Sybil’s Cave and the Unsolved Murder of the Beautiful Cigar Girl

Sybil's Cave, at Hoboken
“Sybil’s Cave, at Hoboken, N.J.” from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, June 19, 1852

A recreational destination for 19th-century leisure seekers, Sybil’s Cave, achieved fame, or infamy rather, as the site of an unsolved murder.

Sybil’s Cave was created in 1832 by the Stevens family as a folly. The man-made cave, adorned with an elaborate Gothic-style entrance, was built around a natural spring and served as a cafe where visitors could enjoy a glass of spring water “slightly impregnated with magnesia.” Sybil’s Cave was a stop on the River Walk promenade, a walk along Hudson riverfront considered one of the country’s most frequented pleasure grounds.

But it was not mineral water that brought the surge of visitors in 1841… it was murder. One day, a mutilated female body washed up on the shore right by the Cave. The murdered woman was identified as Mary Rogers, and the story became a national sensation.

Mary Rogers, renowned for her beauty, was pursued by many men. She worked at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium, one of the most popular cigar stores in New York, where she was the subject of the owner’s relentless affections. Many distinguished men, including writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, visited Anderson’s tobacco shop not only in pursuit of tobacco products but also to gaze at Mary’s fair features. The beautiful Mary Rogers lived in a boarding house run by her mother and was undoubtedly the greatest advertisement for this establishment as well.

Mary Rogers had gone missing in 1838, leaving behind a suicide note. The story of the notorious beauty’s vanishing was all over the papers, leading to a surge in business at Anderson’s tobacco shop when she showed up unharmed just a few days later. Thus Mary’s first disappearance was most likely a hoax orchestrated by Mr. Anderson himself. But not so in 1841. After informing her fiancé Daniel Payne that she would be visiting her aunt, Mary left and never returned. Three days later, her body was found floating in the Hudson River near Sybil’s Cave. Many of Mary’s suitors were charged, questioned, and eventually let go. Soon afterward, the public experienced another shock when her fiancé committed suicide by poisoning himself on the very same spot Mary’s body was discovered.

While the murder case of the “Beautiful Cigar Girl” remains unsolved, there are reasons to believe that Mary died having an abortion. Local Hoboken hotel owner, Frederica Loss, came forward with a story that the young lady came to her hotel for a procedure that went wrong, after which her body was dumped into the Hudson. But this story didn’t stick while a popular theory persisted that Rogers was a victim of gang violence.

Edgar Allan Poe fictionalized the story of the unsolved murder of the “Beautiful Cigar Girl” as “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” Mary’s story was transported to Paris and presented as a sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first modern detective story.

Sybil’s Cave, neglected and forgotten in the latter half of the 20th century, was rediscovered and restored in 2007 by the City of Hoboken. Alas, there is no more mineral water, and one can only see the Cave through a fence.

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