It’s all in preparation for the review of Paul Collins’ new biography of Poe, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever of Living.
Review: The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower, 2007.
You can read Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, about 38 pages long in Stephen Peithman’s excellent The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, or you can read this 386 page book.
You will have a lot more fun with this, and it will at least seem shorter than Poe’s story.
In June of 1842, Poe proposed a literary stunt: take his private detective, Auguste Dupin — the very first private detective in world literature — and turn him loose to solve a real crime, not a puzzle created by Poe. Dupin had made his first appearance in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” published in April 1841. Poe, as a matter of pride, wanted to prove that the idea of “ratiocination”, inductive reasoning, could be applied to solving real crimes. “Where is the ingenuity,” he said “of unraveling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?” There was also a matter of pride too. As the man who once challenged people to send him cryptograms to solve, he wanted to show his reasoning abilities.
And, of course, as the first American to earn a living, albeit a very poor one, solely by literary endeavors, he needed the money. And the public was very interested in the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, the beautiful “seegar girl”.
There is a bit of humbuggery in this book’s subtitle. Murder, of course, was not invented during Poe’s lifetime. As Stashower shows in his concise delineating of the New York City of the 1830s and 1840s, sensational coverage of particular murders in the city’s newspapers started in 1836 with the death of prostitute Helen Jewett.
However, there is something very modern about the press and public reaction to the Rogers’ case”. She was young and pretty and seemingly without personal scandal. She worked in the tobacco shop of John Anderson, a draw for the men of the city. Poe himself may have met her. Seemingly raped before death, her end was savage though the cause of death not entirely clear.
The suspects were many: her one time boss Anderson, the various men who vied for her attention, the swarthy man supposedly seen with her in her last hours, one of the many gangs vexing New York City at the time. A crime of sexual violence, jilted love, an abortion gone wrong? Or was it, in fact, not even Mary Rogers whose corpse was pulled from the Hudson River?
The yellow press of the day argued all these points and more. And when the purported crime scene was discovered weeks after Rogers’ body was and a suspect committed suicide, interest remained high.
Poe transparently fictionalized the story but kept nearly all the details. But, right before the third part of his serialized story was to appear in January 1843, there were further developments in the case, and Poe had to scramble to do a rewrite of the final installment.
The result is, as Stashower shows in a close examination using his talents as literary scholar and sometime mystery novelist himself, a story contradictory and unclear. Poe didn’t really solve the case, but then neither did anyone else.
Rogers’ murder was seized upon by many for their reform causes, and Stashower concisely covers that as well as other literary works based upon the Rogers murder though I would argue that we probably still talk about this case only because of Poe. He also makes clear that his is not the first book on Poe and the Rogers case.
Not only does he cover Rogers’ short life, but this book almost works as a good introductory Poe biography. He places certain other Poe efforts in the context of the Rogers’ affair and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”. In particular, Poe, in his hoaxer mode, may have had in mind the equivocations and papering over of crevasses between facts in his story when he wrote his later satire “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Science”.
My only complaint about the book, and it probably only applies to hardcore Poe fans who read non-fiction works about him, is that there are no footnotes, only a bibliography. It would have been nice to know the exact source of some of Stashower’s information.
Some Thoughts After Reading “The Mystery of Marie Roget” the Second Time
The problem with Poe’s story is that, despite being about a murder, there is little drama. It’s mostly a long detailed lecture by Dupin, with very few interjections from the narrator, about logic and reasoning and the forensic details of why and when bodies float in water and the conclusions we can draw about what caused the rips to Mary Rogers dress. Unlike the first and third Dupin stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”, there is no presence of the narrator as a character.
And, as Daniel Hoffman argued in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, the success of the first Dupin stories lies with a character we can identify with, the narrator. That is proved by the negative example of this story where the narrator is just there to break up long lectures by Dupin and the long, lightly fictionalized quotes from New York newspapers that Poe uses.
Poe is clever, and his criticisms of the logic of the police and newspapers and public is often on target. But his contortions, especially as pointed out by Peithman and Stashower, are obvious. Suppositions in one place become facts in another. Some “facts”, like grass growing two to three inches a day in hot July weather, are just bogus.
Still, you got to hand it to Poe. He gave it a try. Especially, considering the last-minute re-write (and a further one for the tale’s inclusion in 1845’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque), he probably did as well as anyone could have.
Was “The Mystery of Marie Roget” More Than Just a Magazine Article?
Stashower’s story doesn’t conclude with Poe’s death. It goes on until 1887. When John Anderson died, in a lawsuit over his estate, the charge was made that Poe mostly wrote the story in exchange for a $5,000 payment from John Anderson. Rogers had first disappeared briefly in 1838, perhaps to obtain an abortion.
Anderson fell under suspicion both times, and he thought the cloud over his reputation hurt his attempts at a political career — which, indeed, never did take off. As Stashower points out, we can’t dismiss this story out of hand. Poe and Anderson did know each other. Poe had undertaken work for hire before when he ghost-wrote The Conchologist’s First Book: Or a System of Testaceous Malacology. Stashower seems on pretty firm ground, though, in saying that, if nothing else, the alleged amount paid is ridiculous for the perennially poor Poe.
I have not seen or ready any of the following so pass no judgement.
Stashower specifically credits John Evangelist Walsh’s Poe the Detective: The Curious Circumstances Behind The Mystery of Marie Roget. Hoffman also alludes to Walsh’s work, if not specific titles, in passing.
Stashower mentions, without giving names, that Poe himself was proposed as Rogers’ murderer by a twentieth century writer. Peithman says that was Irving Wallace in his 1955 book The Fabulous Originals.
Poe’s powers of detection prove too good for his own good and get him killed in 1977’s Poe Must Die by Marc Olden.
Finally, the story was filmed in 1942 and also known as the Phantom of Paris.