It was on a recent trip to Borders, crammed in the bargain bin, between a slew of inane self-help books, and about half a dozen copies of Bill Clinton’s Giving, I found a copy Daniel Stashower’s nonfiction book, The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. With a subtitle like that, and a price tag of only $3.99, I figured I couldn’t possibly go wrong.
Unlike pretty much every other time I’ve made this decision, I was actually right. The Beautiful Cigar Girl is an engaging, insightful read, shedding light on the nuances of a period and place in history with which I was previously unfamiliar, as well as crafting a thrilling mystery out of what is, essentially, a simple recounting of historic events. Stashower combines a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, with the story of the unsolved murder of Mary Rogers (the “beautiful cigar girl” of the title) in New York City in the 1830s, showing how Poe grasped onto this story in the newspapers, adapted it for his tale The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and invented the modern detective story in the process.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably never heard of Mary Rogers before. Mary Rogers was kind of like the Paris Hilton of her day—not because she was a stupid, spoiled whore, but in that she was famous solely for being super hot. Renowned all across New York City for being the attractive young girl behind the counter at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium, Rogers’ murder sent a shockwave through the city, the story dominating the newspapers for months. Stashower uses this real life mystery as a launching pad to dissect the political and social climate of the day, unveiling an American culture of which I was unaware, yet mirrors our own today.
At the same time, Stashower runs through the life and career of Edgar Allan Poe, and how it would eventually intersect with the Rogers murder. Now, I’m going to assume that everyone here knows who Poe was, but you may not be aware of what a strange, paranoid, self-destructive personality he was. Time and time again you’ll read on as Stashower recounts yet another moment where Poe completely blows yet another chance at success and well-being, all the way up to his ignominious death, and the brutal post-mortem desecration of his image by the man entrusted with caring for his body of work.
As I mention earlier, some of the most interesting parts of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, beyond the stories of the Rogers and Poe, are the many insights into the period. From the virtual nonexistence of an actual police force in NYC at the time, to the dozens of newspapers, each one shamelessly and blatantly editorializing the story of the murder to push its own agenda. If you think the news media is pretty bad today (and don’t get me wrong—it is), wait until you hear what it was like in 1838, when newspaper editors used the story of an innocent girl’s death not only to sell papers, but to destroy the careers of political enemies.
The aspect that I most enjoyed, however, was what an effortlessly entertaining writer Stashower turned out to be. In most nonfiction, I find the largest hurdle to getting through a book author’s skill as a writer. If the author lacks an interesting voice, and if the whole book is structured like a thesis driven essay, no matter how interesting the topic at hand, and no matter how well researched, it will be a drag. Unfortunately, this often proves to be the case, but not with Stashower. Not only is he clearly engaged with and excited about his subject, but throughout his writing you can sense a very dry sense of humor—an excellent choice in tone which serves to lighten up what would oftentimes be nothing but a dull recounting of procedure and events, yet never reaches a point of being inappropriate or crude.
The Beautiful Cigar Girl is an excellent read, and I almost feel like a criminal for having paid so little for it. It’s still available on Amazon, and for not much more money than I paid out of the bargain bin, so if I’ve piqued your interest, give it an order. You won’t regret it.