Many heard the city’s siren call: freedom, freedom, freedom. In the wake of crumbling farm communities and great and small depressions, many American-born young women (and men) moved to the burgeoning city of New York for work and a fresh start, freed from a “patriarchal”, rural society in the second quarter of the 1800’s.
The void of fatherhood with its moral-ism and lack of privacy had to be filled. The city was the permissive mother, the blind eye to the youths’ experiments with freedom. Into this world stepped MARY ROGERS the beauty. From good New England stock (the Mathers and the Rogers of Connecticut) fallen on hard times she came with her mother(or grandmother) to the city and opened a boarding house for sailors, corkcutters and clerks.
Mary, freed from the moorings of the village and the old-fashioned notions about girls working in sales (you were always selling more of yourself than you knew) took a job selling cigars to the roughs and the Tammany politicians.
She disappeared once leaving a suicide note for mother and the news was big enough to make the papers, but she returned a few days later right as rain–it had all been a joke she said. In the city women had freedom but with freedom came danger. Men thrive on danger (so say the studies), but do women?
On one balmy Sunday Mary went out for a walk and never came back. Mother worried, as did her present boyfriend, the corkcutter, who was to meet her in the evening to go promenading on Broadway as everyone did. On Monday the corkcutter searched Manhattan. He searched the rural retreat of Hoboken (a paradise on Earth). He worried himself back to drinking.
And then Mary was found floating dead on the rocky shores of New Jersey. The beautiful cigar girl murdered! And not just murdered but violated in unspeakable ways!
The papers went mad for the story. The outraged public read in horror each gruesome detail of the autopsy (leaked to the papers a little each day). No newspaper man in his right mind would ignore the story that tapped into the fears middle class people had about the sexualized city. And look what had happened to this pretty girl with no protection!
A great manhunt began. Many men were wrongfully accused. The CORKCUTTER was soon found dead as well–alcohol and laudanum poisoning (most likely self-inflicted, but who really knew?).
Even Edgar Allen Poe was mesmerized and wrote a mystery story:“THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET” . But all the men’s stories checked out. Why had Mary gone to Hoboken alone? On her deathbed a tavern owner in Hoboken confessed to helping an abortionist get rid of Mary’s body after a procedure gone awry. Seems the abortionist had connections to Madame Restell of New York, the notorious abortionist.
Despite its growing popularity in the city and lack of enforcement against it, abortion was reviled by most average citizens. As a thing done on the quiet no one really had to think about it. Ironically rural cultures had better infrastructure when it came to dealing with bastard children and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Until the procedure made headlines (and Madame Restell was all about making headlines) the city could uneasily look away, but no longer.
Huge crowds of protesters threatened the madame in her home until the cops fought them off. Mary remained at once a tragic figure and a morality tale. Alone, young and seduced by men Mary was left to fend for herself and murdered at the hands of a woman who flaunted her skills as a killer of babies (people thought it was murder after the first quickening when the mother could feel the baby move).
Mary’s death was retold in countless fictionalized novels and newspapers; her real story illustrated over and over again for a public bent on lapping up the most grotesque details. Public and private lines were forever blurred in the papers. Mary was one girl, a girl of mystery still, but beautiful. Everyone said so.
MADAME RESTELL committed suicide in 1878 by slitting her throat.