In The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder (Dutton, 2006) Daniel Stashower unravels the sensational tale of the ghastly murder of the young and beautiful Mary Rogers while simultaneously recounting the life of Edgar Allan Poe and the inspiration he drew from this murder case.
On 28 July 1841 the corpse of a young woman was found floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. Although hardly recognizable, the body was soon identified as Mary Rogers, a young woman who had been missing for three days from the boarding house that she ran with her mother. Known for her attractiveness, when she took a job as a clerk in a tobacco shop when she was 17, Mary quickly became popular among the male customers who frequented the shop and was well known in the city. Over the course of the work Stashower peels back the layers of sensationalism connected to Mary Rogers’s death to present the case, which remains unsolved, and the twists and turns of the investigation that followed, in a new light.
Told alongside the tragic story of Mary Rogers is that of a figure less worthy of sympathy, the American literary icon, Edgar Allan Poe, specifically how Poe used the murder case for his own ends. Indeed, Poe unscrupulously used the events of the case to write The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842), which was presented as a sequel to The Murders in the Rue Morgue, released just months before the murder. While Poe’s life is interesting in its own right, in exploring Poe’s writings and his involvement with contemporary crimes, Stashower highlights the relationship between the real crimes being committed and how they influenced what was being written contemporarily by the liked of Poe, Charles Dickens, and others. Having presented the case of Mary Rogers murder and the life of Edgar Allan Poe, the work concludes with an overview of the various theories espoused concerning the never fully explained murder case, as well as the final years of Poe, who died in 1849 at the age of 40.
Etching of Mary Rogers from Contemporary Periodical
Although the work focuses primarily on Mary Rogers and Edgar Allan Poe, Stashower should be commended for his thorough presentation of New York City and its environs in the 1840s, of which few vestiges remain in the twenty-first century. In making sure that the city and how it operated were so fully contextualized, the author has provided a further element of interest to an already fascinating work.
Alternating between chapter on the Mary Rogers case and the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America’s most celebrated literary figures, Stashower’s work is heavily detailed and draws considerably from the historical record. Given that the historical record for Mary Rogers is relatively scant even though the case made national headlines at the time, Stashower has detailed all the facts that he has to work with, telling the story of the murder concisely and without leaving any aspects undeveloped. However, given the sheer amount of scholarship on Edgar Allan Poe, Stashower’s sections on the author are lengthy and often read as entirely unrelated to the case of Mary Rogers. Although certainly highly researched and well presented, especially for those readers unfamiliar with Poe’s personal life, the book would have remained intensely compelling if far less biographical content concerning Poe been provided. The lengthy summaries are relevant works by Poe also come across as excessive.
1845 Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe by Samuel Stillman Osgood
Being such a thoroughly presented work, once can confidently say that The Beautiful Cigar Girl would be of interest to not only true crime lovers, but to literary enthusiasts, and historians, too, in equal measure. Albeit dense in terms of detail and the many layers of investigation which are presented, Stashower’s work is one of high quality and well worth the effort to read and contemplate the multi-faceted history therein.
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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.