- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

Like many boys with an interest in literature, Daniel Stashower was drawn to the macabre short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” one of Poe’s detective tales based on a real murder.

“It didn’t make any sense,” said Mr. Stashower, now a mystery novelist from Bethesda whose most recent book is titled “The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder.”

Poe’s book was based on the murder of Mary Rogers, a young woman who beguiled the men she served from behind the counter of a New York cigar shop. She disappeared on July 25, 1841. Three days later, her body was found in the Hudson River with a lace cord tied around her neck.

The unsolved murder created a press frenzy, and when Poe’s story was serialized in Ladies’ Companion magazine in late 1842 and early 1843, the case was fresh in readers’ minds.

“The details would have been familiar to everybody reading it in Poe’s day,” Mr. Stashower said. “It would have been the equivalent of writing about JonBenet [Ramsey], if you were doing a novel based on JonBenet today.”

Mr. Stashower’s book details Rogers’ slaying and the breathless coverage it inspired while examining what led Poe — who once wrote that the death of a beautiful woman was “the most poetical topic in the world” — to apply his talents to the case.

The subtitle, “The Invention of Murder,” refers to how the Rogers case changed the way homicides were covered in the press and Poe’s invention of the detective story.

“Poe seized on the story and transformed it from the dry facts of what had happened in the newspapers into this inventive, creative story that he turned to his own purposes,” Mr. Stashower said.

Early reviews for Mr. Stashower’s book, which went on sale Oct. 5, have been enthusiastic, albeit with minor reservations.

Publishers Weekly said “Poe’s genius and literary legacy are hauntingly drawn” but argued that “Stashower’s account bogs down in comparisons of Poe’s revisions of the Roget manuscript.”

Booklist compared the book to Erik Larson’s best-selling “The Devil in the White City,” another nonfiction tale of 19th-century murder and mayhem.

Still, the book shows how the American fascination with lurid crimes dates back to antebellum times and that Rogers’ slaying helped spur the rapidly evolving newspaper press to begin reporting on murder investigations.

The tabloids, known as the penny press, fixated on the slaying, and the more respectable papers soon followed. The story allowed editors to advance their agendas against city leadership, including the argument that New York’s police force was ill equipped to investigate such a crime.

A lack of adequate records makes it difficult to estimate the city’s murder rate in the 1840s, when the notorious “gangs of New York” roamed the streets with impunity, but it was clearly a violent place, Mr. Stashower said.

“There were bodies being fished out of the Hudson all the time,” he said. “There were murders all the time that were going unremarked and uninvestigated in any way. This one, because she had so much notoriety, obviously was used to point up the failures, but the police department was long overdue for an overhaul.”

Unlike JonBenet or Laci Peterson, Mary Rogers was well known before her slaying — a precursor to modern celebrities.

“Her notoriety is unencumbered by position or achievement,” said a newsman quoted in “The Beautiful Cigar Girl.”

“I didn’t want to say this in the book because it sounds glib and awful, but in a way she was the Paris Hilton of her time because she was famous for being talked about,” Mr. Stashower said.

Because relatively little was known about Rogers’ private life, she became the source of virtually endless speculation.

Those who trumpeted her innocence suggested that Rogers had been abducted and murdered by one of the city’s fearsome gangs. The “fallen woman” argument picked up momentum later, when circumstantial evidence surfaced to suggest Rogers was the victim of a botched abortion, though that scenario doesn’t explain the strangulation.

“There were finger marks,” Mr. Stashower said. “There was a lace cord tied around her neck. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t fit easily into any single explanation.”

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