girl” attracted countless journalists as well as famed writers James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving. She even became the subject of poetry.
On Sunday, July 25, 1841, Mary told her mother and her fiancé (Daniel Payne) she was going to New Jersey to visit family and would return the following day.
She never came home.
Mary had disappeared once before. Three years earlier, the New York Sun reported her missing. When she turned up a few days later, people wrote it off as a publicity stunt for the paper.
Perhaps there was a little boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome, maybe it was because of a nasty storm, but her disappearance this time wasn’t met with a sense of urgency.
Then on Wednesday, July 28, her body was found in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. Police noted signs of a struggle—her dress and hat were tattered and her body was battered. Rumors circulated as to the cause of her death—some say her fiancé killed her after a heated argument, others believed she died having an abortion, and still more people insisted her murder was the result of gang-related violence. With so many stories and so few facts, her murder went unsolved.
Fewer than three months later, Payne killed himself at the spot Mary’s body was found. His suicide note read, “To the World—here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” Some say that was proof of his guilt, while others chalked it up to inconsolable grief. A year later, a woman in Hoboken told the police Mary had died from complications resulting from an abortion, though this was never proven. (That was two of the three theories given more weight. But neither was enough to confirm cause of death.)
Edgar Allen Poe took such an interest in this case, he appropriated the details of the murder (though he changed names and locations) for his “fictional” story, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt . He used a technique called “ratiocination” (a way to reach conclusions based on rational thought that requires leaps of inference rather than definitive evidence), hoping that via his writing and public consumption, the murder could be solved.
Some call it the first “true crime” story.
Poe’s protagonist was his legendary character, C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin was an amateur sleuth introduced in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. His last appearance was in The Purloined Letter. Dupin used his intellect and imagination (and ratiocination) to solve the crimes. He was part detective and part profiler, though neither term had been invented yet. Dupin helped establish the detective fiction genre, paving the way for such literary greats as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
Unfortunately, neither Poe nor the NYPD were able to definitely solve the murder of Mary Rogers.
I’m such a fan of the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. I wonder if I’ll ever have a Dupin or Holmes or Poirot of my own. Maybe one of you would like that for a character of your own.
I’ve never used a real-life case to write a work of fiction, but I’m starting to think about it. What about you? Have you ever done that? Would you? Let’s talk about it.