On this day in NY history: Who killed ‘The Beautiful Cigar Girl’? Part 1 of 2: (History 101)


168 years ago this month, 20-year-old Mary Cecilia Rogers disappeared. She had left home Sunday morning. She told her mother that she would visit her aunt after chuch, but by nightfall, Mary hadn’t returned home. It wasn’t until July 28 that her battered body was found in the Hudson. Who killed her, and why?

Mary lived with her mother in the family’s boarding house on Nassau Street. She worked as a shopgirl at John Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium on Liberty Street. There, Mary’s “dainty figure and pretty face” attracted numerous men to the store. Many of her admirers were the reporters and aspiring writers who worked in the area. James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Edgar Allen Poe were acquainted with her. She was nicknamed “The Beautiful Cigar Girl.”

The day she vanished, she put on a white dress and black shawl. She tied on her Leghorn hat and donned her gloves. She said goodbye to her fiancé, Daniel Payne, who lived at the Rogers’ boarding house. She told him that if she wasn’t home for supper, to fetch her at her aunt’s house. He agreed. There was a violent thunderstorm later that day. Payne figured that Mary, who hadn’t returned yet, had decided to stay at her aunt’s until the storm had passed.

But by Monday morning, she hadn’t come home. Nor had she shown up at work. Her mother Phoebe, Daniel Payne, and Mary’s friend and ex-fiancé, Alfred Crommelin, were concerned. They asked Mary’s aunt, Mrs. Downing, where she was. But Mrs. Downing hadn’t seen her. In fact, she hadn’t expected Mary to visit the previous day. They searched everywhere for her. No sign. Her family and friends placed an ad in the newspaper, the New York Sun, that asked for any information on her whereabouts. Still nothing. They tried not to panic. This wasn’t the first time Mary had disappeared.

On October 5, 1838, the New York Sun had reported that “Miss Mary Cecilia Rogers had disappeared from her home.” The following day, however, the Times and Commercial Intelligence reported that her disappearance was just a hoax. Mary was fine. She had visited a friend in Brooklyn. Oddly enough, she hadn’t told anyone where she was headed. And after she had come home, she still took several days before she had resumed work. Later, one newspaper said that the whole event had been a publicity stunt cooked up by her employer John Anderson. Later, it had been rumored that she had eloped with a naval officer. Other people whispered that Mary had attempted suicide, either over the officer or some other man.

On July 28, three days after her second disappearance, a group of men strolled along the Hudson in Hoboken. They were near Sybil’s Cave, a popular tourist attraction in Castle Point Park. Two of the men spotted some clothes in the river. They grabbed a boat that was tied up at the dock. They rowed to the clothes. To their horror, they discovered a young woman’s body. She had been gagged, bound, and brutally beaten. They towed her to shore. Others in their group raced for the authorities. A large crowd gathered. They gaped at the corpse. A local Justice of the Peace arrived and questioned the witnesses. No one had seen anything. No one knew who she was. The Justice opened an inquest that night.

At the morgue, the coroner described the remains: ‘[her face was swollen, the veins were highly distended. There was a 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 marks on the left side resembling the shape of a man’s fingers. It appeared as if the wrists had been tied together. The dress was much torn in several places … a piece was torn clean out of this garment, about 18 inches in width … this same piece was tied round her mouth, with a hard knot at the back part of the neck. Her hat was off her head at the time of the outrage, and that after her sexual assault and murder had been completed, it was tied back on. There was not the slightest trace of pregnancy, and so therefore the woman had evidently been a person of chastity and correct habits. The murder was done by more than three people.]”

Crommelin was the one who identified the woman as Mary. Her journalist friends seized on the chance to make a profit. The papers, particularly the sleazy “penny press” (forerunners of today’s tabloids), whipped the public in a frenzy of fear with lurid details and half-truths of the crime and the investigation. The public dreaded another attack from the violent men that still roamed free. The story soon spread nationwide. It was the Crime of the Century.

The newspapers soon threw suspicion onto Daniel Payne. Payne, an alcoholic corkcutter, swore to the officials that he had visited his brother and various bars on July 25. But the reporters called him a liar. In return, Payne brought sworn affidavits from witnesses to his whereabouts that day to The Evening Star newspaper. The papers announced that he was innocent. For the moment.

Eagerly, the reporters continued the hysteria. They howled that the New York police, led by Chief George Welling, hadn’t done enough. The papers faked clues and suspects. They next cast suspicion onto Cummelin and all of Mary’s other suitors. Each man was arrested, questioned, and released by the authorities. The law was stumped.

source: www.examiner.com

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