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The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder    by Daniel Stashower Amazon.com order for
Beautiful Cigar Girl
by Daniel Stashower
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

''I have a proposition to make,' he wrote, 'You may remember a tale of mine published about a year ago ... entitled The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Its theme was the exercise of ingenuity in detecting a murder.''

As most readers will immediately deduce, the author of those words was Edgar Allan Poe, one of 19th century America's most famous and enigmatic literary figures.

However, Poe went on to say something more in his proposal to an American magazine editor. 'I am just now putting the concluding touch to a similar article, which I shall entitle The Mystery of Marie Rogt - a sequel to The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The story is based upon that of the real murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, which created so vast an excitement, some months ago, in New-York.'

Poe, as already noted, is one of literature's most recognizable names. But what are we to make of the other name: Mary Cecilia Rogers?

As a strikingly beautiful young woman who had moved to New York City with her mother, Mary found work for a period of time as a sales clerk at John Anderson's Tobacco Emporium on lower Broadway. Mary - who soon became known as 'the beautiful cigar girl' - attracted 'admirers from all walks of life - from the Bowery to City Hall' who came to 'bask in her presence' and enjoy her famous ''dark smile' that was said to be as potent as cupid's arrow.''

Then, in July of 1841, Mary Rogers was found brutally murdered. Her murder sparked 'a massive public outcry' and set 'the stage for one of the most harrowing public dramas of the 19th century - driving one man to suicide, another to madness, and a third to public disgrace and humiliation. The death of the cigar girl, wrote one New Yorker, marked the 'terrible moment when the city lost its innocence.''

While many New York City journalists pursued the story with a rabid and irresponsible frenzy (which would prefigure our 21st century's own peculiar species of media madness), the city's law enforcement authorities (which seems like an oxymoronic label given that police department's impotent efforts) grappled ineffectively with the mystery of Mary Rogers' death.

Enter the struggling writer Edgar Allan Poe who had once written, 'The death ... of a beautiful woman ... is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.' For Poe, 'Mary Rogers marked the point at which life and art converged. At a time when his own life was collapsing {yet again}, her story offered a form of solace {seldom available to the hapless Poe during his lifetime}, a chance to emulate his famous detective {C. Auguste Dupin} and find order in chaos. In the process {which is majestically presented by the author Daniel Stashower in an exciting, fast-paced narrative}, ... {Poe, one of the most tortured souls in 19th century American literature} rewrote history - his own as well as that of the cigar girl - and found poetry in the disquieted heart of murder.'

Stashower's wonderful book painstakingly documents the curious convergence of Mary Cecilia Rogers and Edgar Allan Poe. As you read about the beautiful cigar girl and the desperate writer, you encounter dozens of other fascinating characters. You see the inner workings of 19th century newspaper journalism - some of which were shamelessly sordid and some of which were heroically courageous - and you see the botched bumbling of a police department that was still far away from becoming efficient and praise-worthy.

Most of all, though, you see Mary Cecilia Rogers - the most celebrated, tragic, and innocent(?) beauty of the age - and you see Edgar Allan Poe - the brilliant and boldly audacious writer whose own life had so frequently been darkly shadowed by the deaths of women.

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