When we say that Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story, we may as well say that Poe invented the detective. In 1841, when “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published in Graham Magazine, Boston was still five years away from founding the first professional police detective unit in the United States. Indeed, in creating the figure C. Auguste Dupin to solve mysteries using “ratiocination” or the powers of reasoning, Poe established one of the most enduring tropes of the genre: a mystery without an apparent solution is solved by a civilian who is motivated largely by the thrill and challenge of the puzzle.
But it does no discredit to Poe’s immense and macabre imagination to point out some of the real-life inspirations for his stories. Poe certainly read writings by Eugène Vidocq, a French criminal-turned-informant who established some of the procedures we associate most closely with the detective profession, such as taking an impression of a shoe print. (Some of his publications can also be found in our current exhibition, Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives.) And then there is “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which was based on a mysterious death that captivated New York in the 1840s.
In 1841, the body of a young girl was found in the Hudson River and identified as Mary Rogers, a noted beauty who worked as a clerk in a tobacco shop. The cause of her death was uncertain, although her body and clothing appeared to be battered. Years later, Edgar Allan Poe would write that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world;” perhaps that’s why the death of “The Beautiful Cigar Girl” inspired numerous theories, speculation, and gossip–not all of it poetical. Some posited gang violence. When Mary’s fiancé committed suicide several months later, many considered his despair to be evidence of his guilt. Mary’s past and present came under scrutiny, and when it was revealed that she had disappeared from her home under mysterious circumstances for one day several years earlier, attempted suicide or some other trouble seemed plausible. Although there was no evidence (according to the coroner’s report) that Mary had been with child, a popular theory suggested that she suffered from a botched termination performed by Madame Restell, a woman notorious for the services she offered women who did not wish to be pregnant. (Incidentally, Madame Restell too is represented in our exhibition gallery: check the wall of broadsheets to find her portrait in a gazette of criminals.) But despite the intensity of public interest–maybe even because of it, as the case inspired several false confessions–the mystery of Mary Rogers was never solved.
In “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Poe references Mary Rogers outright, and suggests that readers familiar with her case (i.e. everyone, at that time) might reconsider it in light of a similar story that took place in France. This similar story is Poe’s fiction, but it features all the details that made the real Mary’s death so fascinating to her contemporaries: the beautiful shopgirl, the fiancé’s suicide, the injuries of the fictional Marie recounted in lurid detail. Then Poe’s story offers something that the facts of the real case cannot: an account of the events that up to the body’s discovery. C. Auguste Dupin walks the reader through the murder step by step, from the arrangement of the victim’s clothes to her transportation to the river. The effect is both salacious and educational.
So did Poe crack the case? His contemporaries seemed to think not; “The Mystery of Marie Roget” was probably the least popular of his mysteries. But this story nonetheless established yet more of the tropes that would become vital to the genre of detective fiction: the practice of mentally walking through the crime scene to discover overlooked details, and the “poetical” impact of the death of a beautiful girl.
If you’d like to delve further into “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” we’ll be exploring that story on July 22 at the Rosenbach in one of three Reading Group sessions that will take place in July. Register for one, or take all three! Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of detection also serve as our inspiration for this month’s Bibliococktails event: join us Friday to discuss “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” with a cocktail specially crafted for the story.