In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid ...
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The Murder of Helen Jewett

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In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed elements of traditional feminine demureness with sexual boldness.

But she was to meet her match--and her nemesis--in a youth called Richard Robinson. He was one of an unprecedented number of young men who flooded into America's burgeoning cities in the 1830s to satisfy the new business society's seemingly infinite need for clerks. The son of an established Connecticut family, he was intense, arrogant, and given to posturing. He became Helen Jewett's lover in a tempestuous affair and ten months later was arrested for her murder. He stood trial in a five-day courtroom drama that ended with his acquittal amid the cheers of hundreds of fellow clerks and other spectators.

With no conviction for murder, nor closure of any sort, the case continued to tantalize the public, even though Richard Robinson disappeared from view. Through the Erie Canal, down the Ohio and the Mississippi, and by way of New Orleans, he reached the wilds of Texas and a new life under a new name. Through her meticulous and ingenious research, Patricia Cline Cohen traces his life there and the many twists and turns of the lingering mystery of the murder. Her stunning portrayals of Helen Jewett, Robinson, and their raffish, colorful nineteenth-century world make vivid a frenetic city life and sexual morality whose complexities, contradictions, and concerns resonate with those of our own time.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
An easily solved 1836 New York bordello murder does not seem the stuff of momentous end-of-millennium history. But as readers of the hardcover can attest, Patricia Cline Cohen's jarring narrative about the bludgeoning-death of prostitute Helen Jewett may be one of the most readable books ever written about early nineteenth century America.
Sallye Leventhal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307773210
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/17/2010
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 234,107
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Patricia Cline Cohen is Professor of History and Acting Dean of the Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara. From 1991 to 1996 she chaired the Women's Studies Program there. She is the author of A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (1985) and of numerous articles and reviews, and a coauthor of The American Promise (1997).

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • 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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