Since this book is partly the history of both Edgar Allan Poe's life and work, which have seen much contradictions and disagreement that one may not be sure as to where the truth may lay, I feel the need to give the author's credentials. Stashower has won the Edgar Award for best Biography for his work on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called Teller of Tales, and the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellowship for his work in fiction. This is a hard book to review because of every word, and every phrase, contains a gem of information so fascinating that I want to share it. But if I did that, I would be essentially re-writing the book, or at the least, giving away so much information, it would not be worth your while to read it. If I give too little, you may not become interested enough to read this excellent work. I do hope I do this book credit. As a side note, I will mention that I once rode a ride at Disney called Its a Small World After All. You will feel this way as you read this book as so many familiar names keep cropping up. It seems too incredible to be true, but I guess it really is a small world.
Let me also set the stage. This takes place around the year 1841. At this time the five points gangs are thriving in New York City [think Gangs of New York], there is no police force as we know it. There are two Justice of the Peace for a certain district and some constables, and nightwatchmen who are made up of retirees who often fall asleep at call boxes and who's only job seems to be to announce the time and the weather. The firemen would fight each other over who would get to fight the fire and get the spoils. In 1836 and 1840 there would be runs on the banks and unemployment. It wasn't unheard of for women from nice, even well off, families, to find themselves roofied and wake up no longer a virgin with a family that turns its back on her, forcing her into a life as a high class prostitute. And the only job for a respectable woman is to open a boarding house. There are a lot of those in New York City.
The book starts off in 1842 with Poe sending out enquiries to various magazines about writing a sequel to The Murders In Rue Morgue (the story is detailed between pages 113 to the second paragraph of 118, if you haven't read it and want to, skip those pages). This story "anticipated virtually every convention of what would become the modern mystery story--the brooding, eccentric sleuth; the comparatively dense sidekick; the wrongfully accused suspect; the unlikely villain; the false clue; and--perhaps; above all--the impossible, locked-room crime. Today the story stands as a literary milestone--the genesis of the entire crime fiction genre--but its original publication drew only scant notice." It has been a year since the tragic and highly publicized death of Mary Rogers, the "beautiful cigar girl" and no person or persons have been brought forth to be held accountable. Poe is persuading editors that by using his French detective Dupin and setting it in France, calling it The Mystery of Marie Roget and using facts gleaned from the newspapers and the inquest he can unmask the killer and prod the police to reopen the investigation.
This book does a bit of time traveling. In various chapters we learn the history of Edgar Allan Poe. His mother was a talented actress living in Boston who fell in love with a man from a well off family, who was studying to become a lawyer. He gave that up for the stage and married her. They had three children: Henry, Edgar, and Sophie. By the time Sophie is born, Poe's father is a drunken, bitter man, who hasn't the talent his wife has and is resentful she makes more than he does. He deserts the family and dies on the streets shortly thereafter. Poe's mother dies six months later of tuberculosis. Henry had already been sent to his father's parents, but when his mother died, they had had a reversal of fortune and could not take in the other two children who were fostered out. Poe, at the age of three, ended up with an enterprising merchant and his childless wife, John Allan of Richmond, Virginia. While he would never adopt Poe, he would give him his name and he doted on him when Poe was young and kept his promise to Poe's family to provide an education for him. So Poe grew up wanting nothing and receiving a fine education where he thrived. Unfortunately, when Poe hit his teens, he became a teenager, like any parent can attest to, and he and Allan fought often. Allan kept his word though and at age sixteen Poe went to the newly built by Thomas Jefferson (with whom he had lunches with months before his death) University of Virginia. Allan, also chose this time to teach Poe the value of a dollar after lavishing money on him all his life, only sends him about $150 when Poe really needs around $350 for the year to pay for lodging, food, books, supplies, food, etc... He constantly wrote to Allan begging for money to buy books and soap, but Allan would not relent. Poe turned to gambling to try to get money after he gets turned out of his lodging and is soon in $2000 debt and is forced to leave college. Before he leaves though, he receives an academic honor from both Madison and Monroe (start singing now).
Poe will be eventually kicked out of the house and join the Army of all things. He signs up at the age of eighteen, illegally, for five years. He is actually quite good at it, but after two years he is bored and wants out. He eventually is able to get out of the Army by getting into West Point where he believes his two years of Army skills will have him graduating from there in six months. He is quickly abused of that notion. While his grades are excellent, everything else is not. [Side note: I have been watching a three part documentary on Jefferson Davis and he was there when Poe was and the two, with others, would sneak off campus to the local saloon and drink, which was against the rules.] Poe decided the only way out was to get kicked out, so he set out to do just that and succeeded. Although, with the financial help of his fellow cadets who loved him, he was able to publish his first book of verse, which, of course, was not a success.
Eventually Poe ends up in Baltimore where he meets his beautiful Virginia, whom he would marry at the age of fourteen, but not become "her husband" until she turned sixteen. They lived with her mother, Maria Clemm. Poe would move them to Richmond, where he would begin his rather successful career as a reviewer for Thomas White's magazine. He was an excellent judge of writing and could accurately pin point the good and bad of the piece. The problem was that Poe had a tendency to eviscerate the writing and the writer to the point that he quickly made quite a few enemies that he would have his whole life. He would become angry that his talent wasn't monetarily appreciated, as the magazine made a lot of money off of his work, so he quit and moved to New York City and then Pennsylvania. During this time, Virginia would come down with tuberculosis. Poe's love for his wife and his distress over her illness would inspire such works as "The Masque of the Red Death" and "Eleonora".
It is in Pennsylvania in 1840, while working for a magazine by a man named Burton, who ill treats him, that the magazine is sold to a man, Graham, that will treat Poe well, and will be one of the few people Poe will never speak ill of. Graham, is an excellent editor and picks some of the best offerings of the day. He also pays Poe the nicest he has seen so far, if still not a great one, and promises him light duties so he can work on his writings, and that he will help Poe achieve his dream of starting his own literary magazine. Sadly, Graham, would "conveniently forget" his promise to Poe, when Poe's work begins to bring in an enormous amount of money for the magazine. Poe becomes angry, as he so often does, and either quits, or gets fired. It is at this time that he hears and follows the story in the papers of the murder of Mary Rogers.
Mary Rogers, born in 1820, was from two prominent Connecticut families: the Rogers and the Mathers [Yes, those, Increase and Cotton, continue singing]. Her mother, Phoebe Rogers, married Ezra Mathers and had four sons and one daughter. He would die suddenly, but he left her with enough money to live rather comfortably until she remarried. Six years later, though she would marry Daniel Rogers, a man eleven years younger than herself, with a thriving shipping business. Mary is supposed to be a product of that union, but some believe that Mary is actually the illegitimate daughter of Phoebe's daughter from her first marriage. It was a common thing for a mother to claim an unwed daughter's child as her own. Nonetheless, eventually, all five of the children and her husband would die from illness and other tragedies. So Phoebe and Mary would head to New York where her sister lived. They would stay at first with John Anderson, the tobacconist, whose shop Mary would eventually spend time working in for a while. No reason is given why they stay with him, only that when he hires Mary he promises that she will never be alone in the store and he will walk her home every night. This is in 1838.
Mary becomes quite popular. She knows just how much to flirt and quickly Anderson's shop is doing a brisk business and becomes the place for politicians and newsmen to hang out together and talk shop off the record and those of the literary circle to rub elbows. It is even said that Poe was seen there. One day, Anderson is in the back of the shop, and when he comes back to the front, Mary is gone, Her mother shows up frantic with a letter supposed to be written by Mary that sounds like a suicide note. A search is quickly set up, but a general consensus of newspaper accounts, she was back a few hours later, with no real explanation as to where she had gone. Not long after that Phoebe comes into some money and opens up, yes, a boarding house, so Mary goes to help her mother run it.
At this boarding house Mary would form a very close relationship with Alfred Crommelin, a man comfortably off, who cared deeply about her. She would eventually throw him over for the n'er do well cork cutter, Daniel Payne, who was seen as a drunkard. Soon, Payne comes to think of himself as Mary's fiancée and Crommelin finds himself in the position of kindly uncle. By June of 1841, one evening Crommelin found Mary and Daniel in "unseemly intimacies" in the front parlor. After lecturing Payne on the duties of a gentleman and getting laughed at and told to mind his own his business, he tells Mary that he will always be there for her, but he would no longer be staying there.
On the morning of Sunday, July 25, 1841, at ten o'clock, Mary stops at Daniel's door to tell him that she is going to visit her aunt for the day and will be back in the evening and will be at the corner of Broadway and Ann for him to escort her home. That night a storm comes down and Daniel believes that Mary would have stayed at her aunt's instead of going out in the storm. Daniel forgot that the bus she would have taken to her aunt's doesn't run on Sundays. The next day, it will be discovered that she is missing. Daniel begins to search all over town. Eventually others are called in to help, as most people still remember Mary from her days as the cigar girl. Three days later, Crommelin says the reason he goes to Hoboken, New Jersey is that he worries that Mary might be in a house of ill repute.
New Yorkers (at that time at least) went there to visit the beautiful park, Elysian Fields, where couples strolled, you could buy refreshments, take a boat ride, and where the in 1846 the first official professional baseball game is played. Two men walking along the banks of the Hudson see a body floating in the Hudson. They get in a boat and use an oar to drag it to the bank, then leave. Some other people see this and drag the girl onto shore. Among this group is Crommelin, who rushes forth and identifies the body as Mary from the distinctive hair markings on her arm and her delicate feet. Her face is battered and I don't need to tell you what three days in the water can do to a body. The Justice of the Peace is called for, but it takes him a long while to get there, leaving the body to decompose even more in the incredibly hot sun over hours.
Oddly enough, the city of New York had an excellent coroner, Dr. Cook, who would overrule the Justice of the Peace and rule it murder, because he can tell that it is not a drowning. During his autopsy he discovers that a piece of her skirt has been torn off and used to strangle her. There are also hand prints around her neck. Her hat seems to have been taken off at some point and retied with a "sailor's knot" after her death. Another piece of cloth from her skirts was used to drag her body from the kill site to the river. When he examines her vaginally he determines that she had been violated by two to three men prior to her death and forcibly held down on a hard surface.
Mary's body will then be buried in two feet of soil so she can be preserved for future examination. Then another two weeks will go by while New York and New Jersey both try to get out of having to investigate the murder. At this time, you had to provide money as a reward in order to proceed with a case and no one wanted to spend anything.
This is where the "father of yellow journalism" James Gordon Bennett comes in. He started out with little and began a penny press, the Herald, that quickly grew and made lots of money. He also became the enemy of all the other newspapers. One hit him so hard with his riding crop that it broke. Bennett just smiled and handed it back to him. Another man forced his jaws open and spat down his throat. Bennett preferred to get his revenge in print. At this time, as now, each paper had its own agenda and often attacked each other. Bennett was the best. He was the one to make the death of Mary Rogers a front page story that would captivate America. He also was pushing for police reform, so he ended the stalemate by drumming up reward money from editors and prominent citizens. The governor of New York, William Seward [Yes, that one, sing on] gives more money for a reward and eventually offers immunity to any parties involved who did not commit the act, but can provide information.
For a while things are a flurry of activity. Many people and theories abound. Then in October someone connected dies and Dr. Cook who was slaughtered in the press for his testimony at the inquest, is vague on the details of the death and refuses to give a cause of death. Then the grisly ax murder of Sam Adams [not that one] by John C. Colt, brother of [wait for it] the gun manufacturer, kicks Mary Rogers off the pages of the newspaper and she is forgotten. Until Poe comes along.
Poe convinces a magazine to print his story in three parts. Two days before the last installment of the third piece the slap in the face in a fictional mystery story happens. The one where the reader goes "I didn't see that coming". Then, "but what about...". Now, Poe is in a difficult situation. He has spent two parts of the story setting up the ending, which if he publishes now, will make him a laughing stock, as well as his original use of ratiocination (deductive reasoning--hello Sherlock and Poirot!). His editor gives him an extra month to come up with something to salvage the story. The question is, can he? Does he really know who the murderer is? Poe was quite well known for figuring out puzzles, including a famous Turkish chess playing machine that fooled the world. It is possible.
I will end my tale here. I will say that Poe's life is a sad one. While the author does not address whether Poe was mad or not, I will offer my armchair analysis and say it is possible that he was a manic depressive. He was sometimes described as melancholy and a loner or excitable and having nervous energy. He also flew into infamous rages and felt slights rather easily. Sadly he was incredibly self-destructive his whole life and often self-medicated with alcohol. He had a zero tolerance. A glass of weak wine or a beer would have him drunk and he never stopped at that. It may be because of these things that he was never truly appreciated in his time. It would be the Europeans in the late nineteenth century, such as Nietzsche, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rilke, and Doyle, whom he would influence all the way through to modern times. The conflicting and bad things said about him are explained at the end of this book and it is rather sad. Interestingly, Mary Rogers has largely been forgotten, unless you've lived around New York City for a while, where the memories of such "crimes of the centuries" are still remembered, but Poe is so remembered that even a professional football team is named after his most famous poem, "The Raven". This is a remarkable book and well worth reading and as it is close to Halloween, rather appropriate. I think Poe would approve.
The proprietor…preferred to deal with “readers of serious intent” rather than common browsers, and it was known in the neighborhood that “freedom of Gowan’s bookstore was not presented to every passer-by”. The chosen few who gained admittance found a massive but haphazard inventory, ranging from rare texts on Greek horology and Roman funerary practices to the latest European novels. Gowans opened the shop in January of 1837 and soon filled the floor-to-ceiling oak plank shelves to capacity. As additional volumes accumulated they were stored first in wooden crates stacked on a pair of battered deal tables, then on chairs scavenged from a previous tenant, and finally in teetering stacks on the floor. The impressive created, recalled one early visitor, was that of a “Minotaur maze of books.”
--Daniel Stashhower (The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Invention of Murder p 31)
“I think,” Poe once wrote… “that I have already had my share of trouble for one so young.” It was once of the few occasions where he might have been accused of understatement
-- Daniel Stashhower (The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Invention of Murder p 34)
…Edgar and his newborn sister spent much of their time in the care of nursemaids, one of whom, according to a family friend, “fed them liberally with bread soaked in gin” and “freely administered…other spirituous liquors, with sometimes laudanum.” This, the nurse believed, would “make them strong and healthy.”
-- Daniel Stashhower (The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Invention of Murder p 35)
Link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Cigar-Girl-Rogers-Invention/dp/0425217825/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1476711789&sr=1-1&keywords=the+beautiful+cigar+girl
If three more years in the army had seemed intolerable, four years at West Point was the stuff of nightmares.
-- Daniel Stashhower (The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and The Invention of Murder p 48)