THE BEAUTIFUL CIGAR GIRL: MARY ROGERS, EDGAR ALLAN POE AND THE INVENTION OF MURDER, by Daniel Stashower, Berkeley, 388 pages, $15, softcover
On July 28, 1841, two men pulled the severely battered body of a young woman from the Hudson River along the Hoboken, N.J., shoreline. Disfigured from a beating and exposure to the elements, the woman's face was unrecognizable.
Upon further investigation, she was identified as Mary Rogers, a 20-year-old former cigar girl who had gone missing three days earlier. In the following months her death would fuel public outrage and a newspaper circulation war heightened by accusations and sensationalism.
Despite mounting pressure from the public and the media, the case remained unsolved. A year later, a young writer named Edgar Allen Poe turned the tragedy into an opportunity. His plan was to solve the crime through the lens of a fictional character, thus helping officials put an end to the case.
Printed as a fictional magazine serial, "The Mystery of Marie Roget" speculated on the young woman's death through the eyes of Poe's famous detective C. August Dupin.
Poe's work played a large role in public opinion about Rogers' demise. A year following her death, a dying innkeeper confessed that Rogers had not been murdered as many supposed but had died from an abortion and her body had been disposed of. Though the story left many questions unanswered, it became the accepted explanation for Rogers' death mainly because Poe based his own account on it.
What really happened to Rogers was never discovered. And though the death remains a mystery, Poe's work would later be recognized as the birth of modern detective stories.
"The Beautiful Cigar Girl" is Daniel Stashower's attempt at weaving the lives of Rogers and Poe together. What the award-winning author of "Teller of Tales" does is create a compelling narrative.
Stashower spends more than half of the book on Poe's life, which is surprising based on the title. But the time there is well spent, not only setting up the story but also creating a counterpoint comparison between Poe and Rogers.
The main characters didn't know each other, but Stashower shows how the lives of these two very different people intersected. Poe and Rogers both came to New York with their families in search of opportunities following financial loss. Rogers worked at a cigar store and crossed paths with the literary agents and journalists with whom Poe worked. The same men would help make her an object of affection and later would sensationalize her death.
Stashower artfully brings elements of biography, social history and crime detection together. And his insight into newspaper reporting of the time, especially penny presses, is fascinating. Also of note is his hauntingly sad depiction of Poe's alternating genius and self-destruction.
"Cigar Girl" is written in an easy style that doesn't feel like a history book. Stashower presents the information in an accessible way that makes you want to keep reading.The book is not without its faults, though. Stashower includes a considerable bibliography at the end but chose to leave out footnotes. This was an unfortunate decision, as it makes it difficult to link quotes and other information to their respective sources.