In the historical cemetery of Greenwood, in Brooklyn, there is a huge mausoleum built as an ancient temple. It is the place for the eternal rest of John Anderson, rich business owner of a luxurious shop for smokers which rose in Lower Manhattan. Anderson found himself involved in a murder case which shocked the public opinion of the time, around 170 years ago: the Cigar Girl case, remained unsolved for good.
Above: picture of John Anderson’s mausoleum in Lower Manhattan, shared via Wikimedia Commons – public domain
It was one of the first cases of homicide which captures the attention of the population, even for the disreputable details revealed by the popular tabloids that in those years were rising.
The murder, as well as the shallowness of its investigation, which did not give any result, were amongst the reasons that led to a modernization of the police department of the city. Furthermore, this specific story was also inspiration for a story of Edgar Allan Poe, inventor of the detective novel.
In 1841 New York was about to become the biggest city in the US, with its 320 thousands inhabitants, thanks to the many Irish and German immigrants and the millions of Europeans who went looking for fortune in the following decades. Around the refined zones such as the 5th Avenue, Broadway and the Greenwich Village, many shantytowns were spreading. The city was constantly growing and people of all kinds were teeming. To guarantee the security of its citizens there were less than 200 police officers, agents and guards, organised as an old surveillance system.
Between Liberty Street and Broadway there was John Anderson’s shop, a high class shop where smoker’s items were sold; basically a luxurious tobacco shop popular amongst important men in the city.
Besides its exclusive products there was another reason which made Mrs Anderson’s shop popular: Mary Cecilia Rogers.
The girl was known in town as “Beautiful Cigar Girl”, famous for her pretty face and her gracious figure. Mary Rogers was hired to stay on the cash register with the goal of attracting the gentlemen of the city and flirting with them.
And they were hastening, from the simplest employees to famous writers. Anderson’s shop became some sort of literature club for smokers, where people such as Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and many others would hang out. Even though the girl would show herself as confused for a too daring compliment, in reality her gaze would remain cold and detached, aware of her own role inside the shop.
it seems that her smile was more effective than a Cupid’s arrow
Mary Rogers became very well known around the city, raising gossips and even articles on the papers. On the New York Morning Herald, a journalist warned on how pretty ladies working to attract clients were at risk; unscrupulous men could lure them to ruin.
Sadly, the journalist from the Herald was prophetic: during summer 1841 Mary Rogers disappeared
In a Sunday of midsummer, on the 25th of July, Mary said to her mother’s boyfriend, a certain Daniel Payne, that she would have been visiting some relatives in New Jersey. During the day New York was hit by a heavy storm, hence no one paid attention to the fact that Mary had not come back home, in the hotel of her mother. A similar episode had occurred in 1838; Mary had disappeared, leaving a note with a suicide threat. A multitude of admirers had run to the shop asking for news, and the girl came back to reassure them. According to many people, that was just a publicity stunt made up by Anderson.
In that July of the year 1841 though, Mary did not come back home
On the 28th of July two men were passing by along the bank of the Hudson river, in an area known as the Sybil’s Cave and noticed something floating that resembled a woman’s body. The two men went closer with a boat and were shocked at the sight of Mary’s body, brutally slaughtered. According to the medical examiner’s report, the woman had been strangled, but before that she had been beaten up and raped. The report said “her features were barely visible for the incredible violence she had endured”.
The homicide with such a young victim, as Mary was only 20, as well as pretty and well know in town, captured the interest of the whole city of New York and of the Press, which reported any type of detail. The first suspect was her boyfriend, immediately freed as he was having an alibi. In a tavern nearby the place where the body had been recovered, they found Mary’s clothes “evidently there from 3 or 4 weeks”.
Then, in October, something made the situation even more dramatic: the boyfriend committed suicide, poisoning himself right around the Sybil’s Cave. He left a cryptic note:
“To the World—Here I am on the spot. God forgive me for my misfortune in my misspent time”.
A year after Payne’s suicide, the tavern’s owner made a confession on his deathbed: Mary Rogers that Sunday had been in the tavern along with a “tall and dark” man, that he believed being a doctor. According to the owner the girl was there in his business to undergo an abortion which ended up in tragedy. The owner himself got rid of the body while one of his sons had thrown away the clothes in the wood. The whole reconstruction did not explain the strangulation or the brutal violence that Mary went through though, according to the coroner.
The vox populi instead would finger point her boss John Anderson, believing that he had perhaps impregnated her and then given her to Madame Restell, the most famous abortionist in New York (only in 1845 abortion became illegal in there). According to some anonymous letters delivered to Herald, Doctor Restell was responsible of Mary’s death, yet she was never examined by the police.
The attention for the unsolved case, as it usually goes, was drifted away by other tragic homicides, but the writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote down the continuum to the”The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, named “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”. The story, written in 1842 was set in Paris but Poe explained:
“The extraordinary details that I am now asked to make public will be recognised by the readers of the Mary Cecilia Rogers murder, in New York.”
Even in Poe’s story, like in reality, the murder remains unsolved.
From the novel it was created the film noir “The mystery of Marie Roget” from the 1942. Below the trailer