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Weird Hoboken - Sybil's Cave

The Legend of Sybil's Cave and the Murder of Mary Rogers
Written By: Michael Launay

It was a hot, steamy summer afternoon on July 28, 1841 when James Boulard and Henry Mallin sighted what appeared to be a body floating in the water of the Hudson River near the shore of Hoboken, New Jersey. The two men, who had been trying to relax at a quiet retreat called Sybil's Cave located across the river from the heat and crowding of New York City, raced to a nearby dock and borrowed a boat to retrieve the floating object. They returned to the shore with the body of a young woman, later identified as Mary Cecilia Rogers, missing from her New York City home since Sunday, July 25, 1841. This discovery brought national attention to an already locally famous site.

Most people growing up in Hoboken 30 or 40 years ago were very familiar with the legend of Sybil's Cave. Local legend held that it was a deep natural cave with a spring located somewhere along the Hudson River. However, current residents and visitors may be surprised to learn of the existence of this legend. The Hoboken shoreline of the 1800's was an area for relaxation for the stressed urbanites of New York City and the nearby cities of New Jersey. A tree lined path along the river, dubbed "River Walk", served as a respite to the pressures and crowds of the city by providing a country-like atmosphere for many residents, especially those who had recently migrated to the city from rural areas. This urban growth was the trend in those days prior to the Civil War, when cities were expanding at the expense of rural populations and traditions.

Along the River Walk, many businesses cropped up to accommodate the visiting daytrippers, who would ferry across the Hudson from New York. These new establishments included taverns, inns and open recreation areas such as Elysian Fields. One of the most noted of these was the renowned "Sybil's Cave and Spring", which was located between Eighth and Ninth Streets at the foot of Stevens Institute of Technology on what is today Frank Sinatra Drive.

Contrary to local legend, Sybil's Cave was not a natural formation. The cave was dug manually out of the cliff to reach a natural spring in 1832, as the River Walk gained in popularity. Glasses of water were sold to thirsty hikers for one cent a glass, an outrageous amount for that time, but people were willing to pay because of the beneficial and medicinal properties this water supposedly held. Tables were set outside the cave, and a building erected to serve the growing clientele. "Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion" of 1836 described Sybil's Cave as "...one of the principle attractions of the place. No one visits Hoboken without seeing it. It is hewn out and excavated to the depth of thirty feet. In the middle is a spring of pure and sparkling water, thousands of glasses of which are sold daily in the summer, for a penny per glass."

In the 1880's, with the advent of the Board of Health, the spring water of Sybil's Cave was declared unfit for human consumption. However, this was not the end of Sybil's Cave. A tavern was established on the site by Fred Eckstein, which served food and had an Old World ambience, and the area continued to be popular with visitors. The cave was accessible by a sliding metal door at the tavern and was used for storage. Eventually, the commercial shipping industry encroached upon the area, urbanizing it and blocking out the views of the Hudson River and New York City, which had originally popularized the site.

Fred Eckstein's tavern became a gin mill for dock workers, and was later occupied by squatters. The building, after ransacking over the years, was torn down in 1937. The cave was, for a brief period, re-discovered beneath it. The Hudson Dispatch Newspaper even published a photo showing the entrance almost unchanged except for wear. To avoid injury to adventurous youths, the cave was filled in soon after. Since very few clues of the cave's existence remain today, it is obvious that great care was taken to hide any evidence of its entrance, the better to thwart future explorers of the legend.

Although the appearance of a dead body floating in the waters around New York City was not an especially rare occurrence in the mid 1800's, the discovery of the lifeless and bloody body of Mary Cecilia Rogers in the shallow waters near Sybil's Cave provoked outrage. Mary, a young and beautiful 20 year old, left her Manhattan home on the morning of July 25, telling her current boyfriend and boarder, Donald Payne, she would be visiting her aunt uptown. She would never return. Her body was fished out of the Hudson River three days later, and the cause of death was quickly ruled strangulation by the Hoboken coroner. He also stated she had been sexually assaulted and brutally beaten. Over a month later, remnants of her clothing and some personal items were founded in a wooded area near the river in Weehawken, just north of Hoboken. It was assumed she was killed there by a man, or a gang of men, then thrown into the river.

Along with her aging mother, Mary ran a boarding house on Nassau Street near New York's City Hall. She also worked as a sales girl in a nearby Broadway tobacco shop. Nassau Street at that time was the center of the growing publishing and printing business, including the new "Penny Press", the equivalent of our tabloid newspapers. Mary was well known to the editors and reporters of these publications, having lived and worked in the area for over a year. This familiarity made the investigation of her death a personal matter to them, and the case became the 0. J. Simpson case of its time, with dozens of reporters and writers following up on every possible lead and investigating every possible suspect, all in the public eye. Dubbed the case of "The Beautiful Cigar Girl" by the media, Mary's murder brought a sudden boom of publicity and tourism to Sybil's Cave and Hoboken, as thousands flocked to the area to view the scene of the crime.

Watching and reading all of this was an out-of-work writer living in Philadelphia named Edgar Allan Poe. He later transformed this story into the pioneering detective tale, "The Mystery of Marie Roget", changing the location of the saga from Hoboken to Paris, France, but otherwise leaving other important facts and clues intact.

Despite the endless commentary and speculation in the press, the case was never officially solved. Every one of Mary's former suitors were publicly charged, but then cleared. This constant publicity was blamed for the apparent suicide of Donald Payne on the Hoboken shoreline. Distraught over the loss of Mary, and the public suspicions of his involvement in her death, his body was found outside Sybil's Cave in early October with a bottle of poison nearby.

More than a month after these events a Weehawen innkeeper named Frederika Loss came forward to say that Mary Rogers had visited her inn on the night of her disappearance in the company of a "dark complexioned young man." Ms. Loss, who ran the popular Nick Moore's House, later recanted this story on her deathbed after being accidentally shot by one of her own sons. After being interrogated by the local justice of the peace, Loss admitted that Mary Rogers had come to her inn that night accompanied by a local physician "who undertook to procure for her a premature delivery". The abortion was botched and Mary subsequently died. One of Frederika's sons helped the doctor dump the body in the river, and some of her clothing was later strewed about the woods in Weehawken, to confuse police. Interestingly, it was one of Frederika's sons that later "found" the clothing. This confession could also help explain the coroner's finding of sexual assault on Mary Rogers' body, and his later strange and unsolicited references to her chastity and good morals, a possible attempt to protect her reputation.

Although Frederika's confession closed the case for many, including Edgar Allan Poe, who in later editions changed "The Mystery Of Marie Roget" to coincide with the abortion theory, some investigators remained skeptical. Her two eldest sons were questioned and even held under arrest, but were released following a judicial hearing. The innkeeper's confession was challenged on the grounds she was barely conscious at the time and may have been seeking revenge on the son who had shot her. The skeptics also point to the unexplained external injuries to the body of Mary Rogers. The mystery remains officially unsolved to the present day.

Whether of not a botched abortion caused the death of Mary Rogers, the two became connected in the public's perception. Abortion was not only blamed for her demise, but also the demise of public morals. Many new laws forbidding abortions were passed for the first time in New York, and then spread from there. These laws would remain on the books for over 100 years, long after the memory of Mary Cecilia Rogers and Sybil's Cave had faded from the public mind.

Today, over 150 years after this tragic event, New Jersey is attempting to return the Hoboken shoreline to its past glory, as a recreation area for nearby city dwellers. Hopefully these plans will at least include an acknowledgement to the area's rich past, including Sybil's Cave and Mary Rogers.