Dubbed “The Beautiful Cigar Girl” by New York newspapers, the discovery of Mary Roger’s body floating in the Hudson River is one of America’s oldest cold cases. As one of the biggest stories for its time, newspaper editors fought over who would be the first to break new information on the case and eager readers poured over every painstaking detail in hopes that they could help catch a killer.
Our story begins on the hot Sunday morning of July 25, 1841. Mary had left her mother’s home in order to attend church service. Returning later that morning, Mary told her mother and her fiance, Daniel Payne, that she had planned to take a horse-drawn carriage to visit with her aunt for the day and made arrangements for Payne to escort her home later that evening from the carriage stop.
That night a furious storm raged over the city and when Mary did not arrive at the carriage stop, Payne assumed that she had decided to stay the night at her aunt’s home. When Mary failed to return home the following morning, her family became worried.
This had not been the first time Mary had disappeared. In the Fall of 1838, Mary had left for several days. When she returned, she claimed she had been visiting with family in Brooklyn, but never explained why she had failed mentioned the trip prior to her departure. Mary’s mother was hopeful that this would be the case this time as well and Mary would return in several days.
Once the storm had cleared, a small search party comprised of Mary’s mother, Payne, and a tenant at the boarding house her mother owned set out to question Mary’s aunt on Mary’s whereabouts. There it was learned that Mary had never arrived. A missing ad was taken out in the newspaper in hopes that someone had seen the young woman and Mary could be reunited with her worried mother and fiance.
Several days later, Mary would turn up, but it was not what her family had hoped for. On July 28, 1841, three workers found Mary’s lifeless body floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. Reporters on the scene recognized Mary from the cigar shop she had worked for. As a local haunt frequented by newspaper editors and famous writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving, the story of Mary’s murder spread like wildfire.
By the next day, all of New York was buzzing about the mysterious murder of the Cigar Girl, along with speculations on the circumstances surrounding her untimely death. One paper suggested that she had died at the hands of a “roaming gang of thugs” and would call for men to join a group of vigilantes to run these gangs out of town.
Weeks after the discovery of Mary’s body in the river, a bundle of clothing had been discovered in the brush. A handkerchief monogrammed with the initials “M.R.” as well as several other articles of women’s clothing believed to have belonged to Mary were uncovered. Some believe that these items had been intentionally placed there by the killer to taunt reporters, as plenty of families, police and curious onlookers had roamed the grounds since the gruesome discovery and likely would have been found already.
The discovery of the clothing prompted a local tavern owner to report that she had recalled seeing Mary, along with another gentleman, on the night she had vanished. The couple had ordered dinner and then left. Moments later the tavern owner recalled hearing a scream. The tavern owner went out to investigate but did not report seeing anything of concern.
Years later this same tavern owner would confess on her deathbed that she had seen Mary with a doctor who had performed an illegal abortion. Mary had allegedly died as a result of the botched abortion and the doctor threw her body into the river. While many accepted this story as the truth, marks on Mary’s neck indicated that she had died as a result of strangulation, leaving others to believe that there were far more sinister circumstances behind the death of the young woman.
The truth was that nobody had any idea what had happened to Mary and the police had not zeroed in on any suspects. It wouldn’t be until months later when Daniel Payne committed suicide on a bench near where Mary’s body had been found that some had come to the conclusion that Payne had murdered her.
Along with his body, a note was found:
“To the World here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.”
In spite of Payne’s airtight alibi for the night of Mary’s disappearance, some interpreted this note as a confession. In actuality, Payne had slowly descended into madness over his grief of losing Mary. He spent his nights drinking too much and believed that he had been speaking with Mary’s ghost. Eventually, that grief became too much and he decided to end it all by drinking a lethal dose of laudanum.
News concerning the murder of Mary Rogers had all but dried up, but her story had not been forgotten. Edgar Allen Poe would later use the case as inspiration behind his story, Mystery of Marie Roget, while Irving Wallace speculated in his book, The Fabulous Originals, that Edgar Allen Poe had been behind the murder all along. None of these speculations had been enough to crack the case and to this day the murder of the Beautiful Cigar Girl remains a mystery.