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The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2004

    A strong story, weak on editing

    An intriguing and generally well-written piece of history, but be prepared to dig through layers of trivia to find the essence of a fascinating story. Cohen¿s exposition of the murder of a prostitute in the burgeoning mercantile world of 1830¿s New York is a gripping story unto itself, as well as an evocative touchstone to the ethics, sexual relations, and sexism of pre-Civil War New York, but goes off on too many tangents that detract from the narrative at no real benefit to understanding the times the story takes place. Cohen is an extremely dogged and creative researcher but an undisciplined historian; her narrative, especially in the middle third of the book, gets bogged down by her need to include everything she dug up in the archives, whether relevant to the story or not (she even admits worrying in the acknowledgments the narrative might be occasionally lost due to over-research, a fear that was unfortunately well-founded). On the positive side in terms of context, the growing inequality and chaos of capitalism, and the effects that had on women in particular, are very well analyzed (and unfortunately still resonate today). But do we really need a full page of analysis on the wallpaper in a house in the town where Jewett worked for a few years? And to be told twice that it is still on display? Or read pages of property sales from a century before? Her descriptions of daily life and sexual mores are fascinating, she makes all the players three-dimensional, admirably describes the constricting situation faced by women morally and economically, and her tale of the trial itself is gripping, but after wading through the digressions and extended footnotes you might find yourself wishing she had an aggressive editor with a sharp blue pencil (or a box of them). Worth reading as history and human interest, but would have been stronger if a third shorter.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2003

    A Murder, A Trial, A Transition

    On one level, Professor Cohen's thorough investigation into one of 19th Century New York's most shocking murder cases doesn't tell us much that we don't already know: the society was sexist, accommodating toward the privileged, and hypocritical in its attitude toward sexual behavior (...and nothing has changed much since then). Whenever Ms. Cohen hammers these points home, and she does pretty often, the effect isn't very... well... effective. And the flow of the book suffers a little from this. Two other things hurt the story: one is the long, distracting section on the histories of the Weston and Jewett/Dorcas families in Maine; and the other is the constant need on Ms. Cohen's part to track the lineage of each and every participant in the case. But for the most part, Professor Cohen's telling of the event is engaging, chilling, and compelling. The participants are brought back to life in a way that most historical writers should envy. To me, the most rewarding part of the book was realizing how much the Jacksonian era in New York and America represented a turning point from the colonial to the modern era. This was the dawn of modern journalism and mass media--the pivotal point where newspaper publishers realized that the public wanted more than just shipping and business reports: where publishers realized there was a public at all. And the media circus--a national media circus--which surrounded this case was the first in a long line that goes on to this day. It was also the first time in western history when people no longer lived in the same place they worked, and when the entire apprenticeship culture was being replaced by the more indifferent employer/employee system. All these important factors do figure into the crime. But the most admirable aspect of the book, for me, was that while all this socio/political analysis went on (sometimes at the expense of the pacing) Ms. Cohen never leaves sight of the young girl at the center of it all. Jewett/Dorcas was by no means a pathetic babe-in-the-woods, and the author is very careful to avoid this perception. But Ms. Cohen makes clear that Jewett, like any crime victim, didn't deserve the end she met. And like any other human being, Jewett was worthy of justice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2001

    Great reading and excellent history

    This book is engaging and beautifully written. Written -- at least initially -- in the style of a 'who dunnit' mystery, the real power of this book is the author's ability to bring together numerous pieces of historical evidence into a compelling picture of the life and times of the central characters. Although this book is a serious piece of academic research, it presents an interesting story in a highly readable style. I strongly recommend it.

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