Mary Rogers and her mother, Phoebe, arrived in New York in 1837. For the first few months of their residence, they lived with a gentleman named John Anderson, who owned a tobacconist shop. Anderson employed Mary and there she earned a sort of celebrity. She was universally considered a striking beauty and had many admirers, all of which, of course, were pleased to buy tobacco from Mr. Anderson. The hiring of attractive shopgirls was a common practice in Europe. It was still considered rather indecent in the US. Still, Mary needed the work, and Anderson paid her well to maintain her post safely behind the shop’s counter.
In October of 1838, Mary disappeared. Her mother found a note on her dressing table which bid her “an affectionate and final farewell.” It was speculated that she had been disappointed in love. She had recently had a suitor, it was said, who had deserted her, and some believed she had gone with the intention of taking her own life. Others speculated she had eloped. A search party was organised, but Mary returned on her own, some say a few hours later, others claim it was a matter of weeks. The following day, the motivation of suicide was reported to have been a hoax, and that the letter had either never existed, or had been written by someone with an eye toward mischief. When exactly Mary returned, it is unknown, but it is known that it was a matter of a few weeks before she returned to work. Anderson, naturally, was quite worried for her. Some say he made a public plea for her to come home. His interest in the family, and the true nature of his relationship with them, is a point of interest to those who study the mystery today.
In time, talk of Mary’s disappearance and subsequent return quieted, and she continued her work at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium. In 1839, having come into a little money, she and her mother purchased a boarding house and she left Anderson’s shop. Here Mary was once more beset with suitors, two of which being Alfred Crommelin, a polite gentleman with good manners and elegant bearing, and Daniel Payne, a cork cutter, who was known to be hot tempered and inclined to drink very heavily, even by the standards of the day. Both gentlemen were lodgers in the boarding house.
By June of 1841 Payne was recognised as Mary’s preferred suitor. Crommelin returned to the boarding house one evening to find Payne and Mary engaged in “unseemly intimacies”. He rebuked Payne for his ungentlemanly behavior and quit the house for good. Before going, he apologised to Mary for the step he was taking and begged her to remember him if she should everfind herself in trouble. And then he was gone.
In July Mary disappeared a second time.
According to reports, Mary arose before dawn on 25 July 1841, helped to prepare breakfast for her mother’s lodgers and attended her various morning chores. Shortly before ten o’clock she knocked at Payne’s room and she informed him, through the half open door, that she was going to visit her aunt, Mrs. Downing, who lived fifteen minutes away by omnibus. It was her plan to return in the early evening, and she wished for Payne to meet her so that he might escort her safely home.
A few days earlier, according to some reports, Mary had been persuaded by her mother to break off her engagement to Payne. That same day, Crommelin received a note asking him to call at the boarding house. When he arrived at his office, he found a second note, written on a chalk slate. Despite her summons, and the romantic intentions implied by the red rose she left in his keyhole, Crommelin did not go to the boarding house again.
Payne, on the day of Mary’s visit to her aunt, kept himself busy by visiting his brother, a market, a tavern then an eating house before going home to take a long nap. He arose in the evening and went to meet Mary, and only then realised the omnibus did not run on Sunday. An approaching storm soon drove him back home, where he decided Mary must spend the night at her aunt’s.
The following morning, Mrs. Rogers was in great anxiety, for Mary had not returned home. Payne was not yet worried, and so went to work, but when he returned at lunchtime, and finding Phoebe in an even more anxious state and Mary still not at home, he went then to the aunt’s house to discover that Mary had never arrived there. Nor had the aunt ever expected her. He posted an ad in the paper giving Mary’s full description, and then returned to the boarding house, where Mary’s mother was now in a state of lethargy.
On Tuesday, Payne went to a tavern on Duane Street, where Mary was said to have passed several hours, but upon arriving there he found the description did not match Mary’s at all. From there he went to the ferry launch at Barclay street which crossed the Hudson to Hoboken, where he asked several strangers, and stopped at a few homes along the way to find out if Mary had been seen there. He then wandered on toward Elysia Fields, where he continued to make inquiries
Crommelin was now aware of Mary’s disappearance, but took no action until Wednesday when he was shown the missing person’s report that Payne had put in the paper. He hurried to the boarding house, where he found Phoebe, glassy eyed and in a state of mourning, and Payne standing at her side. Crommelin, then began a search of his own, retracing the steps Payne had taken the day before, going to Hoboken, and then to Elysian Fields.
While he was searching Hoboken, a body was found floating in the river. Two men in a rowboat towed it to land and the body was pulled ashore. Crommelin pushed his way through the crowd to see it. What he saw must have shocked him a great deal. He certainly could not have recognised her by her face. To identify her, he ripped open a portion of her sleeve and examined the hair on her arm. This, evidently providing ample proof, he declared it to be Mary Rogers, then crouched protectively over the body until the crowd dispersed and an official was called to the scene.
Dr. Richard H. Cook, the New Jersey coroner, was the first to arrive. It was a hot July day, and the condition of the remains threatened to deteriorate further as her body veritably consumed itself in the heat. When at last the justice of the peace appeared on the scene, the body was removed to a nearby building and the autopsy was performed. The face he examined was suffused with bruised blood. She had clearly been beaten, and there was no foam in her mouth or lungs. This was no drowning victim. On her neck, he observed deep bruising in the shape and approximate size of a man’s hand. As he examined the marks more closely, he found that a piece of lace was tied so tightly around her throat that it had embedded itself into her skin. He had not so much as seen it, but felt the knot which was situated just behind her ear. The undergarments of her clothes were found in disarray, and, upon closer examination, he found evidence of bruising and abrasions in the “feminine region”. He concluded she had been raped by no fewer than three assailants. Her arms had been positioned as if her wrists had been tied together, and the abrasions caused by the tethers seemed to indicate she had tried to raise her hands to her mouth. A loop of linen was found tied loosely about her neck, as if it had been used as a sort of gag. These strips had been torn from her own clothes, which matched precisely the description of those last seen upon Mary Rogers. What’s more, a foot wide strip of fabric had been torn from her petticoat and wrapped around the body to form a sort of hitch to aid in the carrying of the corpse. Her hat had been tied on her head with a sailor’s not, rather than the typical knot tied by a lady, suggesting it had been replaced by her assailant or someone connected with the crime, before her body was thrown in the river.
About the time the autopsy began, one of the men, H.G. Luther, who had pulled the body from the water, arrived at Mrs. Roger’s home to deliver the news. Payne was there, standing protectively by her side. They received the news with apparent indifference. Perhaps it was resignation. But the lack of emotion was curious to Luther. Even more curious, Payne took no action that night. It was still early. He might easily have gone to Hoboken. He might have hoped to add a second witness to the identification of the body. He might have gone with a hope of finding that Crommelin had been mistaken. He stayed at home with Mrs. Rogers.
In the time it took for the officials of New Jersey and New York to decide who would take responsibility for investigating the death of Mary Rogers, rumors and speculations began to fly from every direction. For a time it was believed Mary had fallen into the hands of one of the many and notorious gangs that frequented the Hoboken area. Others were certain it was one of her jilted lovers. Some felt it wasn’t Mary at all, supported by the belief that a body that was in the water for no more than three days could not have decomposed to such an extent, or even, for that matter, risen to the surface.
Of course Payne and Crommelin were suspects. Payne’s alibi, at least for the first few days of Mary’s disappearance, were solid. He had been with his brother, had frequented taverns and eating places, and witnesses could attest to his being there. Crommelin, too, was a suspect, but as he had been so outspoken and proactive in finding her, and then in discovering the killer, it seemed impossible it could be him.
And then, on the 25th of August, as two boys were hunting for sassafras bark in a thicket in the woods near Weehawken, some articles of clothing were found. Among them was a petticoat, an umbrella, a silk scarf and a handkerchief with M.R. embroidered upon it. The boys took the articles to their mother, the owner of a nearby tavern, who put them away, and then, a day later, took them to the police. Frederica Loss’s tavern was very near, and often frequented by those who visited, Elysian fields. Mrs. Loss, upon being questioned, remembered, if rather belatedly, that a young woman of Mary’s description had been seen at her establishment. She had been accompanied by a young man of ‘swarthy complexion’, and went on to describe Mary’s attire and appearance exactly. Mrs. Loss told police that a short time after the couple left, she heard screams issuing from the area of the thicket. She thought it was her son, whom she had sent out again, but he returned a short time later unharmed.
The discovery of the ‘murder thicket’ raised as many questions as it answered, however. It was so close, and so overgrown, that a person could only enter it on hands and knees. There were many footprints about, the clothing found had been caught on brambles, had mildewed and been overgrown with grass. If the path to the tavern was so well travelled as to give Mrs. Loss a steady flow of customers from Elysian Fields, how was it possible the articles were never seen before? How was it possible, through the July and August rains, that the footprints still remained? Was it likely a man would attempt a murder so nearby the tavern, a mere 400 yards away?
It was suggested by some that Mrs. Loss had planted the articles there herself. The truth of this is impossible to know, but she certainly enjoyed a brisk business after the discovery, for there were many who came to get a glimpse of the place for themselves.
Payne was one of them, but he got no pleasure from viewing the scene. At ten o’clock on October 7, he arrived at a nearby tavern, where he ordered a drink and announced, “I’m the man that was promised to Mary Rogers. I’m a man in a great deal of trouble.” It seems he left the tavern and arrived at the thicket with a bottle of laudanum in hand. Upon entering the thicket, he drank it down and crushed the bottle against a rock. Two hours later he was found dead with a note in his pocket. “To the World—Here I am on the spot; God forgive me for my misfortune in my misspent time.” There was also a bundle of papers in his pocket. What they contained was never revealed. It is assumed by most, that they contained nothing of import. At the time, the silence of the investigators on the subject aroused a great deal of speculation.
Poe, eager for the same success he had experienced with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, found an opportunity to employ his deductive reasoning skills, or, as he preferred to call it, ratiocination. C. Auguste Dupin was called into action again, and this time, he bragged, would perform the feat of solving the mystery from his armchair and by using only the newspapers for his source. How accurately anyone can determine a true cause of a crime from newspapers is beyond me. Sensational journalism is not factual reporting by a long shot, as I mean to prove in an upcoming post. (Link to come.)
What Poe did manage to convince his readers of, was that the murderer had acted alone. Why else would he need the aid of the ‘hitch’ found tied around Marie’s waist. He also connected Mary’s first disappearance with her first, suggesting that the sailor with which she had meant to elope the first time, had returned from sea. He also went on to suggest that perhaps a falling out had occurred, and the romance ended, instead, in tragedy.
But that wasn’t the conclusion his readers received.
Poe’s manuscript was some 20,000 words in length, and so it was published in three parts. At this point two of the three had been published. The third promised to “indicate the assassin.” But it had not yet hit the presses when the New York Tribune published headlines that read “THE MARY ROGERS MYSTERY EXPLAINED.”
Indeed, new evidence had arisen that blew all of Poe’s theories out of the water. He revised the third part to sort of indicate he knew the solution all along. All it succeeded in doing was muddying the waters of his ‘ratiocinating’. He ends by telling his reader that Dupin has solved the mystery, that all will soon know it, but for the sake of justice and respect for the police, he will leave them to tell the tale. Years later he would take another stab at realligning his solution with that which was soon to be the commonly accepted one. He added passages and footnotes that, for the first time, showed a direct relation to Mary Rogers. He also added a caveat, that he might have been better prepared to solve the mystery had he been in New York, and not had to rely on the papers, a complete reversal of his earlier boastings of the skill of a detective who could solve a mystery from his armchair.
So what was the evidence that reduced Poe’s Marie Roget into inconclusive and muddled literary nonsense?
On November 1, 1842, Police arrived at Nick Moore’s Tavern in Weehawken to discover that Mrs. Loss had been accidentally shot by one of her sons, who was later heard to remark, “The great secret will come out.” What was that secret? For some time, it seemed, Mrs. Loss had been under the attention of the investigative police in connection with a famous abortionist named Madame Restell, whose services were advertised in huge, prepaid advertisements published on the back of every paper in town. Her money was not spent at the papers’ alone, but to the police as well, who arrested her on several occasions, but always released her again. Perhaps her habit of paying her $10,000 bail money in cash (and with an extra $1,000 as a tip) helped her some.
Though Madame Restell was somewhat protected by the police, she was considered an enemy to the people, and to society at large . Giving birth alone came with incredible risks. Add to that poisons, unctions of curious make, unsanitised instruments, the mortality rate was astounding. Mary’s body was not the first to be pulled from the Hudson river, merely the most famous. She had so far been lauded as a chaste, respectable maiden. What was she now? That Madame Restell was a millionaire with a brownstone mansion only attested to how sought after were her skills. Sad to think what combination of circumstances would have driven these women to seek her services.
But Madam Restell was rather expensive. Who did you go to if you could not afford her? Why she would refer you to some of the other foetocidal houses in the city, those who charged less and were less proficient in their trades.
The conclusion of Mary’s mystery was accepted by most. It provides a not quite tidy solution. Mary’s mother seemed to have known that when Mary left she was going to her death. It would explain her stoicism upon the news that Mary’s body had been found. She had gone to have an abortion. Had it been a success, she would have returned already. It explains why Mary went to Crommelin to begin with. It was said she went to him to exchange a boarder’s IOU for money. A sum of some fifty dollars. If Payne were the father, it might explain his apparent guilt at her death. It might explain why Crommelin was hesitant to help her. Perhaps she meant, by leaving the rose in the keyhole, that she might marry him instead, were he to help her. Perhaps his not giving her the money was the reason she went to Mrs. Loss rather than Madame Restell.
But if this soon to be accepted solution provided answers to these questions, it left many more unanswered. If she had died at the hands of an abortionist, what need had they for a garote to strangle her? Why was she so violenty beaten and strangled? Was it to disguise what had really happened? Or was it a combination of the two? Had she gone to have the abortion? Had it been a success? Had she met Payne and refused to marry him. Had he killed her? Or had she died under Mrs. Loss’s roof after all? No one, it seems, will ever really know. They Mystery of Mary Rogers, remains, and will likely always remain, a mystery.