In the summer of 1841, police found the body of Mary Cecelia Rogers floating in the Hudson River. The authorities had their theories: Rogers might have been the victim of a well-known local abortionist, a gang, or an accident. But all they knew for sure was that she was around 20 years old, had worked in a New York City tobacco shop and had been gorgeous. Hence the nickname the media gave her: “The Beautiful Cigar Girl.” Her case remains officially unsolved, but at the time it drew national attention and inspired the writer Edgar Allan Poe to do some investigating of his own. He later claimed he had untangled the riddle of her death and wrote a story called The Mystery of Marie Roget, which gave the real case a thin Parisian sheen (Marie Roget’s body was found in the Seine, etc.). A true crime prototype, Marie Roget featured many of the hallmarks the genre retains to this day: the thrill of amateur sleuthing, the female victim, the gruesome and vivid descriptions.
Since that time, true crime has mostly been dismissed as tabloid fodder, with a few exceptions—most notably, Truman Capote’s 1966 In Cold Blood, which showed that the genre could be a real literary form. Recently, though, true crime has taken on new visibility. First came Serial, the 2014 This American Life spinoff, which revisited the investigation of the 1999 killing of the Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her boyfriend, Adnan Syed. That series spawned the legal-analysis podcast Undisclosed, focusing on the same case, which debuted in mid-April as iTunes’s most-downloaded podcast and has since settled into the #14 spot. In film, Bennett Miller’s Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher explored the life of the philanthropist and murderer John du Pont. On television, HBO aired the six-part docuseries The Jinx earlier this year, focusing on the suspected murderer Robert Durst. The Weinstein Company recently bought the rights to turn In Cold Blood into a miniseries. And American Crime Story, an upcoming FX series, will tackle the O.J. Simpson trial when it debuts in 2016.