High on a hilltop in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood cemetery, is an imposing mausoleum. Written large on the granite stone lintel is the name John Anderson. He was once the owner of an upscale tobacconist’s in Lower Manhattanm but one hundred and seventy six years ago, he was also at the centre of one of the most notorious murders in New York City.
Never solved, it remains one of the longest cold cases in the city. It was one of the first murders to grip the imagination of the city of New York, and one of the first to be played out luridly in New York’s nascent tabloid newspapers, the so-called Penny Press. The murder would centre around a mysterious, abandoned cave, and act as a catalyst to reform and modernize the city’s police department. It would also inspire a novel by Edgar Allan Poe.
The infamous, unsolved case became known as the Murder of the Beautiful Cigar Girl.
By 1841, New York City had overtaken Philadelphia to become America’s largest city. Although the vast swathes of millions of immigrants arriving from Europe were a few decades away, immigration from mostly Ireland and Germany, saw the city’s population swell to around 320,000.
The Commissioners Plan of 1811 saw all of Manhattan expanded and marked by a grid system; the character of New York was beginning to take shape. Mansions and town houses could be found along Fifth Avenue, around Lower Broadway and Washington Park in Greenwich Village, whilst squalid slums were swiftly spreading through neighbourhoods like the old Waterfront, along the Bowery and the infamous Five Points.
To police this every growing, swarming city, New York had just 51 police officers, 31 constables, and 100 city marshals, loosely organized as an old night watch system.
Just as today, New York’s principal thoroughfare was Broadway. Most of the city’s major theatres, hotels, saloons and shops could be found along the long road that stretched the length of the island of Manhattan.
One shop, found at 114, Liberty Street and Broadway was John Anderson’s high class tobacconist’s. Anderson’s specialty was a particular flake called Solace, which was widely popular, only available at his glitzy emporium, and would make Anderson’s fortune.
But aside from his luxurious tobacco, there was another reason why Anderson’s shop was so popular. Her name was Mary Cecilia Rogers, known throughout the city as the Beautiful Cigar Girl.
Mary Rogers was known for her ‘dainty figure and pretty face’. In his book, ‘The Beautiful Cigar Girl – Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder’, Daniel Stashower writes, “her famous dark smile was said to be as potent as cupid’s arrow.” Rogers was hired to stand at the counter, to lure gentleman into the high class tobacconist’s, and to flirt and engage with them whilst they were there.
And gentleman flocked to Anderson’s shop, from city clerks to denizens of the Bowery to eminent writers. Anderson’s became something of a literary smoking club, with Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and James Fenimore Cooper regularly dropping by.
“All the while the cigar girl stood prettily behind the counter”, writes Stashower, “sometimes she would flutter her fingers to her mouth, as if shocked by a coarse phrase, but the eyes were cool and knowing.”
Mary Rogers even inspired poems, that were printed in the Penny Press.
She’s picked for her beauty from many a belle,
And placed near the window, Havanas to sell.
For well her employer’s aware that her face is
An Advertisement certain to empty his cases.
Mary Rogers was what would become known by the 1920s, as the ‘It’ girl; the talk of society and gossip columns in the newspapers.
But amidst the tattle of the tabloids there were a few critical voices, who warned that Anderson’s impressionable young employee might come to grief in such rough company. The New York Morning Herald ran one such article; ‘something should be done instantly to remedy the great evil consequent upon very beautiful girls being placed in cigar and confectionary stores. Designing rich rascals to drop in these places, buy cigars and sugar plums, gossip with the girl and ultimately affect her ruin.”
The writer for the Herald was tragically prophetic. For in the height of the summer of 1841, Mary Rogers disappeared.
On Sunday, July 25th, Mary told her mother and fiancé, Daniel Payne, that she was going to visit friends in New Jersey. That Sunday, as a severe storm hit New York City, the Beautiful Cigar Girl was never seen alive again.
At first, her mother wasn’t too alarmed; for Mary Rogers had disappeared before. In 1838, she vanished, leaving a suicide note, only to turn up the next day. As crowds of gentlemen thronged Anderson’s shop to see her again, some thought it was a ghastly publicity stunt pulled by Anderson.
On Wednesday, July 28th, two men were taking an afternoon stroll from Hoboken, following the Hudson River up the New Jersey shoreline. As they approached a place called Sybil’s Cave, James Boulard and Henry Mallin saw what looked like a body of a girl, floating in the river. Finding a nearby boat, the two men rowed to have a closer look, to discover the brutally murdered body of Mary Rogers.
The coroner report recorded that she had been strangled, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. She was found with a lace cord tied around her neck. According to one report, “her features were barely visible as so much violence had been done to her.”
The shocking and brutal murder of one of the cities first celebrity girls, soon gripped the city, with every detail of the case being reported and pored over by the Penny Presses. The principal suspect was her fiancé. But a seemingly cast iron alibi saw him removed from police enquiries.
Over in Hoboken, the sons of the owner of the Loss Tavern, found some women’s clothes in the woods nearby. The New York Herald reported how, “the clothes had all evidently been there at least three or four weeks. They were all mildewed down hard….the grass had grown around and over some of them. The scarf and the petticoat were crumpled up as if in a struggle.”
The case dragged through the summer, until it took another macabre twist. In October, the distraught and hounded fiancé, Daniel Payne went on a drinking binge, stopping in tavern after tavern, until he ended up in an apothecary, where he brought laudanum. Payne went to Sybil’s Cave, near where the body of his murdered love was found, and committed suicide, leaving a desperate note: “To the World – here I am on the very spot. May God forgive my misspent life.”
Sybil’s Cave is a mysterious place in itself. One foggy November evening, we decided to go investigate the legend of this peculiar cave that featured so heavily in the murder. Leaving Manhattan at night, the ferry boat across the Hudson River was empty. Thick fog enveloped the river, as the ferry passed by near where the body of Mary Rogers was found.
Sybil’s Cave is a short walk north from Hoboken. In the early 1830s, the Steven’s family, who owned most of the land around Hoboken found a natural spring. They excavated a cave around it, and named it for one of their daughters, and built a Gothic archway around the entrance. At the time of the murder, it was a popular recreational spot. Drinks from the spring water were sold at a cent each. But the spring’s supposed medicinal qualities didn’t impress the Board of Health, who declared the water unfit for human consumption, and shut down the cave in the 1880s.
As Hoboken grew in size and warehouses sprang up along the waterfront, for decades, the cave lay abandoned and forgotten about until 1937, when it was rediscovered by young explorers.
In 2007, the cave was excavated again, with an iron cage installed to guard the entrance, and a small public park created around it, for people to enjoy, just as they had done over a hundred years before.
On the night I went to investigate, the park was empty, perhaps because of the thick fog and stormy night. Finding a small gap where the iron fence met the rock face, I was able to enter the cave, and see the spot where the stricken Daniel Payne poisoned himself, and where the body of Mary Rogers was brought to shore. By torchlight, the inside of Sybil’s Cave is eerie, and the water definitely looks more hazardous than healing.
A year after Payne committed suicide, the owner of the Loss Tavern was accidentally shot by one of her sons, one of the boys who had discovered what was thought to be Rogers’ clothes. On her deathbed, she made a startling confession: that Mary Rogers had been in her tavern with a ‘tall, dark man’, that she knew to be a doctor. The Tribune reported, “On the Sunday of Miss Rogers disappearance, she came to her (Loss) house from the city in company with a young physician, who undertook to produce for her a premature delivery.” A premature delivery was the newspapers way of reporting an abortion.
In her death bed confession, Loss said that the procedure was carried out in her house had gone wrong, and Mary had died, and disposed of her body in the Hudson River, whilst one of son’s threw her clothes into the woods.
Popular suspicion focused on her employer, John Anderson, with rumours circulating that he had gotten Mary Rogers pregnant, and sent her to the infamous New York abortionist, Madame Restell. Abortions in New York weren’t made illegal until 1845. Restell lived in a lavish apartment on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, and advertised her services in the New York Herald. She was infamous throughout city, with anti-abortion advocates calling her a ‘monster in human shape’, and the ‘wickedest woman in New York City.’
Anonymous letters sent to the Herald claimed that Restell had performed a fatal procedure on Mary Rogers, but no case brought against her. The case however continued to capture the public’s imagination.
Not least Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote a sequel to ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, called ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’. Written in 1842, but set in Paris, with the body being found in the Seine, Poe wrote, “The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public … will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of MARY CECILIA ROGERS, at New York.”
As in Poe’s novel, the murder of Mary Rogers was never solved. John Anderson died in 1888, supposedly in the last years of his life, he was tormented by her ghost.
The poor handling of the case helped lead to reform of New York’s archaic police force, with the New York Police Department being formed four years after the murder. In its Police Gazette of 1881, the NYPD wrote, “The annals of crime are gorged with mysteries. The red band of murder has set its mark on many of its pages, but left no other sign of its identity. Of all the episodes enshrouded in this somber incompleteness, there is none more tantalizing than the case of Mary Cecilia Rogers.”