By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
This piece could also be titled, “How a New York City Businessman Persuaded Edgar Allan Poe to be His Publicist and Brought His Own Ghosts to Sleepy Hollow…” It appears that by engaging Poe to help clear his name in a suspected murder case, Anderson irretrievably linked his own name with the disappearance and death of the young and attractive woman who worked for him. Thanks to the growing fame of Edgar Allan Poe and his literary work, generations have been unable to ignore the connection between John Anderson the millionaire tobacconist and the gory corpse of his pretty shopgirl, Mary Rogers.
In 1881, the year following the death of John Anderson, there was a glut of large estate properties on the market in Irvington, Sleepy Hollow, and Tarrytown, New York. It would be a few years before brothers William and John Rockefeller moved into this area and started buying up a considerable portion of this languishing acreage. At the time, members of New York’s priviledged class seemed to be turning a cold shoulder the traditional Hudson River retreat and began enthusing about fashionable seaside residences. Newport, Rhode Island and other destinations began to win favor over the then increasingly industrialized Hudson Valley. Improvements in luxury rail and steamship travel made distant seaside resorts now conveniently accessible. Perhaps a more important factor influencing the market value of estates along the Hudson River was a national economic crisis; the people of the United States were slogging through the “Great Depression of 1873 to 1896,” which had begun with the Panic of 1873.
In 1881 Tarrytown, virtually every estate in the wealthy district of Wilson Park was offered for sale. In Sleepy Hollow, the estate of Ambrose Kingsland, a former New York City mayor and successful businessman, would soon make way for new upper-middle-class residential developments like Philipse Manor. In the area now called Webber Park, the mansion of John Anderson sat vacant, its steel shutters drawn. The grand house was watched over by a caretaker, and a “for sale” was prominently displayed before it. Anderson had called his Sleepy Hollow home “the Villa,” though some maps of the estate labeled it “Sleepy Hollow Park.”
John Anderson died on a trip to Paris about two years before the Sleepy Hollow Lighthouse was erected. His death from pneumonia was unexpected. The estate of the tobacconist was estimated at somewhere between seven and ten million dollars, a very handsome fortune in that day. His plan for the trip was to spend the winter in Europe with his second wife, Kate, and visit once more with his friend, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian national hero.
As Anderson embarked for Europe, his family and close friends had long known that he was troubled by spirits — the supernatural kind that is. This information was to figure in the subsequent legal battle over the deceased millionaire’s estate. It seems that Anderson was in the habit of talking and listening to the spirit of (the still living) Garibaldi, the spirit of Anderson’s deceased son — Willie, and the spirit of Mary Rogers — an employee who had died mysteriously forty years earlier. According to one Anderson associate, it was Mary’s spirit that disturbed him the most.
Born in New York City in 1812, John Anderson first apprenticed as a wool-puller, one who removes wool from the pelt of a slaughtered sheep. He then worked as a bricklayer. By his mid-twenties, he had saved enough money to begin his own small tobacco business in Lower Manhattan. He founded his store at 319 Broadway, near Reade Street, close to the old City Hospital. John Anderson & Company later moved several blocks south to Broadway and Pine Street. The young Anderson’s tobacco business attracted New York’s literati, journalists and, politicians, but it was also frequented by a less respectable group of roughnecks whose patronage he would have preferred to discourage.
In 1837, Edgar Allan Poe came to New York from Richmond, entering the literary and publishing life of New York and becoming a customer of Anderson’s shop. That same year, an attractive young woman named Mary Rogers and her mother, Phoebe, arrived in New York City from Connecticut. The mother and daughter moved in with Anderson and his wife for a while at their home on Duane Street, not far from Anderson’s shop. By 1838, Mary began to work at John Anderson & Company, and about that time, she and her mother moved to a boarding house on nearby Nassau Street where Phoebe was employed as the manager.
Mary was seventeen or eighteen years old then, and Anderson may not have been at all surprised when her presence behind the counter of the tobacco shop precipitated an upswing in business. Her attractive appearance apparently caused a small sensation among the writers and journalists of the district; evidently she was noticed, and noted in the scribblings of the day. As one modern commentator put it, “she was famous for being talked about.”
Her minor celebrity among newspapermen, led to a public “buzz” when Mary went mysteriously missing on October 4, 1838. Without notice she dropped from sight, stirring up all kinds of speculations – even in newsprint. Yet, a few days later, she resurfaced with nary a word from her about why she had disappeared. It was three long years later, on July 25, 1841, that Mary went missing again. This time her body was found two weeks afterward, floating in the Hudson River off Weehawken, New Jersey. The young woman was the evident victim of a violent rape and murder. The authorities had no leads. Mary’s death became a sensation, and every newspaper picked up the subject.
Her employer, John Anderson, offered fifty dollars toward an advertised $500 reward, yet no one stepped forward with information. Anderson (roughly twenty-nine years of age at the time) and several other men were arrested for questioning and then released. The reward was soon increased to $1250. It seems that the police considered the most likely suspects to be Anderson, a fiancé, an ex-fiancé, and a sailor. As time passed, more evidence was discovered near the crime scene and new theories concerning Mary’s death were formulated. Her clothes were found scattered in the woods not far from where her body was found floating in the Hudson River, and other evidence suggested her death was the work of a drunken gang of ruffians who be observed in the area the night of her disappearance. Her fiancé, apparently distraught, committed suicide near the crime scene and left an ambiguous suicide note. There is reason to believe that Anderson himself was burdened by the lack of resolution in the unsolved case. He also may have been worrying about suspicions cast in his direction — as well as their effect on his business, reputation, and relations with his wife.
It is not certain, but it has been strongly suggested, that Anderson himself encouraged Edgar Allan Poe to write the “Mystery of Marie Roget,” a short story in which the thinly disguised character of Marie’s employer is ruled out as a suspect. Poe wrote the documentary-style short story in early 1842, and the piece began to appear serially at the end of that year. Shortly thereafter, Anderson began to advertise in Poe’s new startup publication, the Broadway Journal — a probable quid pro quo for writing the story. Shortly after Poe’s new story began to run there was a significant new development in the “murder” case of Mary Rogers. A mortally wounded woman who kept an inn near the crime scene confessed in her deathbed delirium that Mary was the victim of a mishandled abortion made to look like a murder.
This seemed to settle the murder case, but it did not entirely clear Anderson from complicity in Mary’s condition or her death. Mary had gotten along well with Anderson’s wife, and there appears to have been a breakdown of relations in Anderson’s marriage due to Mrs. Anderson’s attachment of blame to her husband — feelings she was prone to discuss with others. The shadow that followed John Anderson would keep him out of politics, though he was said to have the makings of a successful mayoral candidate and strong ties with Tammany boss, soon to be mayor, Fernando Wood.
But Anderson had already begun to find success in business. At the time of the Mexican War, 1846 to 1848, the patronage of U. S. Commanding General Winfield Scott was to make Anderson’s fine-cut chewing tobacco “Solace” a national favorite. The tobacconist was an innovator in tobacco marketing and packaging, and a meticulous business manager. Customers of John Anderson & Company were greeted by its emblematic statue of Sir Walter Raleigh as they entered the shop. Later, at the advent of the Civil War, the public relations-savvy owner of John Anderson & Company sent shipments of tobacco to the Union troops besieged at Fort Sumter.
John Anderson was extremely focused and astute in his real estate and stock investments as well. He was to buy a large building at 114 Liberty Street that became the company’s headquarters, and he later bought a large lot adjacent to where the original Plaza Hotel would be built in 1890 (and where the current Plaza Hotel stands today). In 1852, Anderson took a one-twelfth stake in the Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad Line, an investment that also turned to gold.
He met Garibaldi when the Italian independence leader lived in exile in New York in the early 1850s and became his friend and supporter. By the end of the 1850s, John Anderson had purchased his Sleepy Hollow estate. The grounds included all of Webber Park west of New Broadway, as well as adjoining Douglas Park and the block on the east side of New Broadway from Pine Street to Maple Street.
It is not clear what became of Anderson’s first wife, but the record shows that he became unhappy with her and made disparaging remarks about her and her alleged class-inferiority. That marriage ended, but he would eventually remarry. Three children, probably from his first union, would survive him; two daughters and one son. A second son, named Willie, predeceased Anderson.
By the late 1860s, Anderson had begun to behave and act strangely. Witnesses reported episodes of paranoia. He was also known to jump or skip unpredictably and was said to take exception to a female servant due to the red color of her hair; later he objected to female servants in general. In 1870, he appeared to be under the delusion that his dead son, Willie, was living with him in Sleepy Hollow. As time went on, he lamented to friends and associates that he was receiving increasing frequent visitations from the spirit of Mary Rogers.
In 1873, he became a friend and supporter of renowned naturalist Louis Agassiz, giving him $50,000 to found a school and laboratory on an island in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts. Agassiz was a scientist who argued against the findings of Darwin, and he died later that year, leaving the project to gradually unravel. A short time later, some of the scientist’s students were to found the marine biological laboratory at nearby Woods Hole.
In 1876, Anderson’s relatives were alarmed when he showed up at the Astor House (hotel) in Manhattan without his hat, coat, and shoes, a shameful lack of decorum in polite Victorian society. On that day, he claimed that his son-in-law, Judge Barnard, was trying to poison his drink and that the son-in-law also trying to have him committed. Also, Anderson’s spirit visitations were increasing.
As the 1880 centennial of Major John Andre’s capture approached in Sleepy hollow and Tarrytown, Anderson signed on to pay for a bronze statue of hero, John Paulding, that was to be added to the original monument. This was a generous civic gesture. The familiar statue at Patriots’ Park on the border of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown is possibly Anderson’s most visible legacy. It is ironic that the name John Anderson was actually the alias of British Major John Andre when he was captured in disguised by three American militiamen in 1780. Andre was found guilty of spying by an American court-martial and hanged.
Anderson made several donations to Saint Theresa’s Church in Sleepy Hollow, including the forgiveness of a debt that appears in his will. He is also credited with donating the lot for Saint Paul’s Methodist Church, which once stood at the northwest corner of Broadway and New Broadway. The lot was, prior to that, a portion of Anderson’s estate.
The summer before he left for Europe, Anderson was particularly disturbed by spirit visitations and complaining to a friend that he wished he could banish the apparitions by shooting himself in the head. In Paris he saw friends, did business, and met with doctors about his physical health and his dental problems. John Anderson died in Paris at the age of sixty-nine on November 26, 1881.
His widow arrived in New York with her husband’s remains on New Year’s Eve of that year. Anderson’s funeral services were held at Trinity Church and his remains were interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Sleepy Hollow estate was soon to be bought and occupied by one of Anderson’s executors, lawyer John Webber, and the heirs began a protracted, public fight over Anderson’s fortune.
©2009-2016 Henry John Steiner