She’s picked for her beauty from many a belle,
And placed near the window, Havanas to sell
For well her employer’s aware that her face is
An advertisement certain to empty his cases.
-Popular ditty, 1841
On July 25, 1841, Mary Cecilia Rogers left her mother’s Manhattan boarding house for a quick Sunday visit with her aunt in New Jersey. Three days later, her body was found floating in the Hudson River. The details of her murder—both true and false, but always lurid—became sensational fodder for newspapers across the country.
Rogers was already well-known in New York City as the "Beautiful Cigar Girl" who worked at John Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium on Broadway. She had songs written about her and poetry published in the papers heralding her beauty. The grisly nature of the crime combined with her youth and beauty catapulted Mary Rogers’s sad tale into one of the most popular news stories of her time. Edgar Allan Poe even reworked the events of her death into one of the first detective stories—The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.
The effects of Mary Rogers’s death were not just literary; the fear her murder incited along with dissatisfaction at the handling of the investigation led to a call for a more formal police force modeled after the London police. In 1845, New York City became the first city in the US to create a full-time, paid professional police force—a notable event attributable in no small part to the sad demise of the “beautiful cigar girl.”