Title: The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder
Author: Daniel Stashower
Original Publication Date: 2006
Edition Read: 2006, Dutton/Penguin Group
Total Pages: 326
Reason Read: Intended as a nice Halloween theme read, morphed into Thanksgiving & Christmas
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“I have a proposition to make. You may remember a tale of mine published about a year ago in ‘Graham’ and entitled the ‘Murders in the Rue Morge.’ Its theme was the exercise of ingenuity in detecting a murderer. I am just now putting the concluding touch to a similar article, which I shall entitle ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget – 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. I have handled the entire design in a very singular and entirely novel manner. I imagine a series of nearly exact coincidences occurring in Paris. A young grisette, one Marie Roget, has been murdered under precisely similar cirumstances with Mary Rogers. Thus under pretense of showing how Dupin (the hero of the Ruge Morgue) unraveled the mystery of Marie’s assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New-York. No point is omitted. I examine, each by each, the opinions and arguments of our press on the subject, and show (I think satisfactorily) that this subject has never yet been approached. The press has been entirely on a wrong scent. In fact, I really believe, not only that I have demonstrated the falsity of the idea that the girl was the victim of a gang of ruffians, but have indicated the assassin. My main object, however, as you will readily understand, is the analysis of the principles of investigation in cases of like character. Dupin reasons the matter throughout.” – Page 193 (Poe’s pitch letter to a magazine editor)
Shortly before Halloween I was in need of a read and turned to my Goodreads shelves for inspiration. There, I found a recommendation I had long ago recorded for a non-fiction piece, in the vein of The Devil in the White City (a book about the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial murderer operating in its midst). This other book paralleled a sensational 1841 murder in New York City, with Edgar Allan Poe’s use of that case in forming the basis for his famed The Mystery of Marie Roget, the second in the Dupin mystery series. I am a fan of the true crime genre, I enjoyed the poetic license that blurred the non-fiction lines in White City, and have always felt that Poe captures the essence of horror better than anyone since. I decided this would be an appropriate selection for the scary season. Unfortunately, because of Superstorm Sandy’s wrath, the library system was knocked out and the book was unavailable to me until after trick-or-treaters came and went. Left without any better ideas, I went ahead and dove in the beginning of November instead.
I am tempted to say that The Beautiful Cigar Girl is a cross between White City and the Stanford White family memoir – The Architect of Desire. As in Architect of Desire, The Cigar Girl delves into the biographical history of one of our nation’s creative forces (Poe for literature, White for architecture) and covers a massively sensational murder in New York City (Mary Rogers in 1841, Stanford White in 1906). As in Devil in the White City, it parallels two historical events and how each impacted the other. The reason that my hybrid thought falls flat however, is that Cigar Girl is not as juicy as Architect (a memoir exposing several generational skeletons) and not as thrilling as White City (which took much poetic license in expressing the unknown emotions and thoughts of a killer to advance a story). Cigar Girl is very much biography and filled with non-fiction analysis.
By no means is Cigar Girl a boring, sterile read, however. The subject matters won’t allow it. You have the grisly murder during the “Gangs of New York” era – rape, beating, floating corpse – of a cigar shop counter girl renowned for her beauty; advanced to fame throughout the city simply for her looks, despite a lower economic standing. You have the troubled genius of Poe – orphaned, privileged, destitute, talented, sabotaging. Cigar Girl alternates chapters between the murdered and the writer. It tells their family histories, of their rise, and their ultimate demise. The connecting thread is Poe’s interest in the murder as the basis for one of his stories. As a reader, the intrigue is in formulating a theory for the murder. The awe is in watching the evolution of the true crime genre.
It took me a long time to work my way through this book. This is not an indictment of the author. It is the reality of my available reading time. But what I have found is that reading non-fiction in spurts is more effective in my world these days. It is easier for me to pick up and put down. I am able to keep the focus alive because I stay engaged with the real-life characters more than with those who are invented. Is this something you’ve experienced or is it just me?
What I learned from this read is that Poe could have been more epic than he already is. He was orphaned by the age of three, brought up in a wealthy home by adopted parents, disowned by said parents, and had a big chip on his shoulder. He knew he was talented, and had an ego to go with it. This propelled him into often unrealistic pursuits, crazed desires and a continuous habit of self-sabotage. Just when he would get close to a legitimate opportunity, he would shoot himself in the foot by alienating his supporters. He couldn’t seem to avoid doing it. It happened at every single turn. Poe had been dealt a bad lot. His family history did not provide the love he always craved. His wife was stricken with illness early on in their relationship. He was constantly clawing his way above the poverty line. And so he turned to alcohol. He blamed the world for his stresses. He turned his friends into enemies. He lambasted contemporaries in literary reviews, further alienating his cause. He quit or was fired from every editorial or writing job he held. And yet, he was admired. There was no avoiding his genius; his revolutionary literary approach to mystery, turmoil, desire. His poetic forte. His magnetic talent for public speaking. Even his greatest adversaries reluctantly applauded his work, while trashing his personal failings.
What I also learned is how rogue our country was at that time. The shock of this murder victim’s demise propelled advances in what we now know are vital pieces of our society. A paid police force. Salaried, that is. Back then, the force was a mish-mash of marshals and other positions paid to resolve issues, rather than to protect and prevent. Greed, politics and a severe lack of moralities seemed to be commonplace – amongst the law and the low-lifes. Newspapers didn’t have integrity. They printed anything and everything they made up to make a dime. And people accepted it as fact. Reputation and standards paled in comparison to the next best conspiracy gossip. It was a lawless time. And the fact that a young girl ended up dead wasn’t shocking. But her beauty and popularity propelled her death into the sensational stratosphere. Her murder was never solved, but it did lead to societal changes for the better. Not to mention fodder for Poe’s creativity.
I was pleased with this book’s ability to convey a lot of detailed information in an interesting enough way. I do think that at times, it tried to cram too many names, places, and relations into too short a palette. As a nice surprise, I felt as if I was reading a mystery near the end, rather than non-fiction. The author presents several specific “suspects” at the end, and gives pros and cons for why they may or may not fit the crime. All very factual. All without opinion infused. Altogether successful. Much like Poe. And the killer of the Cigar Girl.