Hoboken Mayor announces plans to dig up Sybil's Cave. A hidden part of Hoboken's history will soon be uncovered, says mayor

Hoboken Mayor announces plans to dig up Sybil's Cave

A hidden part of Hoboken's history will soon be uncovered, says mayor
10/26/2003 Hoboken Reporter 

Edger Allen Poe based a detective story on events that happened there, wealthy Manhattanites used to enjoy their recreation outside of it, health seekers drank its spring water for the supposed medicinal effects, and now Hoboken Mayor David Roberts wants to uncover this lost and nearly forgotten Hoboken treasure.

Sybil's Cave, at the foot of Castle Point, which is now hidden behind tangled bushes, layers of dirt and serpentine boulders might be given a new life. Roberts announced his plans Tuesday to dig up the cave, restore it, and open it to the public. While Roberts says he will pay for the renovation out of his own pocket, he plans on partnering with Stevens Institute of Technology, which owns the property, and the Board of Education, which can use the unearthing as a history and literary lesson. "This is going to be a really fun project to undertake," said the almost giddy Roberts Tuesday. He is particularly excited about the fact that Hoboken students will be able to watch as the excavation takes place and can study about Hoboken's history, the geology of caves and natural freshwater springs and read the literature of Edgar Allen Poe.

Because his plans are still in the early stages and the exact condition of the cave has not yet been determined, there is no timeline on when the cave will be opened.

A gem of Hoboken history

Sybil's Cave, between Eighth and Ninth streets at the base of Stevens on Sinatra Drive was first opened as a day trippers' attraction in 1832, according to a August 9, 1934 story in the Hoboken Dispatch Newspaper.

Contrary to local legend, Sybil's Cave was not a natural formation. According to historical documents, the 30-foot deep cave was dug out of the cliffs to reach a natural spring.

In Hoboken's early days, the city's waterfront was a retreat for wealthy New Yorkers. Hoboken, which during the 1800s was most certainly "the country," represented an opportunity for stressed out socialites to spread out a blanket on the "River Walk" and share a picnic with friends outside the mouth of Sybil's Cave. At night the area became a popular location for young lovers.

"Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion" in 1936 described Hoboken's Shore as the "paradise of Gotham," with its "beautifully laid out into walks, promenades and parks; overshadowed by the richest foliage."

The periodical added that Sybil's Cave was "one of the principal attractions of the place. Nobody visits Hoboken without seeing it."

A natural spring

During the summer, thousands of glasses of the spring water were sold for a penny a piece. It's important to remember that this was more than 150 years before the bottled water craze, so it was unusual to pay a penny for a glass of water.

What made this spring water special was that it was said to have medical properties. But unfortunately for the spring water entrepreneurs in the 1880s, local Health Boards started to be formed. At this time, according to historical documents, chemists found traces of sewage and the water was declared unfit for human consumption. This was a step backward for the popularity of the cave but its history doesn't end there. According to the Dispatch story, Fred Eckstien opened a tavern near the cave, which continued to attract visitors. At this time the cave was locked by a metal door and used for storage by the tavern.

The turn of the century

As the 1800s turned into the 1900s Hoboken was in the middle of a major transition. Shipping docks had risen on the waterfront and picnickers were replaced with a much different breed - the longshoremen. The tavern became a "gin mill" for rowdy dockworkers and after years of abuse, the tavern was torn down in the 1930s. The vacant site quickly became a favorite location for squatters.

Because the cave was not kept up and it was deemed a safety hazard. It was filled with dirt and concrete during the 1930s. Since that time, the cave only existed in local gossip and old wives tales. As each year passed, it fell further away from the public's conscious. Before it completely disappears from the city's lexicon Roberts hopes to rediscover and return the cave to its past glory. He also hopes to discover if the spring still flows inside the cave.

A literary legacy

On the hot a steamy afternoon July 28, 1841, James Boulard and Henry Mallin were strolling along the Hoboken waterfront near Sybil's Cave when the saw what appeared to be a body floating in the river.

What they found was the body of a young woman named Mary Cecilia Rogers. They made several attempts to fish out the body, but eventually they tied a rope under the dead woman's chin and rowed the body toward the shore.

Mary, a young and beautiful 20-year-old, left her home on the morning of July 25, 1841 telling her current boyfriend and boarder, Donald Payne, she would be visiting her aunt uptown. She would never return.

According to the account of one of the first reporters on the scene, "...she was laying on the bank, on her back, with a rope tied around her.... Her forehead and face appeared to have been battered and butchered, to a mummy. Her features were scarcely visible, so much violence had been done to her...she presented the most horrible spectacle that eye could see."

Quickly Mary Rogers' death became one of the biggest stories in the New York area. If something like this happened today the story might be one of those "ripped out of the headlines" plot lines of an episode of Law and Order.

Mary ran a boarding house on Nassau Street near City Hall. She also worked as a sales girl in a nearby 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. Rogers' death was well known by many of the writers and publishers of the fledgling papers and they picked up the story and gave it legs.

This gave Hoboken and Sybil's Cave a boom of publicity and tourism, every weekend visitors, amateur sleuths and journalists would come to Hoboken to try and solve the case.

One of the avid followers of the story was an unknown and struggling writer living in Hoboken at the time named Edgar Allan Poe. Years later he turned Rogers' story into a detective yarn called the, "The Mystery of Marie Roget." While he changed the setting to the streets of Paris the rest of the details of the mystery remain the same.

Despite the endless commentary and speculation in the press, the case was never officially solved. Every one of Rogers' former suitors were publicly charged but officially cleared. In fact, the stress and pressure drove Payne to swallow a flask of poison and he died at the footstep of Sybil's Cave.

Still today the theories about Rogers' death abound. According to a story from Weird, NJ, one possible cause of her death was a "midnight abortion" that went awry. According to the publication, about a year after the murder an innkeeper named Frederika Loss, who ran the popular Nick Moore's House located between Sybil's Cave and Elysian Fields, made a deathbed confession.

According to the story, she claimed that Rogers had come to Nick Moore's House accompanied by a local doctor, "Who undertook to procure for her a premature delivery." The abortion was botched and Mary subsequently died. Then allegedly one of Loss' 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. The story also makes the assertion that this might help explain the coroner's finding of sexual assault on Rogers' body, and his later "strange and unsolicited references to her chastity and good morals, a possible attempt to protect her reputation."

Author Raymond Paul in the 1970s presented a theory that it was in fact Payne who committed the murder, but not on the Sunday she disappeared, for which Payne had a solid alibi, but on the following Tuesday. According to his theory, Payne learned of Rogers' abortion and affair and became enraged to the point of murder.

There are even some far-fetched theories that Poe himself had known Rogers and could have committed the crime.

Historian Douglas MacGowan, whose story on the mystery appears on Court TV's Crime Library web site, said the Rogers mystery was one of the first instances of the press glorifying and sensationalizing crime. While today the fascination with lustful and violent crimes and headline grabbing trials like that of O.J Simpson and Kobe Bryant are commonplace, in the mid 1800s this type of news coverage was a novelty.

"Whether done in by a gang of ruffians, strangled by a jilted lover, or killed at the hands of the man who would later write a fictionalized account of her death, the murder of the 'beautiful cigar girl' is undoubtedly one of the pioneer instances of the media celebrating a gruesome crime," said MacGowan. "Yet despite the intense media interest and immortalization of a sort by Poe, the crime remains one of the most puzzling unsolved murders of New York City." 

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