Fiction and Reality, The Penny Press and The Murder Mystery

As a fiction writer now trying to be a journalist (or is that a journalist who tried to be a fiction writer), I am aware of the correlation between truth and fiction. It has been said that a truly great work of fiction is one that can tap into the mood and universal emotion of the time; meanwhile, a great work of journalistic writing is one that can tap into the universal truths that we all hold dear.

It is only natural for the two to take inspiration from one another. It has become fairly common for journalists to refer back to fictional works to explain real world events (disagree? Think about how frequently newscasters used to refer to crazed gunmen as going on a Rambo like rampage).

This borrowing of concepts doesn’t only go one way. Good fiction has to have a hint of truth in it to resonate with the reader; even the most fantastical works usually rely on the dichotomy between the real and the unreal. As the field of journalism continues to grow and evolve, fiction too will grow along with it.

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is considered to be one of the most important American authors, responsible for many of the tradecraft found in modern horror and mystery works. It is his work, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” a short story and sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” written in 1842 that I feel best shows the correlation between fiction taking its cues from the news.

During the 1830s and 1840s, America experienced an influx of cheap newspapers meant to capitalize on the growing middle and working classes of the time. These newspapers, referred to now collectively as The Penny Press newspapers, because of their low price of only one penny in comparison to the contemporary papers at the time being six, were known for their direct style of writing and for writing stories based more on the present happenings of the communities they were distributed in. Many commonplace journalism practices started with The Penny Press papers, such as interviews and observations made in the field by a growing number of journalists.

The Sun

The Penny Press was revolutionary in that it combined sensational news with wide spread appeal. It also ushered in the age of political neutral reporting, sports coverage and daily editions.



An influential event in the history of journalism was to occur on the afternoon of July 28, 1841 when a group of men discovered a body of a young woman, drowned in the Hudson River. The woman, Mary Cecilia Rogers, had been restrained with a rope and her face horribly battered and cut. The coroner would later conclude that a hideous violence had been visited upon Mary Rogers and that the murder was done by two or three persons.

Normally a murder like this would have provided some, but not as large a flurry of newspaper articles as it did, if Mary Rogers had not worked as a sales clerk at a tobacco store frequented by many literary nobles at the time. She was well known to many of the journalists of the time who frequented the tobacco store and they quickly turned the mystery of her death into a flurry of newspaper headlines. The Penny Press essentially created a great murder mystery of the time as they competed to cover the details of the death of the “beautiful cigar girl.” The story would take many twists and turns involving suicides, the discovery of a murder site that had evidence that seemed planted and finally, a deathbed confession of guilt that to this day is still considered dubious.

This real life murder mystery would be considered notable but not as well known if it wasn’t for Edgar Allan Poe who would fictionalize the event and move the sitting to Paris in “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” The first murder mystery based on the events of a real crime and printed in 1842, it was a sequel to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Poe had taken inspiration for many of his stories from events that had taken place in his own life. “The Fall of the House of Usher” was based on an urban legend that involved two bodies discovered during the demolition of Usher house on Boston’s Lewis Wharf. “The Cask of Amontillado” is also believed to be based on another urban legend of someone being walled up inside a building in Boston. It seemed the people in Boston tended to have skeletons in their closet.

I think the fictionalization of a news event proves the commonality between fiction writing and journalism, that they are both businesses. T is true that they both strive to higher ideals, the journalist wishes to spread truth and the novelist wishes to explore the human condition, but they both also need to sell their products and make money.


2 responses to “Fiction and Reality, The Penny Press and The Murder Mystery

  1. You and I share an interest in the relationship between literature and journalism. After working for a couple of daily newspapers in Indiana, I studied American literature in graduate school and went to work as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. You may be interested in my forthcoming book, _Literature and Journalism in Antebellum America_ (, which explores the intersections of the two fields. In the book, I discuss “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_, _Walden_, and several other works. You may find it interesting.

    I wish you well in your writing.

  2. Pingback: About the Era: Penny Press Summary 3 | History Project

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