Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Murder Mystery of Mary Rogers

The Newspaper Frenzy

The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers
The Mysterious Death of Mary

Historian Amy Gilman Srebnick states that Mary's death came at a perfect time for the new "penny press" newspapers, which were bought by both the city's upper classes and the common people. The story's lurid details sold countless papers, and Srebnick says that the editors eagerly reported (or imaginatively invented) clues and suspects. The various newspapers competed to cover a story that they had largely created -- theorizing about the case, accusing various men with committing the deed, whipping the public into a panic, and calling for more action by police and other government officials.

Penny novel cover
Penny novel cover

Almost immediately after Mary's body was found, various newspapers cast suspicion on Daniel Payne -- and wondered about the veracity of the official statements he had given to police about his alleged visit with his brother and his appearance at restaurants and bars on the day Mary vanished. Payne quickly brought in sworn affidavits from witnesses of his whereabouts to the offices of The New York Times and Evening Star, who then pronounced that the documents proved that Payne "stands exonerated from even a shadow of suspicion."

Under the editorial leadership of James Gordon Bennett, the New York Herald determined that Mary had been done in by one of the gangs of "fire rowdies, butcher boys, soap locks, and all sorts of notorious miscreants" that had been committing much crime in the New York City area. Bennett would quickly form a citizen's committee to gripe about what Bennett felt was lethargy on the part of the police and government officials, and to offer a reward for information and arrests pertaining to the case.

William Cullen Bryant (Library of Congress)
William Cullen Bryant
(Library of Congress)

William Cullen Bryant's New York Evening Post went further and named a certain James Finnegan, "a rowdy of confirmed rascality," as part of the gang involved in the murder and said that he was seen wearing "a ring which is said to have belonging to Mary Rogers." Nothing came of the Finnegan story, and the ring detail was probably invented, but the Post undoubtedly sold a few more papers.

Taking a different approach, Benjamin H. Day's Evening Tattler questioned whether Mary was dead at all. Day questioned Crommelin's ability identification of the body as Mary's, considering its decomposed state, and also stated that a body thrown into the Hudson on a Sunday would not have risen by the following Wednesday, but would have taken "six to ten days for sufficient decomposition to take place to bring them to the top of the water," a scientific "fact" that was later proved inaccurate.

The newspapers reported on possible leads, the arrests and subsequent releases of suspects, and other aspects of the Mary Rogers case for several weeks, although by mid-August, with no new concrete information to report, the story began to fade.

It would be revived almost immediately, however, by the dubious "discovery" of the site of Mary Rogers' murder.

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