The Death of Mary Rogers

On a walk along the New Jersey side of the Hudson River on July 28, 1841, several men spotted what they initially thought was a bundle of loose clothing in the water. They got a boat and found the body of a partially-clothed young woman floating in the river’s currents. The woman was clearly dead, so when the men managed to bring the body to shore, the authorities were sent for. When the coroner examined the body, he found thumb and finger marks on the woman’s throat. He claimed the woman had been choked to death and that the attack was committed by several persons. A man stepped forward and identified the woman as Mary Cecilia Rogers.

mary rogers

Mary Rogers in the river, 1841. American Antiquarian Society.

20-year-old Mary Rogers lived in a boarding house run by her mother in New York City. On July 25, 1841, Mary spoke with her fiancé, Daniel Payne, saying she was going to visit a relative that day. The weather turned to thundershowers, so nobody worried when Mary did not return home that evening, assuming she would stay overnight at the relative’s home. When she had not returned home the following morning, however, her mother and Payne became worried. That worry escalated when the relative stated she had not seen or expected Mary the previous day.

Mary Rogers had vanished.

Mary was also missed from her job at a local cigar store, one frequented by such literary notables as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe. More importantly, the cigar store was frequented by reporters and editors of New York City’s newspapers. After the discovery of her body, those same reporters put Mary’s death on the front pages. The fervor of solving the crime became a local obsession. Some newspapers pinned the blame on roaming gangs of thugs, while others proclaimed Daniel Payne’s guilt.

As time went on, the story began to fade somewhat but was pushed back to the forefront when the rest of Mary’s clothing was discovered in a thicket near where her body had been fished out of the Hudson. Immediately there was suspicion that the clothing had been placed there much more recently than Mary’s death — too many legal authorities and curious onlookers had been all over the area and nobody had found the clothes. Additionally, a pair of white gloves was found in the thicket, but Mary’s body had been wearing gloves when it was taken out of the water.

The mystery deepened when Daniel Payne took poison and died on a bench near where Mary’s body had been discovered in the Hudson. Payne left behind a note: “To the World here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” It was not clear if this was an admission of guilt for Mary’s death. The last twist of the tale concerned a deathbed statement of the owner of a tavern near the thicket. The woman stated that Mary’s death was the result of a botched abortion (although this does not explain the marks on Mary’s throat) and that her body was thrown into the Hudson after her death.

The last word of the story is Poe’s. He moved the story and people from New York City to Paris and wrote his famous “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and claimed that a naval officer was responsible for Marie/Mary’s death.

Despite the efforts of law enforcement and other parties, Mary Rogers’ murder has never been solved.

Who Murdered Mary Rogers?
The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (Studies in the History of Sexuality)

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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries