Saturday, June 30, 2007
Just across the Hudson River from Manhattan lies Hoboken, New Jersey. Famed for being the birthplace of both Frank Sinatra and baseball (not to mention the home of the Hoboken Monkey Boy), this waterfront town has at least one fascinating feature that (until recently) only its oldest citizens remembered.
Below Hoboken, carved into the cliffs that rise from the banks of the river, is a place known as Sybil's Cave. Though it lies in full view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the cave was little more than a legend until it was rediscovered in 2004 by a plucky team of urban adventurers.
In the 19th century, wealthy New Yorkers liked to row across to Hoboken for a scenic stroll along the shore. In 1832, an enterprising businessman figured he could make a fortune by keeping the visitors hydrated. He dug more than thirty feel into the cliffs until he reached a natural spring that lay hidden inside. His man-made cave became a well-known destination, and glasses of spring water were sold to the crowds for a penny a piece. (At the time, the water was said to have healing powers. Later it was discovered to be unfit for human consumption.)
Less than a decade passed before the spot acquired a sinister reputation. In 1841, the body of a lovely young woman named Mary Rogers was found floating in the Hudson, not far from the cave. Her "murder" became a sensation in New York (not unlike the OJ Simpson trial) and inspired Edgar Allan Poe to pen the tale "The Mystery of Marie Roget." (Which he wisely set in Paris, rather than New Jersey.) The story, featuring the incomparable C. Auguste Dupin, is widely regarded as one of the first modern detective stories. I heartily recommend both it and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to anyone who doesn’t mind a little blood, guts, and scandal.
Unfortunately, adventurers planning a trip to Sybil's Cave this summer will be sorely disappointed. According to this story in the New York Times, the cave has been filled in. Politicians are promising it will one day be restored, but I’m not going to hold my breath. What a shame!
(Below: Mary Rogers)