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Mysteries & Secrets - Edgar Allan Poe

Stranger than Fiction
0n a hot summer day in 1841 the body of a young woman was found floating in the Hudson River near Weehawken, New Jersey. It proved to be that of 21 year old Mary Cecilia Rogers, a pretty young woman well known to the writers, actors, and other celebrities who had stopped by to flirt with her at John Anderson's tobacco shop on Liberty Street, just across the river in lower Manhattan. The New York press eagerly exploited the case, publishing daily reports of police efforts to solve the mystery of her death and wildly speculating on the identity of her murderer. There was little doubt that Mary had been the victim of foul play.

The first suspect was Anderson, Mary's employer, who had often accompanied her home evenings. Even though he could offer no convincing alibi for the day of her disappearance and presumed death, Anderson was quickly released as attention focused on Mary's fiance David Payne, a resident of her mother's boardinghouse in Hoboken, New Jersey. Payne admitted to having seen Mary on the morning that she disappeared, three days before the body was found.

The first evidence in the case turned up in a wooded area near the river: a slip, a shawl, a parasol, and a handkerchief with the initials "M.R." Grass at the site appeared to be trampled down, as if a struggle had taken place there. Shortly afterward, David Payne committed suicide at the site by taking an overdose of laudanum, or tincture of opium. "This is the place," Payne wrote in his suicide note. "May God forgive me for my misspent life!" Did this prove that he had murdered Mary? No, said the police, he had an alibi for the time in question. The case remained unsolved; the investigation continued.

Edgar Allan Poe

Making Fiction Out of Fact

Among readers of the press reports were 32 year old Edgar Allan Poe, whose six volumes of short stories and poems had brought him some recognition but little money. He was supporting his tubercular young wife on the $800 annual salary he earned as literary editor of a magazine in Philadelphia and casting about for the subject of a sequel to his first detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." He found a crime for his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin to solve in the story of Mary Rogers. But in Poe's tale, Mary was renamed Marie Roget; New York became Paris; the Hudson River, the Seine.

"Under pretence of showing how Dupin unravelled the mystery of Marie's assassination, 1, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York,"" Poe wrote a friend on June 4, 1842. "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, but have indicated the assassin."

Poe's story, "The Mystery of Marie Roget," was published in three issues of a women's magazine between November 1842 and February 1843. With seamless logic, Dupin (that is, Poe) proves that there can be but one murderer, the "man of dark complexion," a naval officer with whom Marie (Mary) had last been seen and with whom she had disappeared for a few weeks three years earlier. At this point, Poe ended his tale, declining to give the name of the culprit as he had done in his earlier crime stories. An editor's note explained: "For reasons which we shall not specify, but which to many readers will appear obvious, we have taken the liberty of here omitting, from the manuscript 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..."

Was this actually the comment of the magazine's editors? Or was Poe using this device to withhold evidence in the real case? At the time his story was published, the police had not solved the murder of Mary Rogers.

Suspect: Edgar Agan Poe

It did not take long after the publication of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" for people to begin speculating that perhaps Poe knew more than he was willing to disclose. Could it be possible that the writer himself was involved in the death of the New York shop girl?

A frequent visitor to New York, Poe may well have met Mary at the tobacco shop and turned to her for the sexual gratification his sickly young wife could not provide. But was he capable of murder? At this period in his life, the struggling writer was oppressed by his poverty and lack of literary recognition. He was fighting an apparently losing battle with his lifelong alcoholism and reputed drug addiction. To his friends and family, he appeared physically if not mentally ill.

Poe's state of being is mirrored by the egocentric heroes of his crime and horror stories. He gave his literary creations license to indulge in every passion, allowing them to torture for pleasure and even commit murder. Death, as revealed in his stories, had a peculiar fascination for the master of the macabre. Could Poe, in a moment of frenzy, have surrendered to the darker instincts that he bottled up within himself but allowed to erupt in the bizarre and unprincipled characters that peopled his works of fiction?

Behavioral psychologists have demonstrated that criminals often give tips that could lead to their apprehension - without being aware of their subconscious desires to be punished. Was Poe doing just this when he gave his decisive hint about the identity of Marie Roget's murderer? The writer was dark-skinned, with a full head of black hair falling over his large forehead. Although literary sleuths have continued to speculate about Poe's involvement in the true case he transformed into fiction, there is no hard evidence to link him to Mary Rogers's murder.

What scholars have been able to prove is that Poe adjusted his story to fit the facts of the case as revealed by the police after the first installment appeared but before publication was completed. The "man of dark complexion" was an abortionist, very likely the same one to whom the 'naval officer' had taken Mary in 1838. In the summer of 1841, the young woman probably died as a consequence of her second abortion. When Poe revised the story for publication in book form two years later, he made 15 minor changes to accommodate the possibility of Marie's death following a bungled abortion. The writer then added footnotes to make it appear that he had been right about the case from the start.

"Nothing was omitted in 'Marie Rogert' but what I omitted myself," Poe later wrote a friend. "The 'naval officer,' who committed the murder (or rather, the accidental death arising from an attempt at abortion) confessed it; and the whole matter is now well understood - but, for the sake of relatives, this is a topic on which I must not speak further."

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