This is an article I wrote a while back about the real case that Poe used as an inspiration for his story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” The original article appeared here.
Tragic American scribe Edgar Allan Poe, while most popular today for his gruesome horror stories, in fact wrote successfully in many genres and is generally credited with pioneering the modern detective story through the invention of his fictional sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin.
Several of Poe’s stories were partly based on true events, but one of the most intriguing examples was the detective story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” inspired by the brutal 1841 rape and murder of a pretty twenty-year-old woman in New York City. There has been rampant speculation as to what happened to Mary Cecilia Rogers, the “real” Marie Rogêt, but even now, almost 170 years after her death, her killer remains unidentified.
The Disappearance of Mary Rogers
It was on the morning of Sunday, July 25, 1841 that twenty-year-old Mary Cecilia Rogers told her fiancé Daniel Payne that she was going uptown to visit her aunt. Mary, by all accounts a stunningly beautiful young woman, was clad in a white dress with a black shawl and a blue silk scarf, her black hair tucked under a flowered hat. Daniel Payne agreed to meet Mary at the omnibus station when she returned from her aunt’s house later that evening. But Mary Rogers would never be coming back.
Payne, alarmed when Mary had not returned by Monday, placed a missing persons ad that ran in Tuesday’s New York Sun. Upon hearing of Mary’s disappearance, a former sweetheart named Alfred Crommelin also joined the search. It was Crommelin who, on Wednesday the 28th, saw the commotion around the Hudson river, where a woman’s body had been pulled from the water. Crommelin initially identified Mary by the presence of a birthmark on her arm — the face was too battered for easy recognition — and Mary’s mother later identified the clothing the girl had been wearing when she’d last been seen alive.
An Unlikely Drowning and a Range of Suspects
In the early stages of the investigation, it was thought that Mary Rogers had simply drowned, but even a peremptory examination of the body demonstrated that Mary had obviously been dead before going into the water, which of course pointed to murder. Payne and Crommelin were naturally questioned, though both had unimpeachable alibis, as did Mary’s former employer, tobacconist John Anderson, and all of her other friends and fellow residents at the boarding house where she lived. In the absence of a clear suspect, rumors began to circulate almost immediately.
A Clandestine Abortion
One of the most insidious of these was that Mary had died either during or shortly after a botched abortion, and had been disposed of to cover it up. This tenacious rumor was based on the alleged confession of a tavern keeper who had supposedly seen Mary in the presence of a physician and knew that the abortion had been performed in his tavern. The “confession” turned out to be completely fabricated, but the abortion story not only turned up in a later revision of Poe’s fictional account of the crime, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” but continued to be repeated as truth in several books about the murder, right up into the modern day. It was also apparently a factor in abortion becoming criminalized in New York State in 1845.
The Suicide of Daniel Payne
Though Payne was quickly dismissed as a suspect, new stories began swirling about his involvement after he took his own life in October of 1841, by taking an overdose of laudanum. A cryptic suicide note was found in his pocket that some interpreted as a confession, but the note could also be read as simply a statement of grief, an unwillingness to go on living after Mary’s death. Indeed, Payne’s friends claimed he had been inconsolable after the murder, and were not terribly surprised that he would take such drastic action.
Who Really Killed Mary Rogers?
It was clear that someone had murdered the girl, but the mystery of who had done it was becoming murkier. In Poe’s story, the killer is thought to be a naval officer, perhaps the fictional counterpart to Mary’s real-life fellow boarder, sailor William Kiekuck, who was questioned about the crime but had a solid alibi. There was also speculation that Mary had been set upon by a gang; initial autopsy reports stated that Mary had been “violated by more than two or three persons,” though later investigation suggested otherwise.
In a recent article in Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell analyzed the many books and articles written about the unsolved murder, and also went back to revisit contemporary news stories and police reports. His conclusion, also reached by other scholars, was that Mary was likely raped and killed by a single assailant, an unidentified “swarthy” man who a few witnesses saw walking with her shortly before her disappearance.
She was raped and then strangled with a piece of lace trim; her unknown murderer then tore a strip from her petticoat and used it to fashion a sort of sling which he used to drag the body to the river (this fact alone casts doubt on the gang-rape theory, as a group of men could have easily carried the body). Whoever he was, the man who killed Mary Rogers evidently got away with his crime. Mary herself lives on in the pages of Poe’s masterful fiction.
Nickell, Joe. “Historical Whodunit: Spiritualists, Poe, and the Real ‘Marie Rogêt'”. Skeptical Inquirer July/August 2010: 45-49.