December 4, 2013
In 1981, an unknown epidemic was spreading across America. In June of that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter mentioned five cases of a strange pneumonia in Los Angeles. By July, 40 cases of a rare skin cancer were reported by doctors working in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco. By August, the Associated Press reported that two rare diseases, the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis, a form of pneumonia caused by a parasitic organism, had infected over 100 gay men in America, killing over half of them. At the end of 1981, 121 men had died from the strange disease; in 1982, the disease was given a name; by 1984, two different scientists had isolated the virus causing it; in 1986, that virus was named HIV. By the end of the decade, in 1989, 27,408 people died from AIDS.
In the years following the AIDS epidemic, medical research has given us a better understanding of HIV and AIDS, as well as made some remarkable breakthroughs unimagined in the 1980s: today, people living with HIV aren’t condemned to a death sentence, but rather have treatment options available. Still, to think of the AIDS epidemic in medical terms misses half of the story–the social aspect, which affected America’s perception of HIV and AIDS just as much, if not more than medical research.
The two sides of the story are told through a collection of articles, pictures, posters and pamphlets in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics and Culture, a traveling exhibit and online adaptation curated by the National Library of Medicine that explores the rise of AIDS in the early 1980s, as well as the medical and social responses to the disease since. The human reaction to the AIDS epidemic often takes a back seat to the medical narrative, but the curators of Surviving and Thriving were careful to make sure that this did not happen–through a series of digital panels, as well as a digital gallery, readers can explore how the government and other community groups talked about the disease.
At the beginning of the epidemic, response was largely limited to the communities which were most affected, especially the gay male community. “People with AIDS are really a driving force in responding to the epidemic and seeing how change is made,” says Jennifer Brier, a historian of politics and sexuality who curated the exhibit.
In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men living with AIDS in New York City, published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, which helped spread the idea that safe sex could be used as protection against spreading the epidemic–an idea that hadn’t yet become prevalent in the medical community. The pamphlet was one of the first places that proposed that men should use condoms when having sex with other men as a protection against AIDS.
Condoms as protection against AIDS became a major theme for poster campaigns. The above poster, paid for by the Baltimore-based non-profit Health Education Resource Organization, shows how visuals attempted to appeal, at least at first, to the gay community. Due to widespread misinformation, however, many people believed that AIDS was a disease that affected only white gay communities. As a response to this, black gay and lesbian communities created posters like the one below, to show that AIDS didn’t discriminate based on race.
Many posters and education campaigns harnessed sexual imagery to convey the importance of safe sex in an attempt to make safety sexy (like the Safe Sex is Hot Sex campaign), but it wasn’t a campaign tactic supported by governmental bodies–in fact, in 1987, Congress explicitly banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” (the legislation was spearheaded by conservative senator Jesse Helms and signed into law by President Reagan).
Instead, federally-funded campaigns sought to address a large number of people from all backgrounds–male, female, homosexual or heterosexual. The America Responds to AIDS campaign, created by the CDC, ran from 1987 to 1996 and became a central part of the “everyone is at risk” message of AIDS prevention.
The campaign was met with mixed feelings by AIDS workers. “The posters really do help ameliorate the fear of hatred of people with AIDS,” Brier explains. “There’s a notion that everyone is at risk, and that’s important to talk about, but there’s also the reality that not everyone is at risk to the same extent.” Some AIDS organizations, especially those providing service to communities at the highest risk for contracting HIV, saw the campaign as diverting money and attention away from the communities that needed it the most–leaving gay and minority communities to compete with one another for the little money that remained. As New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote in 2001 (, “Much of the government’s $600 million AIDS-prevention budget was used…to combat the disease among college students, heterosexual women and others who faced a relatively low risk of contracting the disease.”
(This linked column by Blair was later found to be plagiarized from reporting by the Wall Street Journal, but the point still holds.)
Beyond campaigns that tried to generalize the AIDS epidemic, a different side used the fear of AIDS to try and affect change. These posters, contained under the section “Fear Mongering” in the exhibit’s digital gallery, show ominous images of graves or caskets behind proclamations of danger.
“It was like this sort of scared straight model, like if you get scared enough, you really will do what is right,” Brier says of the posters. “There were posters that focused on pleasure, or health, or positive things to get people to affect change in their behavior, but there were consistently posters that used the idea that fear could produce behavior change.”
The above poster exemplifies the tactic of fear mongering: a large, visible slogan to affect fear (and shame sexual behavior), while information on how to prevent the spread of AIDS is buried in small print at the bottom of the poster. A lack of information was typical of fear-mongering posters, which relied on catchy, scary headlines rather than information about safe sex, clean needles or the disease itself.
“The posters fed on people’s inability to understand how AIDS actually spread. It didn’t really ever mention ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” Brier says. “Fear-mongering posters don’t talk about condoms, they don’t talk about clean needles, they don’t talk about ways to be healthy. They don’t have the solutions in them, they just have the fear.”
Through exploring the exhibit, users get a sense of the different approaches public organizations took to spread information about AIDS. “It’s a fundamental question of public health,” says Brier. “Do you spread information by scaring people, do you do it by trying to tap into pleasure or do you do it by recognizing that people’s behavior isn’t just about their individual will but a whole different set of circumstances?”
November 19, 2013
Click on the pins within the document to learn about some of the doctors’ findings.
In the last century, there are few events that have been studied with greater scrutiny than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But, that is the problem, according to author and History Channel personality Brad Meltzer.
“Put together all of the official investigations, commissions, reports, official reinvestigations, independent reviews of the evidence, journalistic inquiries, reenactments, documentaries, movies, literally thousands of books (fiction and nonfiction), not to mention countless off-the-wall and over-the-top websites, and you’ve got a situation that’s a perfect breeding ground for confusion, differing interpretations, allegations and refutations,” he writes in his latest book, History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.
There have been those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, that there were two shooters on that fateful day in Dallas, November 22, 1963. Others have tried to pin the blame on the Soviets, the CIA and the mafia.
One natural place to look for answers is the president’s autopsy. Medical professionals at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, examined Kennedy’s body just hours after he was pronounced dead, drawing what conclusions they could from his wounds about the cause of death and location of the assassin. In Dallas, the president’s staff had hurriedly loaded his casket onto Air Force One, while city officials squabbled over a state law that required the autopsy to be performed in Texas. Just nine minutes after Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on the plane it was wheels up.
President Lyndon Johnson gathered the Warren Commission, a group of Congressman and other prominent officials, a week later to investigate Kennedy’s assassination. The investigators, out of respect to the president’s legacy, saw neither the photographs nor the x-rays from the autopsy, though the decision to keep such medical evidence private has often been questioned. (In 1966, the Kennedy family donated these official images to the National Archives, where they remain sealed from the public.) One of the only visuals left for the group’s consideration was this descriptive autopsy sheet, or “face sheet,” which the pathologists filled out in the autopsy room, marking the figure with the two bullets’ entry and exits points. The doctors referred to these notes when writing the more detailed autopsy report.
(Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
November 18, 2013
Late last week, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper, now called the Patriot-News, issued a tongue-in-cheek retraction of its 150-year-old snub of President Abraham Lincoln’s heralded Gettysburg Address. The editorial page informed its readers:
Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.
The editors mused that their predecessors had likely been “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink.” Waiving the statute of limitations, the newspaper ended its announcement in time-honored fashion: “The Patriot-News regrets the error.” The news was picked up by a wide swath of publications, but none were more surprising than the appearance of a “Jebidiah Atkinson” on “Saturday Night Live:”
But of course there was no “Jebidiah Atkinson.” The author of the thumbs-down review was Oramel Barrett, editor of what was then called the Daily Patriot and Union. He was my great-great-grandfather.
The “few appropriate remarks” President Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg are remembered today as a masterpiece of political oratory. But that’s not how Oramel viewed them back in 1863.
“We pass over the silly remarks of the President,” he wrote in his newspaper. “For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
My ancestor’s misadventure in literary criticism has long been a source of amusement at family gatherings (and now one for the entire nation.) How could the owner-editor of a daily in a major state capital have been so utterly tone deaf about something this momentous?
Oddly enough, Oramel’s put-down of the Gettysburg Address—though a minority view in the Union at the time—didn’t stand out as especially outrageous at the time. Reaction to the speech was either worshipful or scornful, depending on one’s party affiliation. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats were the more or less loyal opposition (though their loyalty was often questioned).
Here’s the Chicago Times, a leading Democratic paper: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
It wasn’t just the Democrats. Here’s the Times of London: “The ceremony [at Gettysburg] was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”
In the South, naturally, Lincoln was vilified as a bloodthirsty tyrant. But his opponents in the North could be almost as harsh. For years, much of the Democratic press had portrayed him as an inept, awkward, nearly illiterate bumpkin who surrounded himself with sycophants and responded to crises with pointless, long-winded jokes. My ancestor’s newspaper routinely referred to Lincoln as “the jester.”
Like Oramel Barrett, those who loathed Lincoln the most belonged to the radical wing of the Democratic Party. Its stronghold was Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The radical Democrats were not necessarily sympathetic to the Confederacy, nor did they typically oppose the war—most viewed secession as an act of treason, after all. Horrified by the war’s gruesome slaughter, however, they urged conciliation with the South, the sooner the better.
To the Lincoln-bashers, the president was using Gettysburg to kick off his re-election campaign—and showing the poor taste to do so at a memorial service. According to my bilious great-great-grandfather, he was performing “in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the glory of the Nation and the honor of the dead.”
Worse, for Lincoln’s opponents, was a blatant flaw in the speech itself. In just 10 sentences, it advanced a new justification for the war. Indeed, its first six words—”Four score and seven years ago”—were enough to arouse the fury of Democratic critics.
A little subtraction shows that Lincoln was referring not to 1787, when the Constitution, with its careful outlining of federal rights and obligations (and tacit acceptance of slavery), was drawn up, but to 1776, when the signers of the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”
The Union war effort had always been aimed at defeating Southern states that had rebelled against the United States government. If white Southerners wanted to own black slaves, many in the North felt, that was not an issue for white Northern boys to die for.
Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of 1863. Now, at Gettysburg, he was following through, declaring the war a mighty test of whether a nation dedicated to the idea of personal liberty “shall have a new birth of freedom.” This, he declared, was the cause for which the thousands of Union soldiers slain here in July “gave the last full measure of devotion.” He was suggesting, in other words, that the troops had died to ensure that the slaves were freed.
To radical Northern Democratics, Dishonest Abe was pulling a bait-and-switch. His speech was “an insult” to the memories of the dead, the Chicago Times fumed: “In its misstatement of the cause for which they died, it was a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.” Worse, invoking the Founding Fathers in his cause was nothing short of libelous. “They were men possessing too much self-respect,” the Times assured its readers, “to declare that negroes were their equals.”
Histories have generally played down the prevalence of white racism north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The reality was that Northerners, even Union soldiers battling the Confederacy, had mixed feelings about blacks and slavery. Many, especially in the Midwest, abhorred abolitionism, which they associated with sanctimonious New Englanders. Northern newspaper editors warned that truly freeing the South’s slaves and, worse, arming them would lead to an all-out race war.
That didn’t happen, of course. It took another year and a half of horrific fighting, but the South surrendered on the North’s terms—and by the time Lee met Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, both houses of Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, banning slavery. With Lincoln’s assassination just six days later, the criticism ceased. For us today, Lincoln is the face on Mount Rushmore, and the Gettysburg Address one of the greatest speeches ever delivered.
Doug Stewart also wrote about his cantankerous great-great-grandfather, Oramel Barrett, in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War.
November 6, 2013
Albert Woolson loved the parades. For Memorial Day in Duluth, Minnesota, he rode in the biggest car down the widest streets of his hometown. The city etched his name in the Duluth Honor Roll, and he was celebrated at conventions and banquets across the North. Even the president wrote him letters on his birthday. Because everyone said he was the last surviving member of the Grand Army of
the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans once nearly half a million strong, they erected a life-size statue of him on the most hallowed ground of that entire horrible conflict—Gettysburg.
Though deaf and often ill, he was still spry enough that, even at 109 years of age, he could be polite and mannerly, always a gentleman. He was especially fond of children and enjoyed visiting schools and exciting the boys with stories of cannon and steel and unbelievable courage on the fields around Chattanooga. The boys called him “Grandpa Al.”
But Woolson could be fussy. His breakfast eggs had to be scrambled and his bacon crisp. He continued to smoke; he had probably lit up more than a thousand cigars just since he had hit the century mark. And no one kept him from his half-ounce of brandy before dinner.
His grandfather had served in the War of 1812, and when guns were fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, his father went off to fight for Lincoln. He lost a leg and died. So, as the story goes, young Albert, blue-eyed and blonde-haired, a mere five and a half feet tall, took his father’s place. With just a year left in the war, he enlisted as a drummer boy with the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, rolling his snare as they marched south to Tennessee.
But that had been long ago, more than 90 years past. Now Albert Woolson’s days were fading, the muffled drum of his youth a softening memory. At St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, his health deteriorating, he would sometimes feel his old self, quoting Civil War verse or the Gettysburg Address. But then on a Saturday in late July, 1956, he slipped into a coma. Just before he drifted off, he asked a nurse’s aide for a dish of lemon sherbet. She gave him some soft candy too. As she shut the door she glanced back at her patient. “I thought he was looking very old,” she recalled. For a week he lay quietly in his hospital bed, awaiting death.
Down in Houston, old Walter Washington Williams had sent Woolson a telegram congratulating him on turning 109. “Happy birthday greetings from Colonel Walter Williams,” the wire said.
Williams was blind, nearly deaf, rail-thin, and confined to a bed in his daughter’s house. He had served as a Confederate forage master for Hood’s Brigade, they said, and now he was bound and determined to be the last on either side still alive when America’s great Civil War Centennial commemoration began in 1961. “I’m going to wait around until the others are gone,” he said, “to see what happens.”
Williams had ridden in a parade too. He was named in presidential proclamations and tributes in the press. Life magazine devoted a three-page spread to the old Rebel, including a photograph of Williams propped up on his pillows, a large Stars and Bars flag hanging on the wall. An American Legion band serenaded at his window, and he tapped his long, spindly fingers in time with “Old Soldiers Never Die.” But Williams was a Southern boy deep in his bones. He would have preferred “Cotton-Eyed Joe” on the radio:
O Lawd, O Lawd,
Come pity my case.
For I’m gettin’ old
An’ wrinkled in de face.
Like Woolson, Williams could be cantankerous. On his last birthday, when he said he was 117, they served him his favorite barbecued pork, though his daughter and a nurse had to feed him. His bed was piled high with cards and telegrams, but he could not read them. He could hardly pick them up. “I’m tired of staying here,” he complained in his son’s ear. The son smiled and told visitors how they had hunted deer together when his father was 101. “He rode a horse until he was 103,” the son said.
Williams’ last public outing was in an Armed Forces Day parade in Houston in May 1959, when he rode in an air-conditioned ambulance. As he passed the reviewing stand, he struggled to raise his arm in salute. Then they took him home and put him back to bed.
Four times he suffered bouts of pneumonia; twice they hung an oxygen tent over his bed. His doctor was doubtful, and his daughter feared the worst. “There’s too many years; too many miles,” she said.
And so the clock ticked down, not just on Albert Woolson and Walter Williams, but for a whole generation, an entire era, the closing of a searing chapter in American history: four years of brutal civil war. Like the old soldiers, memories of the North and South and how they had splintered and then remade America were slowly dying out too. Starting in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Civil War soldiers began passing away in rapid numbers, nearly three a day. The glorious reunions of proud veterans at Gettysburg and the cities of the South were coming to an end; there were too few healthy enough to attend. The Grand Army of the Republic closed its last local chapter. The Rebel yell fell silent. The campfires went dark. Echoing down the years were Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last words: “Strike the tent.”
By the start of the 1950s, about 65 of the blue and gray veterans were left; by 1955, just a half dozen. As their numbers dwindled they became artifacts of a shuttered era, curiosities of an ancient time, sepia-toned figures still inhabiting a modern world from their rocking chairs and oxygen tents. They had gone to war with rifles and sabers and in horse-mounted patrols. They had lived off hardtack and beans. Now they seemed lost in a new American century that had endured two devastating world wars fought with armored tank divisions, deadly mustard gas, and atomic bombs that fell from the sky.
Bruce Catton, long a chronicler of the Civil War, could recall his boyhood in the “pre-automobile age” of rural Michigan and how a group of old Union veterans in white whiskers and blue greatcoats had delighted his young eyes. He remembered one selling summer berries from a pail he hooked over the stub of his forearm, an arm he had lost in the Battle of the Wilderness. A church deacon had fought with the 2nd Ohio Cavalry in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, burning barns and killing livestock. Another had returned to Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary there, and when he arrived back by train and his buggy was late, the 70-year-old simply hoisted his bag and walked the five miles home. “They were grave, dignified, and thoughtful,” Catton would write of his hometown heroes. “For the most part they had never been 50 miles away from the farm or the dusty village streets; yet once, ages ago, they had been everywhere and had seen everything. . . . All that was real had taken place when they were young; everything after that had simply been a process of waiting for death.” Eventually, one by one the old men were carried up a small hilltop to the town cemetery. “As they departed,” Catton wrote, “we began to lose more than we knew we were losing.”
By the close of the 1950s, as the nation was preparing for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, much of the pubic watched transfixed, marking the passing of each of the final veterans, wondering who might be the last, wondering if any would make it to the centennial, curious how anyone could live so long. Could anyone be so old?
That question seemed never more poignant than when a Confederate veteran from Georgia disrupted a Civil War museum and jabbed his cane in sudden bayonet thrusts, threatening the portraits of Yankee soldiers hanging on the wall. “Let me at him!” he yelled at a painting of Union hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the scourge of Atlanta. Sadly, the old Rebel appeared a pitiful figure, a misfit, more a caricature of himself than a gallant hero from an epic time.
Because it turns out that many of the men were not so old after all.
Many who claimed to be well over 100 and survivors of that great war were really imposters, some flat-out frauds. In truth they had been mere children and too young to march off to war in the early 1860s. Or they had not even been born. Yet as they grew old, they fabricated stories about past heroic adventures and brazenly applied for Civil War pensions during the long, lean years of the Great Depression. Some backdated their birth dates. Some made up the names of comrades and commanding officers. Some lied to their friends and neighbors and to newspapers and government officials. Over the years, some accepted so many accolades as Civil War veterans that they never could muster the courage or the humility to own up to the truth, even as they lay near death. Many ended up believing their own fabrications. Driven by money, ego, or a craving to belong to something grand and glorious, these men defrauded a nation. They especially dishonored those who had served, those who had been wounded, and above all those who had died. Many of them fooled their own families. One fooled the White House.
The last veteran who said he fought for the Union was Albert Woolson; Walter Williams said he was the last Confederate. One of them indeed was a soldier, but one, according to the best evidence, was a fake. One of them had been living a great big lie.
This is an excerpt from Last of the Blue and Grey by Richard A. Serrano, published by Smithsonian Books. Order your own copy NOW.
October 31, 2013
She moved amid the bland perfume
That breathes of heaven’s balmiest isle;
Her eyes had starlight’s azure gloom
And a glimpse of heaven–her smile.
New York Herald, 1838
John Anderson’s Liberty Street cigar shop was no different from the dozens of other tobacco emporiums frequented by the newspapermen of New York City. There only reason it was so crowded was Mary Rogers.
Mary was the teenage daughter of a widowed boarding-house keeper, and her beauty was the stuff of legend. A poem dedicated to her visage appeared in the New York Herald, and during her time clerking at John Anderson’s shop she bestowed her heavenly smile upon writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, who would visit to smoke and flirt during breaks from their offices nearby.
In 1838, the cigar girl with ”the dainty figure and pretty face” went out and failed to return. Her mother discovered what appeared to be a suicide note; the New York Sun reported that the coroner had examined the letter and concluded the author had a “fixed and unalterable determination to destroy herself.” But a few days later Mary returned home, alive and well. She had been, it turned out, visiting a friend in Brooklyn. The Sun, which three years earlier had been responsible for the Great Moon Hoax, was accused of manufacturing Mary’s disappearance to sell newspapers. Her boss, John Anderson, was suspected of being in on the scheme, for after Mary returned his shop was busier than ever.
Still, the affair blew over, and Mary settled back into her role as an object of admiration for New York’s literary set. By 1841 she was engaged to Daniel Payne, a cork-cutter and boarder in her mother’s house. On Sunday, July 25, Mary announced plans to visit relatives in New Jersey and told Payne and her mother she’d be back the next day. The night Mary ventured out, a severe storm hit New York, and when Mary failed to return the next morning, her mother assumed she’d gotten caught in bad weather and delayed her trip home.
By Monday night, Mary still hadn’t come back, and her mother was concerned enough to place an advertisement in the following day’s Sun asking for anyone who might have seen Mary to have the girl contact her, as “it is supposed some accident has befallen her.” Foul play was not suspected.
On July 28, some men were out for a stroll near Sybil’s Cave, a bucolic Hudson riverside spot in Hoboken, New Jersey, when a bobbing figure caught their attention. Rowing out in a small boat, they dragged what turned out to be the body of a young woman back to shore. Crowds gathered, and within hours, a former fiancee of Mary’s identified the body as hers.
According to the coroner, her dress and hat were torn and her body looked as though it had taken a beating. She was also, the coroner took care to note, not pregnant, and “had evidently been a person of chastity and correct habits.”
Questions abounded: Had Mary been killed by someone she knew? Had she been a victim of a random crime of opportunity, something New Yorkers increasingly worried about as the city grew and young women strayed farther and farther from the family parlor? Why hadn’t the police of New York or Hoboken spotted Mary and her attacker? The Herald, the Sun and the Tribune all put Mary on their front pages, and no detail was too lurid—graphic descriptions of Mary’s body appeared in each paper, along with vivid theories about what her killer or killers might have done to her. More than anything, they demanded answers.
Suspicion fell immediately upon Daniel Payne, Mary’s fiancee; perhaps one or the other had threatened to leave, and Payne killed her, either to get rid of her or to prevent her from breaking their engagement. He produced an airtight alibi for his whereabouts during Mary’s disappearance, but that didn’t stop the New-Yorker (a publication unrelated to the current magazine of that name) from suggesting, in August of 1841, that he’d had a hand in Mary’s death:
There is one point in Mr. Payne’s testimony which is worthy of remark. It seems he had been searching for Miss Rogers—his betrothed—two or three days; yet when he was informed on Wednesday evening that her body had been found at Hoboken, he did not go to see it or inquire into the matter—in fact, it appears that he never went at all, though he had been there inquiring for her before. This is odd, and should be explained.
If Payne hadn’t killed Mary, it was theorized, she’d been caught by a gang of criminals. This idea was given further credence later that August, when two Hoboken boys who were out in the woods collecting sassafras for their mother, tavern owner Frederica Loss, happened upon several items of women’s clothing. The Herald reported that “the clothes had all evidently been there at least three or four weeks. They were all mildewed down hard…the grass had grown around and over some of them. The scarf and the petticoat were crumpled up as if in a struggle.” The most suggestive item was a handkerchief embroidered with the initials M.R.
The discovery of the clothes catapulted Loss into minor celebrity. She spoke with reporters at length about Mary, whom she claimed to have seen in the company of a tall, dark stranger on the evening of July 25. The two had ordered lemonade and then taken their leave from Loss’ tavern. Later that night, she said, she heard a scream coming from the woods. At the time, she’d thought it was one of her sons, but after going out to investigate and finding her boy safely inside, she’d decided it must have been an animal. In light of the clothing discovery so close to her tavern, though, she now felt certain it had come from Mary.
The Herald and other papers took this as evidence that strangers had indeed absconded with Mary, but despite weeks of breathless speculation, no further clues were found and no suspects identified. The city moved on, and Mary’s story became yesterday’s news—only to return to the headlines.
In October 1841, Daniel Payne went on a drinking binge that carried him to Hoboken. After spending October 7 going from tavern to tavern to tavern, he entered a pharmacy and bought a vial of laudanum. He stumbled down to where Mary’s body had been brought to shore, collapsed onto a bench, and died, leaving behind a note: “To the World—Here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” The consensus was that his heart had been broken.
While the newspapers had their way with Mary’s life and death, Edgar Allen Poe turned to fact-based fiction to make sense of the case.
Working in the spring of 1842, Edgar Allan Poe transported Mary’s tale to Paris and, in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” gave her a slightly more Francophone name (and a job in a perfume shop), but the details otherwise match exactly. The opening of Poe’s story makes his intent clear:
The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of MARY CECILIA ROGERS, at New York.
A sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” widely considered the first detective story ever set to print, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” would see the detective Dupin solve the young woman’s murder. In shopping the story to editors, Poe suggested he’d gone beyond mere storytelling: “Under the pretense of showing how Dupin unraveled the mystery of Marie’s assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New York.”
Though he appropriated the details of Mary’s story, Poe still faced the very real challenge of actually solving the murder when the police were no closer than they’d been in July 1841.
Like many other stories of the mid-19th century, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” was serialized, appearing in November issues of Snowden’s Ladies Companion. The third part, in which Dupin put together the details of the crime but left the identity of the criminal up in the air, was to appear at the end of the month, but a shocking piece of news delayed the final installment.
In October 1842, Frederica Loss was accidentally shot by one of her sons and made a deathbed confession regarding Mary Rogers. The “tall, dark” man she’d seen the girl with in July 1841 had not been a stranger; she knew him. The Tribune reported: “On the Sunday of Miss Rogers’s disappearance she came to her house from this city in company with a young physician, who undertook to produce for her a premature delivery.” (“Premature delivery” being a euphemism for abortion.)
The procedure had gone wrong, Loss said, and Mary had died. After disposing of her body in the river, one of Loss’ sons had thrown her clothes in a neighbor’s pond and then, after having second thoughts, scattered them in the woods.
While Loss’ confession did not entirely match the evidence (there was still the matter of Mary’s body, which bore signs of some kind of struggle), the Tribune seemed satisfied: “Thus has this fearful mystery, which has struck fear and terror to so many hearts, been at last explained by circumstances in which no one can fail to perceive a Providential agency.”
To some, the attribution of Mary’s death to a botched abortion made perfect sense—it had been suggested that she and Payne quarreled over an unwanted pregnancy, and in the early 1840s New York City was fervently debating the activities of the abortionist Madame Restell. Several penny presses had linked Rogers to Restell (and suggested that her 1838 disappearance lasted precisely as long as it would take a woman to terminate a pregnancy in secret and return undiscovered), and while that connection was ultimately unsubstantiated, Mary was on the minds of New Yorkers when, in 1845, they officially criminalized the procedure.
Poe’s story was considered a sorry follow up to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but he did manage to work Loss’ story into his narrative. His Marie Rogêt had indeed kept company with a “swarthy naval officer” who may very well have killed her, though by what means we are not sure—did he murder her outright or lead her into a “fatal accident,” a plan of “concealment”?
Officially, the death of Mary Rogers remains unsolved. Poe’s account remains the most widely read, and his hints at abortion (made even clearer in an 1845 reprinting of the story, though the word “abortion” never appears) have, for most, closed the case. Still, those looking for Poe to put the Mary Rogers case to rest are left to their own devices. In a letter to a friend, Poe wrote: “Nothing was omitted in Marie Rogêt but what I omitted myself—all that is mystification.”
Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”; “The Mary Rogers Mystery Explained”, New-York Daily Tribune, Nov. 18, 1842; “The Case of Mary C. Rogers”, The New-Yorker; Aug. 14, 1841; Stashower, Daniel, The Beautiful Cigar Girl (PenguinBooks, 2006); Srebnick, Amy Gilman, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (Oxford University Press, 1995); Meyers, Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (Cooper Square Press, 1992)