Drowned Beauty - The Cigar Girl Murder
On a hot and humid summer day end of July 1841, a young woman was pulled from the Hudson river. On first glimpse, it had appeared that she had drowned.
She was quickly identified as Mary Cecilia Rodgers. A local celebrity, known as "the beautiful cigar girl".
At the time of her demise, young Miss Mary worked as a sales clerk at John Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium at 321 Broadway and Liberty street, close to City Hall. The owner of the fine establishment had wisely realized that an exceptionally beautiful young woman would draw lots of men to his cigar shop, some would linger all day just to stare at her.
Mary was extraordinarily good looking, proud, witty and confident, the customers loved her.
Born in Lyme, Connecticut around 1820, Mary had lost her father in a steamboat explosion and lived with her elderly mother Phoebe Rodgers, who took in boarders to make ends meet, at 126 Nassau street in Manhattan.
She had a fella, a nice looking young man named Daniel Payne, marginally employed as a cork-cutter at 47 John Street, who was a fellow boarder in the house Mary’s mother ran. Cork-cutting was a quite lowly and dirty occupation but Daniel, although inclined to be melancholy and brooding, was by all accounts a hardworking lad with seemingly sincere intentions towards Mary.
Mary left home on a pleasant summer morning on Sunday, July 25th to go to church and later visit an aunt in the West Village but failed to return home that day. There was a severe thunderstorm that afternoon, it was assumed Mary had stayed over at her mother's sister Mrs Downing at her home at 68 Jane street.
When she didn’t show the next day, her fiancé set out to find her, but his inquiry turned out that her aunt hadn’t seen her in weeks and wasn’t aware of any plans of a visit.
Although Mary’s mother seemed unconcerned, newspaperman used to hanging out at the tobacco shop got wind of her absence. Mary was no stranger to the local gossip pages, in 1838 she had mysteriously disappeared without a trace or explanation for two weeks, causing a small society scandal. The tobacco shop suffered a sharp drop in sales, but gossip paper sales peaked.
A brutal crime
Three days after she had gone missing, on July 28th, Mary’s body washed up by Hoboken. Her body was covered in bruises and her necks showed strangulation marks. Her death shocked the city.
Payne, her finance, had an alibi from a family member and was ruled out as a suspect in Mary’s disappearance but newspapers speculated about his involvement regardless. Rumor said Mary’s mother had not been thrilled with the prospect of a poor son in law when her daughter was courted by wealthy and powerful men. Gory details of the beautiful cigar girls murder made the front pages of the local papers.
Another early prime suspect was a Madame Restell, an abortionist and noted corrupter of morals who was accused of killing Mary by botching an abortion and dumping her lifeless body in the Hudson in the dark of the night.
However, Madame also had an alibi, and an autopsy turned out Mary had died virginal and had never been pregnant.
The coroner remarked she had been an unblemished woman of chaste habits.
Ruling out an indiscretion could have been a merciful cover-up to spare the grieving mother shame, or more sinister, protect a prominent man.
Madame Restell, aka Ann Lohman, a trained English midwife actually financed a home for children of unwed mothers, paid for by her unlicensed medical practice where she would prescribe an assortment of traditional “female tonics” to prevent pregnancy and perform surgical procedures (without anesthesia) when the tonics failed her clients. An outspoken champion of women's reproductive rights, she charged a few dollars to treat poor women and $100 for the rich. She ran a discreet boarding house for women who needed to give birth in secrecy and facilitated adoptions for ladies who had gotten to her in a too advanced state to perform a procedure.
Antiabortionist called her a monster in human shape for advocating birth control, solely responsible for prostitution and the devil incarnate for ruining the sanctity of marriage by allowing women to commit adultery against their husbands by removing the consequences of their sin. As reviled as she was from the pulpit Madame Restell was very popular, her business was booming and she was able to produce thousands of thank you letters from grateful clients. Her sort of business wasn’t rare, many practitioners advertised similar services in the local papers.
Within a few years, in 1845, New York passed legislation that classified all pregnancy terminations, even self-induced as a criminal act, punishable by a staggering $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
When she fell for an entrapment, the “wickedest women in New York” had a to do a year of hard time for a misdemeanor on Blackwells Island. After her imprisonment Madame Restelle returned to her furs, diamonds and pearls in her large mansion on E 52nd and Fifth Avenue, most likely to spite the Catholic archbishop who lived across the street, also in splendor.
The hunt for Mary’s killer seemed fruitless. John Anderson, her employer, put up a $50 reward, it was soon increased to $1250. Anderson couldn’t quite escape suspicion, he was arrested, questioned but quickly released. The press scrutinized his unhappy marriage and gossiped about his obvious closeness with Mary.
A livery carriage driver reported having seen Mary accompanied by a well-dressed man of dark complexion arrive at the Hoboken ferry and enter Nick Moore’s Roadhouse, a salon of ill repute.
The proprietress of the odious establishment, a Mrs. Fredericka Loss, later recalled having seen Mary, accompanied by a rich gentleman, enjoying a lemonade. A few weeks later several items belonging to Mary were found in the woods behind Nick Moor’s roadhouse. A parasol, a kerchief initialed M and gloves were recovered.
an unexpected suicide
Daniel Payne, Mary’s fiance, sank into a deep depression and started drinking heavily. Three months after Mary's murder, he took the ferry to Hoboken and paid a visit to Nick Moore’s Roadhouse. He poisoned himself with laudanum on the spot where Mary’s body had been pulled from the Hudson. He left a note apologizing but didn’t care to explain for what.
Innkeeper Fredericka Loss was later “accidentally’ shot by her one of the three sons, and gave several very conflicting and delirious deadbeat confession about the circumstance of Mary’s death; Mary had come accompanied by a male abortionist, her death had been accidental, and her sons helped to dispose of her dead body.
The police dismissed Fredericka's incoherent rantings. It seemed more likely that Mary and her mysterious wealthy suitor were ambushed by somebody from the roadhouse, but why had the young woman come to Hoboken?
Was Mary a victim of random violence? Street gangs were a menace in old New York, savage robberies were everyday occurrences.
New York in the mid-1800’s was a town of around 320,000 residents with a small police force numbering only a few dozen patrolmen. Mary Rogers murder remains unsolved.
Millionaire tobacconist John Anderson rose to become one of the most prominent New Yorkers of his time. He successfully invested in real estate and railroad bonds and was friendly with influential politicians like Tammany’s Fernando Wood and Oliver Churchill.
Anderson was deeply concerned the cigar girl murder had tarnished his sterling reputation. Edgar Allen Poe, an acquaintance and frequent customer of the tobacco shop wrote a thinly veiled fictional short story “The mystery of Mary Roget” with Anderson's generous financial support. The story appeared in The Ladies' Companion magazine in 1842. Set in Paris, a beautiful perfume shop girl is found dead in the Seine, most likely killed by her beau, a naval officer, not her benevolent and innocent employer. Poe hinted to friends about having inside information about the cigar girl crime but never elaborated and took the secret to his grave in 1849. His essay might very well be the first work of fiction based on a real crime.
By 1860 Anderson’s health took an ill turn, and he showed signs of advanced mental illness. He claimed he was frequently visited by spirits, including his dead son and most of all pestered by the ghost of Mary Rodgers. His delusions and paranoia worried his family. He died of pneumonia on a trip to Paris in 1881.
Madame Restell died April 1877. Her chambermaid found her in her bathtub one morning with her throat slit ear to ear. Police quickly classified her death a suicide. She was 66.