Who Killed Mary Rogers? 

 

The Event

 

On Wednesday, July 28th, amidst a hot sticky summer in New York City, the badly decomposed body of a young woman was found in the North River (later to be known as the Hudson River) near Hoboken, New Jersey. The murder of the later identified Mary Cecilia Rogers became a celebrated case having far reaching ramifications for several generations. It also became a barometer of the current social conditions in ante bellum New York in particular and America in general.

 

Background

Although America's largest city, New York City was still small and compact enough for people like Mary Rogers, "the beautiful Seegar girl," to be a well known attraction for the young men of the city at a local tobacco store. Law enforcement was in 1842 what it had been for the previous two hundred years. There was a day force called "roundsmen" who were reactive in nature. They worked for various fees and rewards and were generally criticized for their ineptitude. A night-watch or "leatherheads" were to walk around the city after dusk watching for mischievous. They had become increasingly important of late with the rise of several youth gangs who made their rounds stealing, raping, and pillaging at will. A chief victim of such mischief were the "leatherheads" themselves who frequently slept on duty in their watch boxes rather than making rounds. The courts--manned by six justices of the peace, all of whom were politicized and corrupt--were judged by the public to be as incompetent as the police. But conservatism out weighed any desire or need to change, and, in spite of some models in London and Boston, New York remained fixed to its old ways. Mary Rogers would change that.

In fact, changes were coming more rapidly and radically to the news media. For the previous century and one half newspapers had been short on news. The first pages had been reserved for reports of U.S. Congressional and State Legislature minutes with abundant items clipped from English journals. Very little local news--and nothing gossipy or sordid--appeared. Then in the late 1830s James Gordon Bennett started the New York Hearld. He reduced the price to a penny, hence the "penny press movement," and filled it with sensational local news. Bennett used the Rogers case to increase circulation, force other newspapers into competition battles reaching new lows in journalism, and flirted with new journalistic devices. For the first time interviews of persons became important tool of news gathering. Reporters were becoming investigative. Some of style and speculation of such reporting bordered on fiction disguised as truth.

Mary Rogers also inspired a new literary genre. Edgar Allen Poe, an aspiring journalist and short story writer with a terrible drinking and drug problem, had just finished a popular story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In his story, the beginning of the detective puzzle genre, a super sleuth--Dupin--outwitted the dimwitted Parisian police to solve the case. Shortly after Mary Roger's death, Poe--ill with alcoholism and opium addiction and habitually poor--did some police reporting for the New York media and a book resulted. His story, the Mystery of Marie Roget, had the setting and characters placed in Paris, but it was clearly the thinly disguised murder of Mary Rogers. This became his second detective puzzle and would make Poe's short career significant in American letters. In it he posed a solution to the case which was commonly accepted for one hundred and fifty years.

 

The Event

Who murdered Mary Rogers? Perhaps one way to answer that question is to ask who was Mary Rogers? Born in 1820 she grew up with a widowed mother. A brother who was in the merchant marine rarely came home but when he did he threw the household into a turmoil with his excessive drinking and over protectiveness of his sister. As Mary grew to be a beautiful and vivacious young woman she got a job in a tobacco shop owned by John Anderson. The "beautiful Seegar girl" became a major attraction in downtown Manhattan, with many believing that Anderson's success was connected to the magnetic powers of the young woman. A minor crisis occurred in 1838 which might be revealing. Mary mysteriously disappeared for a fortnight. Anderson's business immediately declined. The penny press increased coverage and circulation. The police were severely criticized. A suicide note, purported to be by Mary, surfaced to fan the sensation. Then, as strangely as her disappearance, she reappeared much angered over the notoriety given to such a "humble little cigar girl." Mary continued to work for Anderson and from her earnings she was able to buy an Inn for her mother.

Alfred Crommelin was a resident of the small lodging house owned by the Rogers family and he immediately fell in love with Mary. Her mother, Phoebe, totally approved of the young lawyer as a means of socially upward mobility. Crommelin, however, was rejected by Mary and in a gentlemanly way he retreated into the background eventually even changing lodgings to a short distance away. However, he continued to carry a torch and settled for a friendship with Phoebe and Mary. He became a steady source of help and advice for both. Actually, it will be Crommelin later on who will be called upon to identify the badly decomposed body, a horrendous experienced even for the doctors and coroner who viewed her.

But it was Daniel Payne, a cork cutter by trade and alcoholic by weakness, who won Mary's heart. Phoebe disliked Payne enormously, as did Crommelin, of course. In June, 1841, Mary announced her engagement to Payne. Crommelin became despondent and Phoebe enraged. Arguments ensued between mother and daughter for a month. By the middle of July Mary relented promising Phoebe that she would not marry.

Shortly after she made her promise not to marry Payne, Mary showed up at Crommelin's apartment. He was not at home and she left a note hinting strongly at reconciliation. Crommelin did not respond. A series of letters from Mary arrived, each one more frantic than the previous one. Finally, she asked (pleaded) for a loan for an "emergency." When Crommelin failed to respond again Mary turned to Anderson and got the money. Shortly after, on Friday July 23rd, Mary disappeared.

Payne, concerned over the fact that Mary did not keep an appointment on the weekend, spent much of Saturday and Sunday with his brother looking for her to no avail. Phoebe was uncommonly unconcerned. Perhaps she remembered Mary's strange disappearance four years earlier. Or maybe she knew something else. The only reported sighting of Mary was on a ferry boat to Hoboken, New Jersey. Someone claimed they saw her near the farm of Mrs. Loss.

Frederika Loss owned a farm and tavern in the Hoboken and Weehawken area of New Jersey. Some reports by witnesses confirmed that Mary Rogers was seen near the Loss place "sometime" during the weekend. It was widely known that Mrs. Loss, and her three sons, were disciples of Madam Restell. Dubbed "Madam Killer" by many, Restell had built a fortune by opening a home on Greenwich Street in Manhattan for unwed mothers. Her philosophy was simple:the only plausible birth control system was abortion. While public sentiment might have been revolted by the practice, the law and large numbers of clients sustained it. Her Greenwich St. mansion catered to the wealthy and influential who further protected her activities. Poorer clients were franchised out to subordinates like Mrs. Loss. Upon questioning Loss denied any knowledge of Mary Rogers but she did admit hearing screams one night coming from a thicket nearby her farm. Which night, however, was not clear to her. An investigation of the thicket revealed several items of bloody and rain soaked clothing that resembled those worn by Mary.

The new stories of cries from the thicket were given indirect verification with numerous other rumors of youth gangs and thugs seen on the ferries from Manhattan to Hoboken. By the 1830s and 1840s the street gangs of New York City were well developed in the Five Points area, the commonly accepted and feared "low-life" criminal district. They hung out in grocery stores, taverns and dance halls. The earliest gang seems to have been the Forty Thieves. Others, particularly Irish based ones, quickly followed. They were the Kerryonians, the Bowery Boys, Chichesters, Roach Guards, Dead Rabbits, Shirt Tails and the Plug Uglies. The last one became the most notorious especially along the river front.

Shortly, after the revelations of Mrs. Loss, Mary's body was found. Mary's body seemed to be badly beaten and positive identification at first was difficult due to the time in the water and the hot humid conditions that had caused considerable putrescence. There was a strip of cloth around her neck tied in a slip knot, more commonly done by sailors and young roughs around town, rather that a "lady's knot." It was not clear if it had killed her or was a make-shift means of conveying her. Rigor mortis was still pronounced when she was found. The face was discolored and bloated; there was an ugly bruise near her eye and a deep scratch on the left cheek that ran down to the shoulder. The body had been allowed to lay exposed after it was taken from the water. In a short time the face darkened making identification impossible except with reference to its tattered clothing. Crommelin made the identification and then broke down. The coroner, making only the most casual examination, declared the body to have peculiar wounds around the vagina area.

And in a tragic postscript others broke down as well. First, was Mary's rejected betrothed Daniel Payne. On October 7th, two and one half months after Mary's death, Payne went to Hoboken to die. He got drunk and haunted all the sites supposedly visited by Mary. Then he took a lethal dose of poison that allowed him to linger long in agony. He went to the thicket, the place where Mrs. Loss had heard screams and parts of clothing were found, and died. He left a suicide note that strongly suggested his complicity in the crime. But most discounted it as a lover's despondency because Payne had an air tight alibi; he had been seen all over town with his brother madly searching for Mary over the weekend she disappeared. His guilt and death were attributed to that of a lover's agony that ended in his losing his grip on reality and then on his life.

Over a year after Payne's death one of her sons accidently shot Frederika Loss. She lingered for two weeks in delirium raving that a ghost was at her bedside. She claimed that this shadowy figure had been sent to haunt her last hours. The sons worried over her delusions and rantings, fearful that she might let out some "great secret." All of the penny presses, hungry for sensational news comparable to the Rogers murder and Payne suicide, made much of the ghostly visitors and final hours of Loss. The Tribune came out with a story highlighting the woman's abortion activities. Finally, Mrs. Loss came to an end but the mystery did not.

John Anderson, the proprietor of the tobacco store in which Mary worked, prospered and retired to Paris. He died there in 1881. Periodically, several years before his death, he claimed to have seen Mary Rogers as a ghost. He felt profound guilt over giving Mary the money and helping her leave that fateful weekend. It was rumored that on his death bed he cried out:"Mary, forgive me!"

The Mary Rogers case played a major role in the creation of the modern police of New York City. Other reforms of the coroner's office and the justices of peace were also suggested. Journalism now would take a track from which it has not deviated to this day. And of course the detective puzzle-thriller is firmly fixed in popular culture. Therefore, the death of the "beautiful Seegar girl" had a profound impact. But we still do not know murdered Mary Rogers. Or do you?

 

Questions to Ponder

1. Who killed Mary Rogers?

2. Why was there such concern over the death of this girl of modest means?

3. Use DOPE analysis..D=desire or motive.

O=opportunity to do it.

P=personality to do it.

E=evidence, who does it point to?

4. What is rigor mortis and what might it tell us as to time of death?

5. Why did Payne kill himself?

6. Why might his alibi be not so air tight?

7. Why were the Loss boys so concerned over their "great secret."

 

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Suggested Further Reading

Raymond Paul. Who Murdered Mary Rogers? (1971)

Amy Gilman Srebnick. The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (1995)