S1E5: The First True Crime Novel
The life and death of the beautiful Mary Rogers the "cigar girl" who worked at a local men's club would inspire the curious and moody arm chair sleuth to pen what is considered the first true crime novel, creating a new genre and paving the way for others including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
S1E5: The First True Crime Novel
Released October 2020
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The Bag of Bones Podcast
Season One Episode 5
The First True Crime Novel
Edgar Allan Poe, author of short stories and poetry has been both heavily criticized and highly praised for his volumes of work over his lifetime.
And while his morbid subject matter is usually how he is remembered with such titles a The Raven, Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall in the House of Usher and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, his personal tales of woe, not only makes one understand the emotion and darkness of his words but almost feel the anguish of his poor choices and life’s outcome.
“I think,” Poe wrote, “that I have already had my share of trouble for one so young.” This was documented almost fifteen years prior to his death.
It’s true that he had a troubled youth and his rebelliousness of young adulthood cost him the security of a good career and the love of the only family he had really ever known. And even under these dark circumstances he forged the way for others to make a living (while perhaps not affluent) a living none the less from his writing.
In his role as literary critic and editor was how he earned the bulk of his wages but was known to be especially harsh. While some praised him for his keen eye and deep insight into the art of writing and literary works others would say that he was quite blunt and downright cruel in his reviews. In his defense, he was known to say, quote “feeble puffery is not my forte. It will do these fellows good to hear the truth and stimulate them to worthier efforts.” End quote.
He was equally hard on his own creations as well. Though the representations of his past may fail to show it. He was equal parts confident and insecure, as most writer’s find themselves to be.
When he was feeling accomplished and appreciated for his hours of work either at the publication he worked for or while creating his own works of prose or fiction, he was the model employee, spending as many hours as it would take to improve, promote, edit and produce the magazine increasing their income and readers. But when he was not paid for his efforts or acknowledged for his works, is when his fragile ego would destroy his current world and he would slip into drunken rages and his words would be written in venomous ink writing vicious letters causing him to lose many jobs, and friendships. “…the human thirst for self-torment” he would say in acknowledgement about his uncontrollable outbursts. This roller-coaster of glory and self-sabotage would carry him through all the days of his life.
But it was during a window of self-improvement that brings this story to light and changes the course of fiction forever.
Poe was enjoying some acclaim for his recent short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue which was printed in the publication, The Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in which he was the editor. Here, he introduced the character of detective C. Auguste Dupin.
In the story, using Paris as the backdrop, Dupin uses his powers of observation and deductive reasoning to solve the case of two murdered women, while being told through the eyes of his nameless companion.
In the world of fiction, this story is considered the first in the modern detective genre where the reader follows along in the detectives own time while solving the crime. Dupin is the predecessor to famed Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would say, quote, “Poe is the master of all… to him must be ascribed the monstrous progeny of writers on the detection of crime…”
Shortly after the release of his detective story, a real-life story rocks the world and dominates the news publications.
It is the murder of a young, beautiful girl by the name of Mary Rogers of New York in the summer of 1841. She had reached the status of “local celebrity” from being the first cigar girl. A forerunner to the spokes model, so to speak. She was pretty and would stand there behind a counter and sell cigars to men.
Mary Rogers became the reason why men would choose John Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium over the many others in the busy and bustling city of New York. Her likeness would appear in the advertisements and on flyers and in reference to long flowery romantic poetry. She was known as the “Beautiful Cigar Girl”.
On July 25th, Mary Rogers disappeared and her floating, lifeless body reappeared on the 28th in the Hudson River, in Hoboken, NJ. The body had finger depressions on the throat, in addition to a strip of fabric that was torn from the hem of her dress was tied around her neck ensuring strangulation. Her face had been beaten and initial reports attest to her being “violated”. Which was later attributed to an abortion gone wrong.
The murder of the Beautiful Cigar Girl” received national attention and every newspaper clammered to have the newest bits on information concerning the case, real or fabricated. It’s also worth mentioning, that this particular case became the catalyst that “changed the face of newspaper reporting forever.”
In the book by Daniel Stashower he mentioned, quote, “The drama of Mary Rogers would be one of the earliest, most significant murder cases to play out in the pages of the American press laying the groundwork for every “crime of the century” to follow.” End quote.
THis particular case, in order for each publishing house, newspaper or magazine to out do the other, the etiquette of the rules of print were thrown out the window. Reporters turned to the most graphic and scandalous scenes to throw above the fold for the attention of readers. (And on a personal note, it has been a continual slippery slope ever since. You can’t put the cap back on the bottle and today, nothing… nothing is left to the imagination.)
At the first hint of a “break in the case” newspapers rushed to print. The police were pulled in every direction and speculation was abound.
Enter: Edgar Allan Poe.
He decided to take on the case of Mary Rogers in his own way. Disgusted with the way the case was being handled and convinced that his detective character Dupin could do better, he decided to take the entire fiasco to Paris.
Fictionally, of course.
Edgar Allan Poe created the serial story The Mystery of Marie Roget.
He studied the facts, right along with the police, made his own conclusions and created a “fictional” murder case from the actual murder case. This had never been done before. Even though he changed the names and the locations, he was very upfront with his audience that he was paralling the two stories. That Marie was the French version of Mary in every way. Some of his story includes actual quotes from the American newspapers.
Poe has written, ”under the pretense of showing how Dupin ... unravelled the mystery of Marie's assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York,”
What makes this so unique, is that he was sluething right along with the NY detectives. Through the eyes of fiction Poe, or rather his top notch detective Dupin would conduct his research and write his book as if he were solving the murder of Mary Rogers, even to the point of calling out if not a valid suspect, but the actual murderer.
“THe death of a beautiful woman,” Poe would write, “is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”
With this story catching headlines across the nation, the iron was hot for him to sell his idea to the leading publications. He was turned down (probably due to his past history of temper tantrums with them) by two major magazine publications but eventually it was taken on by The Ladies’ Companion magazine. A publication that Poe loathed, but as mentioned before, burned many a bridge by this point, and he desperately wanted to sell this story. He claimed that the Ladies Companion was ridiculous for its quote “ill- taste and humbuggery.” (Side note: I don’t know if that’s really a vital piece of the story but who would pass up the opportunity to say the word humbuggery if they got the chance?)
He sold the story and it was to be presented in three sections, delivered over three months. This would not only increase the anticipation of his readers, but allow him to work through the case himself.
THis story would push his own writing and detective skills to the edge. He was testing himself, pushing himself the way he insisted other writers improve their craft.
Even though his first detective mystery, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, received praise by his peers he scoffed at their being so easily impressed saying, quote “Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself the author have woven for the express purpose of unraveling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the ( SUH- POZ-A- TI- SHUS) supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.” End quote.
Poe was upping the stakes in his own game.
As a writer myself, I think the entire web-creation of a well thought out mystery is a skill and not to be dismissed, but to Poe, it was… in modern vernacular, “a cop out.” He believed that there was no great skill in presenting a solution to a mystery of the author’s own devising.
“A real-life detective had no pre-ordained solution to guide his investigations.” End quote.
He released the Mystery or Marie Roget Part One in November of 1842 and Part 2 in December.
He had part three all set and ready to go and then, only days prior to its scheduled release, new evidence surfaced in the real-life story of Mary Rogers. Poe went back in and and adjusted his version to accommodate the new findings.
The third and final act of his detective drama was released in February of 1843.
Side note: In 1845 he did a complete reprint of the story as a whole with a few minor adjustments to support his verdict as if Detective Dupin knew those details all along.
So, you’ll probably ask if he got the answer right. Did he, Poe as Detective Dupin solve the mystery of the death of Mary Rogers and in turn the fictional Marie Roget?
We don’t know. The death of Mary Rogers is still considered unsolved to this day. And even in Poe’s closing, he leaves it cleverly open-ended to interpretation.
While the abortion would have guaranteed her death, the strangulation hastened it.
He uses quotation marks to name and yet not-name the culprit and reading further hints at other parties that may or may not have been involved.
So, It is also believed that he knew more than what he revealed with his quote from the story, “Nothing was omitted in Marie Roget but what I omitted myself…” he continues in his statement with, “but for the sake of relatives, this is a topic on which I must not speak further.”
And to the actual cause of her death, which if you recall was attributed to a botched abortion was also written in a way to evoke interpretation. Was it a mistake of a medical procedure making it an accidental death? Or was it murder when the procedure is handled by the inept hands of an abortionist? Poe gives only ambiguity and possibility.
Did he know the real answer? He tells the world he did, but was it truth based on Mary or fiction based on Marie?
At the time, this book got mixed reviews and Poe was not to achieve full acclaim until he released his work The Raven. But looking back to see his brilliant spin on sentence structure and his use of descriptive words and visual concepts its easy to see how his skill as a writer has impacted authors from that day forward. Many giving him the credit of their inspiration. Oscar Wilde for example referred to him as “this marvelous lord of rhythmic expression.:
Poe died penniless and alone in a hospital in October 1849 at the young age of 40. The cause of his death is still discussed at lenghth even today.
It always saddens me that his true genius was not appreciated in the time of his life but like so many other artists is only recognized after death.
Love him or hate him, he has changed the world of writing and in turn for readers and these days, he is celebrated for paving such a path.
I leave you with this final Quote “I have perseveringly struggled, against a thousand difficulties, and have succeeded, although not in making money, still in attaining a position in the world of Letters, of which under the circumstances, I have no reason to be ashamed.”