“I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”
– Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
Ever work on a puzzle, or a riddle, or a brain teaser that just completely stumped you in the moment? Assuming the answer is yes, ever have one that had such a clear, obvious solution that you berated yourself for missing it? One of the unfortunate realities of crime is the fact that there are so many unsolved killings and disappearances. Some of these are baffling and mysterious. Others, though, ultimately have obvious solutions. I believe the case of Mary Rogers has an obvious solution. In my previous post, I dismissed one of the leading explanations given at the time: that Mary died as a result of a botched abortion. Let me overview some competing explanations before I explain who I think is responsible in this 170-year old cold case.
1) Either Daniel Payne or one of Mary’s numerous romantic entanglements killed her. Witnesses placed Mary in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a tall, dark-complexioned gentleman on the day of her death. Mary’s itinerary was to go to Nassau St. in Manhattan. It is entirely plausible that this man murdered Mary and fled the region. It is also plausible that Daniel Payne, her boss John Anderson, or ex-boyfriend Arthur Crommelin followed Mary to New Jersey and, jealous of the new suitor, murdered them both. No witnesses could place either of the latter three near the scene of the crime, Payne had an alibi, and despite intense focus from both police and press, none of these three men were ever linked to the crime in any meaningful way.
2) A New York street gang murdered Mary and her companion. Dr. Richard Cook, the coroner who performed Mary’s autopsy, says he believed she was attacked by between six and eight men. It’s unclear to me how he could make such a claim. I would be more inclined to believe a less-specific statement: “Mary was attacked by multiple men.” No resource I could find on the case explained Cook’s thought process. Frederica Loss, the proprietor of Nick Moore’s House – the last place Mary was seen alive – initially also advanced this theory, saying she heard a scream after Mary left the tavern. Her sons also reportedly found several of Mary’s garments, including a monogrammed handkerchief. I consider this explanation both unsatisfactory and implausible.
3) Mary Rogers died during a botched abortion. This story originates from Frederica Loss. She said, in dramatic deathbed fashion, that Mary came with the mysterious dark-complexioned man, to her tavern to have an abortion. The procedure went awry, and Mary bled to death. Her companion disappeared from the scene, leaving Loss to handle the dead body. She instructed her sons, aged 16, 18, and 20, to throw it in the Hudson River. The New York media jumped on this version of events, leading abortion to become outlawed in New York within three years. It doesn’t match Dr. Cook’s autopsy, however: Mary had been bound, beaten, and strangled. Her wounds were consistent with rape, not an abortion.
Easily the most plausible explanation I have read is also the simplest and most straightforward. Frederica Loss was one of the last persons to see Mary alive. Witnesses placed Mary at her tavern. She changed her story about that encounter at least once. She admitted her sons disposed of Mary’s body. In her original version of events, she claims her sons “found” Mary’s clothing. The balance of probability suggests that Mary Rogers was raped and murdered by Frederica Loss’ sons and she attempted to cover up the crime. This version of events was not considered for another 65 years, when a criminologist named Bill Clemens investigated the case for Era Magazine. As I read through the account the first time, my eyebrow raised at the fact that the Loss boys were never put under suspicion. When one of them “discovered” Mary’s garments, I said aloud, “Wait, how old were these boys?” To be fair, I’ve seen at least three episodes of Law & Order: SVU. I’m practically old hat by now.
The Mary Rogers murder is discussed at some length in Bill James’ excellent book Popular Crime. James advocates the solution I present. A running theme in Popular Crime is how investigators can get so convinced their suspect is the guy that they try to shoehorn evidence around that person. What they should be doing is paying attention to who is already linked to the evidence. (That’s easier said than done, though. Rarely is anything simple about a murder investigation.) I’m talking about this case because I think we are constantly conducting our own investigations. And, like the police in New York and Hoboken, we make a lot of ridiculous errors that become obvious in retrospect. We have questions about who to trust, or who to date, or who to vote for, or what is so-and-so up to? Life likes to leave us evidence. Sometimes we think we’ve got our guy, when a much more obvious candidate has been there all along.