Mary Rogers: A Sensational 1841 Murder

Mary Rogers was a noted American beauty whose body was found in the Hudson River in 1841. Her death was cloaked in mystery and much publicized by the press. There were some people who believed she committed suicide, others who thought she was an object of gang violence, and those who claimed she was victim of a failed abortion attempt. Yet, despite all the publicity surrounding her death, within in nine weeks her story would be replaced by another unrelated murder that involved John C. Colt (brother of Samuel Colt of Colt firearm fame), who was accused of murdering a printer named Samuel Adams.

Mary Rogers

Mary Rogers. Author’s collection.

Rogers was born Mary Cecilia Rogers in 1820 in Lyme, Connecticut. She grew up as an only child. Her father, James Rogers, died in a steamboat explosion and so to sustain themselves Mary and her widowed mother, Phoebe Wait Mather Rogers, migrated to New York around 1837. Mary’s mother then began running a boarding house at 126 Nassau Street with Mary’s help.

Much like Madame Récamier had been lauded for her astonishing beauty in her day, Mary was extraordinarily beautiful. She attracted attention wherever she went, and men were said to be particularly mesmerized by her. John Anderson* met Mary and noticed her beauty. He owned a tobacco shop in New York and hit upon the idea of employing her because he felt men would be attracted by her beauty and that would increase business.

Madame Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anderson went to her mother to see if Mary could work at his shop, but Mary’s mother was disinclined to agree. Anderson then offered Mary a generous salary and she convinced her mother to agree. And just like Anderson predicted, when the fetching Mary began working at the tobacco shop she soon became a hit with his male customers and because of her stunning beauty it did not take long for men to flock to the shop to see her. It was also not long before she had numerous admirers hoping to win her hand. According to Brian Ethier in his book True Crime: New York City:

“One man claimed to have spent an entire afternoon at the store ‘to exchange teasing glances’ with her. The Herald even published an admirer’s poem in which he referred to her ‘heaven-like smile and her star-like eyes.’”[1]

On the morning of 25 July 1841, Mary Rogers left home as usual. However, it would be the last time that her mother would see her because Mary was found dead three days later, on 28 August. When the dramatic news of her death broke, newspapers jumped on the story. They began providing different descriptions of what type of girl Mary Rogers was and these versions ranged from her being an innocent virgin to acting like a disgraceful whore.

Some people maintained Mary was a naïve, beautiful, fresh-faced girl unaware of the dangers that lurked in New York. Others characterized somewhere between a virgin and whore emphasizing her seductress-like qualities and the fact that she was known about town as the “Beautiful Cigar Girl.” A third version “identified [her] with the working class, single, sexually available, and apparently independent, [she thus] raised middle-class fears about the dangers of city life to such an extent that she [was] therefore not the victim but the danger of the modern metropolis.”[2]

Mary Rogers - The Beutiful Cigar Girl

Mary Rogers, the “Beautiful Cigar Girl.” Author’s collection.

Exactly what type of girl Mary was seemed unimportant when a stagecoach driver and another young man noticed her in Hoboken on Sunday 28 August around 3:00pm. Both men mentioned how beautiful she was, and both noted that they had observed her as she left the ferry boat. They also reported that at the time she was accompanied by a dark complexioned young gentleman and that the pair took the road to Weehawken.

The next sighting of Mary Rogers was given by a Mrs. Frederica Loss. She kept a tavern and reported seeing Mary at her tavern about an hour later in the company of the same young dark-complexioned gentleman seen at the ferry. Loss also said the “affable and modest” Mary was drinking lemonade and wearing a dress much like what Loss’s sister had worn before she died.

Loss also maintained that the last time she saw Mary Rogers was when she left the tavern. According to Loss, she took the arm of the above-mentioned gentleman and walked with him “towards the hill.” What happened next to Mary and her gentleman companion was supplied by Raleigh, North Carolina’s Weekly Standard:

“The rain came on and she [Mary] took shelter in a small house or tavern near the roadside. Here also a parcel of the rowdies came, drank, and were very insolent. Mary and companion, detained by the rain, did not leave the house till near or after dark, when they descended the hill; and when near the foot of it another shower came on; it is believed they then took shelter under some bushes in the side of the hill, between two roads; and there it is also believed both were murdered, and the poor girl violated. … Mrs. Loss say … she heard what she calls a frightful screaming, as of a young girl in great distress, partly choked, and calling for assistance. … As soon as she called out, there was a noise as of struggling, & a stifled, suffering scream, then all still.”[3]

Mary’s mother was very concerned about her missing daughter, but Mary’s absence was somewhat reminiscent of what happened three years earlier in 1838. Apparently, Mary was declared missing by the Sun on 5 October 1838. A letter, which Mary’s mother discovered, was supposedly written by Mary proclaiming her intention to commit suicide because of unrequited love. Of this 1838 disappearance the Wisconsin Enquirer noted:

“Nearly all the papers in the city, yesterday hocus pocussed their readers with the romantic story that Miss Mary Cicilia Rogers, a very pretty, modest, and well behaved girl who attends the fashionable segar store of Mr. J. Anderson, in Broadway … had mysteriously disappeared, under circumstances which authorised the painful conclusion that she had destroyed herself by poison, and all for unrequited love. We doubt this rumor, because we doubted the possibility of any body’s being so wicked as to prove false to so charming a little girl. But a letter, said to have been written by the young lady to her mother, announcing her dire, resolve to chew arsenic, make a hole in the water, or take the benefit of the suspension act, was handed to the Coroner, from whose hands it passed into these of the newspaper reporters, and the thing, of course was settled at once. … The mystery is cleared up in a twinkling. Pretty little Mary Cecilia went over to Williamsburgh, L.I. to visit some relations, one of whom by way of a joke, and to frighten her mother, who had smiled rather sourly upon his smiles upon Mary, closely imitated her handwriting, and succeeded not only in this piece of wickedness, but in deceiving the coroner and all the editors. Mr. Anderson was in Philadelphia, and there was nobody to say what had become of her. She returned to Williamsburg yesterday morning, blushing crimson Dahlias at the compliments paid her in the newspapers, and unfeignedly sick at the annoying publicity she had innocently acquired-but most of all pained at the prudish remarks of the Star upon the supposed impropriety of pretty girls being in segar stores.”[4]

Unfortunately, the subsequent finding of Mary Roger’s corpse in July of 1841 was no hoax. Her body was discovered by Henry Mallin and James M Boullard when they were out for a walk. The men’s finding became front page news and New York’s Evening Post was one of many newspapers that reported on her waterlogged corpse:

“Henry Malin … the 28th July, between three and four o’clock P.M. … was at Hoboken, in company with James M. Boullard, and while walking on the river walk, just above the cave, they discovered a body floating between two tides, between two and three hundred yards from the shore … deponent ran as far as the Elysian Field’s Dock, in company with said Boullard, and procured a boat, rowed to said body, brought it to the shore, and placed it on the beach; which body proved to be that … of Mary Cecilia Rogers. … said body was found it perfectly free, without rope, cord, or any thing attached to it; there were no rings, breast pin, or any other jewelry on her person.”[5]

Richard Cook, the coroner for Hoboken, New Jersey, examined Mary’s body and testified about the state of it. He provided dramatic details, which made the story of her death seem as if it were some sort of melodrama. Newspapers were also thrilled to sensationalize the story and they eagerly published all the gory details, which included the New York Herald who printed the following information straight from Cook’s testimony:

“The face … was suffused with dark blood – bruised blood. There was frothy blood still issuing from the mouth. … Her face was swollen … There was an echymose mark about the size and shape of a man’s thumb on the right side of the neck, near the jugular vein, and two or three echymose marks on the left side resembling the shape of a man’s fingers which led me to believe she had been throttled and partially chocked by a man’s hand. Both arms were bent over the chest; and were so tight and stiff that we had to use some force to straighten them ―. The right hand was clenched, and the left hand was partially open but rigid. … [It appeared] as if the wrists had been tied together, and as if she had raised her hands to try to tear something from off her mouth and neck, which was choking and strangling her … The hands had been tied, probably while the body was violated, and untied before she was thrown into the water.

There was considerable excoriation upon the top of the back and both shoulder bones … by the young girl struggling to get free, while being brutally held down on her back, to effect her violation … [and] it convinced me fully that the outrage was not effected on a bed.

The dress was much torn … The outer dress was torn … a long slip, say a foot wide, was torn up from the bottom of the frock to the waist, … The dress immediately beneath the frock, and between the upper petticoat … [had] a piece … torn clean of this garment, about a foot or 18 inches in width; this piece was torn very evenly and with great care, commencing at the bottom of the garment. This same piece was afterwards tied round her mouth, with a hard knot at the back part of the neck; I think … to smother her cries … The piece of fine lace trimming I before spoke of … I observed a crease round the neck … passing my hand behind her ear, I accidentally felt a small knot; and found that a piece of lace, which I supposed to have the trimming of her lace collar, was tied so tightly round her neck as to have been hidden from sight in the flesh of the neck; this was tied in a hard knot under the left ear. This would have strangled her.”[6]  

After Cook’s autopsy, Mary Rogers was buried in Hoboken. She did not remain buried for long. A short time later she was exhumed and reexamined for further identification. This exhumation resulted in newspapers once again providing colorful and gory details. For instance, here’s what New York’s Evening Post had to say:

“The body of this unfortunate girl was yesterday … brought from Jersey to this city, and deposited in the dead house in the Park. And difficult would it be before the most imaginative mind to conceive a spectacle more horrible or humiliating to humanity. There lay, what was but a few days back, the image of its Creator, the loveliest of his works … now blackened and decomposed mass of putrefication, painfully disgusting to sight and smell. Her skin which had unusually fair was now black as that of a negro. Her eyes so sunk in her swollen face as to have the appearance of being violently forced beyond the sockets, and her youth, which, ‘no friendly hand had close in death,’ was distended as wide as the ligaments of the jaws would admit, and wore the appearance of a person who had died from suffocation or strangulation. The remainder of her person was alike one mass of putrefication and corruption, on which the worms were reveling at their will.”[7]

Because of such descriptions it seems that Mary was not just mistreated in life by her killer or killers but also abused in death by the press with their vivid and disgusting descriptions of her decomposing body. Still, that was not the end of the story nor the last thing the press would publish because a month or so after the discovery of her body other news related to Mary’s murder came to light.

It happened when Loss’s sons were collecting sassafras bark and went into a thicket between two roads close to the Hoboken River. They discovered what appeared to be an area where a struggle had taken place as the ground was stamped about and there were broken branches and roots. One of the boys then found a woman’s petticoat and then a silk scarf, identified as Mary’s. Also discovered was one of her gloves turned inside out and two pieces of her dress on a bushy briar apparently ripped off as she was dragged away by her assailant or assailants. Additionally, located in the hollow of small tree was Mary’s parasol and pocket handkerchief with her name embroidered on it.

Mary Rogers

The thicket where Mary Roger’s was killed and the spot where her body was found. Author’s collection.

News swirled as to who could have committed the heinous crime against Mary Rogers and then near the end of September “a rowdy of confirmed rascality”[8] named James Finnegan was arrested supposedly for her murder. At the time he was said to be wearing a ring belonging to Mary. Reputedly police had arrested two gang members in Albany and one of them confessed to the crime and implicated Finnegan. They also admitted they had met Mary on the morning of her murder and had invited her to sail to Hoboken. They claimed the unsuspecting woman had accompanied them and maintained that they then lured her to shore where the horrible atrocity happened. Unfortunately, the Finnegan lead was soon discarded and caused journalists to emphasize the ineptitude and corruption of the city’s law enforcement and their inability to solve Mary’s case.

Amid the investigation and while the police were being taken to task for their incompetence, another shocking incident occurred. Mary’s grief stricken fiancée, Daniel Payne, who police had cleared of being involved in her murder, committed suicide. His death happened on 7 October 1841 when he overdosed on laudanum while heavily intoxicated near Sybil’s Cave, the same spot where Mary was murdered. His handkerchief, glass case, and old chip hat were found near him, along with a suicide note located on his person that stated, “Here I am on the very spot ― God forgive me for my misspent life.”[9]

At the time of Mary’s death, the most popular theory circulating was that she was a victim of gang violence. Yet, details of her death seemed to suggest to some people that she was murdered and dumped by British-born abortionist Madame Restell. She was living in America and some people claimed she conducted an abortion on Mary and the operation failed. Making that theory more probable was Loss’s insistence in November 1842 that Mary’s death was the result of a failed abortion attempt. Nonetheless, police did not believe Loss and the focus on solving Mary’s death completely dissolved after Colt murdered Adams on 17 September 1841.

Madame Restell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the years the speculation has continued about who murdered Mary Rogers. Unfortunately, the crime remains unsolved today but perhaps the most famous exploration of Mary’s death was written by the famous Edgar Allan Poe in his 1842 short story, “The Mystery of Mary Roget.”** Commonly considered the first modern detective story, Poe’s fictionalized version relocates the murder to Paris with the body being found in the River Seine. Moreover, using the main character, fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin, Poe unravels the mystery by having Dupin suggest several possibilities, although he never actually names the murderer or murderers.

Illustration from Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.


* John Anderson may have also hired her as a domestic servant for a few months after she first arrived in New York.
**Poe’s short story first appeared in Snowden’s Ladies Companion and was presented in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.

References:

  • [1] B. Ethier, True Crime: New York City (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2010), p. 2.
  • [2] A. G. Srebnick, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 82.
  • [3] The Weekly Standard, “The Case of Mary Rogers,” October 6, 1841, p. 2.
  • [4] Wisconsin Enquirer, “Foolish and Cruel Hoax,” November 15, 1838, p. 2.
  • [5] The Evening Post, “Examination in the Case of Mary Rogers,” August 13, 1841, p. 6.
  • [6] New York Herald, “Coroner’s Report on Mary Rogers,” August 17, 1841, p. 2.
  • [7] The Evening Post, “The Murder of Miss Rogers,” August 12, 1841, p. 2.
  • [8] The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Arrest of one of the Murderers of Mary C. Rogers,” September 30, 1841, p. 2.
  • [9] Public Ledger, “More Mystery – Extraordinary Circumstance – Suicide of the Lover of Mary Rogers,” October 11, 1841, p. 4,

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