I’ve recently finished the Beautiful Cigar Girl, one of those narrative non-fiction books about the true story of a murdered woman who inspired an Edgar Allan Poe short story. While that may not exactly sound like all that big of a deal, it’s a good read with particular appeal to those with English major backgrounds. (Not that I’m one of those or anything.)
In New York City in 1841, Mary Rogers was the celebutante of her time, a mysteriously attractive girl who had worked behind the counter at a popular tobacco store frequented by newspapermen and dubbed the ‘Beautiful Cigar Girl’. She had left the tobacco shop to help run a boarding house, but after disappearing for a few days her body washed up on the New Jersey shore. Dozens of newspapers, desperate for a whiff of scandal to promote, jumped on the case and made it a major story for months. (This was the Anna Nicole Smith case of the time, essentially.)
Enter Edgar Allan, at the time living on the margins of the literary trade and eager for a followup to his popular short story “Murder in the Rue Morgue”, which was an entirely new sort of tale that involved a dectective who looked at a murder scene and deduces, from the observable facts, what had happened. Poe applied his own powers of deduction to the Mary Rogers case, the lurid details of which was debated on the front page of every paper, and used almost the exact same circumstances is a new story, the “Mystery of Marie Roget”, a followup to “Rue Morgue”, starring amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin.
Stashower’s portrait of 1840s New York City makes the book all the more fascinating to read, where an unmarried woman working as a clerk in a cigar store still carried a whiff of scandal, where legions of penny press newspapers were fighting each other on a daily basis, and a talent as bright as Poe could not overcome the gentleman’s world of literary magazines if he carried with him the haze of poverty and drunkenness.
These days, he’d get his own podcast and a five-book deal with Simon & Schuster.