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Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Mary Rogers Murder Case: The Homicide That Launched Crime Journalism and Modern Policing

     In America, police didn't get around to systematically investigating crime until well into the twentieth century. There were no police, at least as we know them today, until the mid-l800s, about the time the word "detective" first appeared in the Oxford Dictionary. Charles Dickens, in his 1853 novel Bleak House used the word for the first time in a book.

     From Colonial America to the mid and late 1800s most cities were "policed" by bands of politically appointed, unsalaried watchmen and constables who were compensated through a system of fees, rewards and bribes. If a thief had more money than his victim he could avoid jail by paying off the constable or local justice of the peace. Watchmen and thieves commonly operated as teams wherein the thief would steal the property then turn it over to the watchman who would solicit a reward from the victim. The thief and the cop would split the money. At best watchmen were nothing more than middlemen in the ransoming back of loot.

     In 1840, New York City had a population of a half million and a growing crime problem, particularly in the Five Points area, a south Manhattan slum. In addition to gangs of young thugs the area was being overtaken by a small army of safe-crackers, lock-picks, pickpockets and shoplifters. The neighborhood also featured gambling, prostitution and public drunkiness. While homicide was still rare, more and more people were being raped and assaulted.

     During the day, so-called "roundsmen," a group of inept and corrupt watchmen who existed off fees and rewards patroled the city. At night, watchmen called "leatherheads," equally ineffective and corrupt, took over. The watchmen ignored crimes against persons such as assault and rape because these cases rarely involved monetary incentives from victims. Even in cases of violent crime where victims could afford rewards few arrests were made because no one in law enforcement knew how to conduct a criminal investigation. Moreover, forensic science and the technology to identify offenders beyond their names--bodily measurements then later fingerprints--didn't exist. As a result there were no criminal record archives, and because photography was a relatively new technology, rogues' galleries--collections of offender mugshots--didn't exist. It would be decades before the police in the U.S. routinely photographed arrestees.

     In 1841 a notorious murder case highlighted the sorry state of law enforcement and criminal investigation in New York City and the rest of the country. As is often the case a celebrated crime would serve as a catalyst for change--and in this instance--progress.

The Mary Rogers Murder Case

     Three men, late in the afternoon of July 28, 1841, while fishing from a boat on the Hudson River just off the Hoboken, New Jersey shore, spotted the bloated body of a woman floating in the water. The partially clothed corpse was identified that evening as 20-year-old Mary Rogers, the former employee of a popular Manhattan cigar store. She had gone missing three days earlier. The once attractive woman had been badly beaten in the face and strangled by a length of muslin found wrapped around her neck that had been tied with a slip knot. Her hands and feet had been bound, and according to the coroner who ruled her cause of death as drowning, she had been raped.

     Mary Rogers had lived with her mother Phoebe who owned a boarding house on Nassau Street in Hoboken. On the day after the fishermen found the body a lawyer named Alfred Crommelin, a boarding house resident who at one time had been the victim's suitor, asked the authorities not to make inquiries into the death. Because there had been rumors that Mary's last absence from work involved acquiring an abortion, Crommelin based his request on the need to protect the family from embarrassment. The watchmen he spoke to, a man ill equipped to conduct an investigation of any kind, readily agreed to drop the case. Had it not been for a reporter for The New York Evening Mercury writing a scathing editorial criticising this official inaction, the case would have sllipped into obscurity.

     When the other newspapers in town picked up the story of Mary Rogers' death the authorities had no choice but to conduct a token investigation. Most of the information gathered on the case--Mary's background, associations and activities before her most recent disappearance--would be developed by newspaper reporters rather than the constables and watchmen responsible for looking into the homicide.

     Mary Rogers began working at John Anderson's Cigar Store, on Broadway near Thomas Street, in the spring of 1840. During her ten months of employment there, more and more men dazzled by her beauty and charm flocked to the store. One day, in January 1841, Mary didn't show up for work and remained missing for six days during which time her absence was reported in several newspapers as the "mysterious disappearnce of the cigar girl." When she returned to the store her admiring customers noticed her despondency and were skeptical of her story that she had been in the country visiting a relative. The rumor spread that she had undergone an abortion, a legal procedure at the time.

     Shortly after her return to work Mary broke off her engagement to Daniel Payne, a heavy-drinking cork cutter of whom her mother strongly disapproved. She then quit her job. On July 25, the day she
disappeared for the second time, Mary told Mr. Payne she was spending the day at her aunt's house on Bleecker Street. Three days later the fishermen found her floating in the Hudson River.

     Failing to acquire confessions from their only suspects--John Anderson, Alfred Crommelin and Daniel Payne--the police published a reward for information leading to the killer's arrest. That resulted in an anonymous letter from a man who said he had seen Mary, on the day of her disappearance, with six rough looking men at a summer retreat near Hoboken. From the beach Mary and the men were seen disappearing into a wooded area. The letter, published in several newspapers, brought forward two men who were on the beach that day, men who remembered seeing an attractive young woman in the company of several men. As far as these witnesses could tell, Mary was with these men voluntarily.

     Shortly after the publication of the anonymous letter a stage driver came forward and said he had seen Mary, on the day of her disappearance with a young naval officer. They were at a roadhouse near the Hoboken summer retreat. Mary's companion turned out to be a sailor named William Adam. Taken into custody, watchmen, after grilling him for two days released him back to his ship.

     On September 25, 1841, two months after the murder, children playing in the woods near Elysian Fields in Hoboken found a white petticoat, a silk scarf, a parasol and a linen handkerchief bearing the initials "M. R." This area was near where Mary Rogers had been seen entering the woods with the six rough looking men, the probable place of her killing. No one in authority had thought to search this site for clues related to her violent assault. Without the ability to connect a suspect to the scene of a crime through fingerprints or various forms of trace evidence, the investigation came to an abrupt end. A few weeks later, at this very spot, Daniel Payne killed himself by drinking a bottle of laudanum, a particularly painful and unhurried mode of poison-suicide. Because Payne had an air-tight alibi for July 25, the day of the murder, he was never considered as a serous suspect.

     No one was ever arrested for the murder of Mary Rogers. Edgar Allan Poe, however, used the case as the basis of his story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," a crime he set in Paris. The short story reflected Poe's contempt for New York's law enforcement establishment, men he portrayed as bungling the murder investigation. The story first appeared in the November 1842 issue of Snowden's Ladies' Companion. Two installments followed.

     The Mary Rogers case, through Edgar Allan Poe, led to the formation of a new literary genre and sparked the beginning of crime journalism. Poe's fictionalization of the case produced early anti-abortion legislation and kick-started the formation, in 1845, of the New York City Police Department, the nation's first modern law enforcement agency.