“The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, at New York.”
In the second Dupin tale, Edgar Allan Poe is very upfront about the source material which inspired his story.
Mary Cecilia Rogers, “widely known as ‘the beautiful cigar girl,’ had been a figure of note on the streets of New York City. From her post behind the cigar counter of John Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium on lower Broadway, Mary Rogers had cast her spell over half the men in the city. Her famous ‘dark smile’ was said to be as potent as cupid’s arrow. Admirers from all walks of life, from the Bowery to City Hall, came to bask in her presence.” (Stashower, p. 4)
In July 1841, Mary Rogers told her fiancé Daniel Payne she planned to visit her aunt and disappeared. Three days later, a corpse presumed to be hers was found floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. “From the first, however, false leads and misconceptions dogged the case. In the days following the discovery of the body, it was widely assumed that Mary Rogers had fallen prey to one of the notorious ‘gangs of New York…’ ” (Stashower, p. 5) Months later, her fiancé overdosed on laudanum and was presumed to have committed suicide.
The case grow in fame, or rather infamy, becoming a national sensation, and a year later, in 1842, Poe wrote his version of the events.
“Thus there come from his pen, the second Dupin story, ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.’ What he does is take the Mary Cecilia Rogers murder, transport the case to France, change the victim’s name to Marie Rogêt, and proceed to recount the Rogers murder as reported in the newspapers, not changing any of the facts (for that would destroy his objective), and present in fictional form his solution to the real crime.” (Waugh, p. 13)
Poe has already created his detective, Dupin. Therefore, it was easy for him to return to the environs of his fictional Paris and set the circumstances of the real murder there. Marie Rogêt works in Monsieur Le Blanc’s perfumery. Three months after a previous disappearance, Marie disappears for the second time. One day she left her mother’s residence after having told her fiancé Monsieur Jacques St. Eustache that she intended to visit her aunt. Like Mary Rogers, Marie disappears. Her corpse is found days later in the Seine River.
“Upon the first discovery of the corpse, it was not supposed that the murderer would be able to elude, for more than a very brief period, the inquisition which was immediately set on foot,” states our narrator, the same raconteur of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In fact several references are made to that case which occurred two years prior.
Much like the first Dupin tale, much of the story is recounted from newspaper accounts detailing the known facts of the case, the interviews with presumed witnesses, and coverage of the police investigation. “The items of evidence and information thus collected by myself, from the newspapers, at the suggestion of Dupin, embraced only one more point,” says our narrator. The further point is the death of Marie’s fiancé by an overdose of laudanum.
The fiancé’s death occurs after the discovery of clothing, presumed to have belonged to Marie Rogêt, that was found deposited near Madame Deluc’s road-side inn not far from the river and the site of the corpse’s discovery.
” ‘I need scarcely tell you,’ said Dupin, as he finished the perusal of my notes, ‘that this is a far more intricate case than that of the Rue Morgue, from which it differs in one important respect. This is an ordinary, although an atrocious instance of crime. There is nothing peculiarly outré about it.’ ”
Dupin then proceeds to analyze each newspaper account and the evidence reported piece by piece as he explains what is and isn’t part of the truth of the case. In particular, Dupin tears apart the notion that any gang could have been at work and that the murder is instead the act of one individual. All of this leads up to his solution, which appear flimsy at best, and yet their are pertinent clues laid out that lead to an individual, who is never met within the stories pages.
As Hillary Waugh critiques in his Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing, “There is no action. There couldn’t be, for Poe was never at the scene. All his analyses were devised and developed through a careful study of newspaper reports. Thus, for those readers who like the excitement and suspense of activity, the story is lacking.” (Waugh, p. 13)
It’s even stated within the text of Poe’s story that “we have taken the liberty of here omitting, from the MSS. placed in our hands, such portion as details the following up of the apparently slight clew obtained by Dupin. We feel it advisable only to state, in brief, that the result desired was brought to pass.”
Of the three Dupin stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is by far the weakest with its anticlimactic ending. As an experiment in adapting a true story as fiction, it presents a stronger interest. It would be particularly fascinating to read Poe’s story alongside the original newspaper accounts of Mary Rogers’ murder.
“Due to the unusual length of ‘Marie Rogêt,’ the editors of the Ladies’ Companion chose to publish the story in three sections over the course of three monthly issues.” Before the third installment’s publication, “new and disturbing evidence surfaced in the case of Mary Rogers’s murder, and the investigation that had been dormant for several months broke open once again.” “Poe took a desperate gamble. His efforts to save his story and his reputation were both brilliant and audacious… By the time he finished he had not only recaptured the story but bent it to his will.” (Stashower, p. 8)
Poe does indeed seem to bend the story to his will. Without the real Mary Rogers, there could not have been a fictional Marie Rogêt, but the account Poe pens seems to suit his detective’s genius and style of investigation. Despite its flaws, it is very much a Dupin tale. Dupin’s analysis is well-reasoned. Surely Poe’s own genius shines through as it must be his armchair sleuthing of the real case that appears here. Could it be that Poe is himself the model for Dupin?
Stay tuned for a look at the last Dupin tale, The Purloined Letter. In the meantime, share your thoughts of Poe and his stories.
A note on the text: This review is based on the 2006 Modern Library Paperback Edition of The Murders in the Rue Morgue: the Dupin Tales, edited an with an introduction by Matthew Pearl, author of The Poe Shadow. A note in the book explains that “multiple versions of each of the Dupin tales appeared during Poe’s lifetime.” This edition uses the revised versions as they were included in the 1845 Wiley & Putnam collection and incorporates additional changes that appear in the “Lorimer copy” of the text.
Author Hillary Waugh, quoted above, devoted a whole chapter to Poe and the creation of the detective story in his book, Hillary Waugh’s Guide to Mysteries & Mystery Writing. For more about this guidebook, see my review here.
The other book reference is Daniel Stashower’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Invention of Murder. This in-depth look at the murder, Poe’s story, and the reactions to both was published in 2006. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interest in historical true crimes and literary adaptions of stories ripped from the headlines.