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

Overview

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 ...

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The Murder of Helen Jewett

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Overview

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

From Barnes & Noble
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
Janet H. Murray
As a diligent, resourceful historian, Cohen does a masterly job of identifying the mysteries at the heart of the case and showing us the available clues. -- The New York Times Book Review
Francine Prose
A fascinating book.
Newsday
Alan Taylor
Cohen's book tells an unforgettable story with power and with dignity. . . .one of Cohen's greatest strengths is her frank, no-nonsense voice as a narrator who dos not shrink from judging her subjects. . . .[she] has an exquisite sense for detecting and unmasking the absurd and the disingenuous. —The New Republic
David Michaelis
It does for the veiled brother world of Manhattan what Hogzrth did for London's Cheapside. . .It keeps us peering into the past as if into a chamber of horrors on the grand scale. . .A significant contribution to the literature of Old New York. —New York Observer
Megan Harlan
Robinson's murder trial inspired one of America's first bona fide media frenzies. . . .Cohen delineates two intelligent, combustible personalities that transcend gender stereotypes. . .making their tragic tale all the more riveting.
Entertainment Weekly
George J. Lankevich
Amazine. . . .This extraordinary volume insituates readers into a long-gone world . . .where blue-blooded families held title to bordello lotswhere young mean without means found it possible [to] keep mistresses. . .No imagined scenario can comapre with Ms. Cohen's fact-baed achievement. —The Wall Street Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Massive publicity surrounded the arrest of a young clerk named Richard Robinson for murdering prostitute Helen Jewett with a hatchet in New York City in 1836. The 20 reporters and approximately 6,000 spectators who attended the trial made it the most infamous case of its day and made celebrities of its attorneys and witnesses. Despite overwhelming evidence, Robinson was acquitted, but the story as presented here isn't so much a 19th-century potboiler as an examination of New York City's thriving illicit sex trade and the fascination it inspired. Cohen (The American Promise) examines the case with zeal and skill. Details of life in 1830s New York City -- a time when it was surpassing Boston and Philadelphia as the country's preeminent metropolis -- are involving. And Cohen's depiction of gender inequality in Jacksonian America adds to her stellar achievement. (PW best book of 1998)
David Michaelis
It does for the veiled brother world of Manhattan what Hogzrth did for London's Cheapside. . .It keeps us peering into the past as if into a chamber of horrors on the grand scale. . .A significant contribution to the literature of Old New York. -- New York Observer
George J. Lankevich
Amazine. . . .This extraordinary volume insituates readers into a long-gone world . . .where blue-blooded families held title to bordello lots, where young mean without means found it possible [to] keep mistresses. . .No imagined scenario can comapre with Ms. Cohen's fact-baed achievement. -- The Wall Street Journal
Megan Harlan
Robinson's murder trial inspired one of America's first bona fide media frenzies. . . .Cohen delineates two intelligent, combustible personalities that transcend gender stereotypes. . .making their tragic tale all the more riveting. -- Entertainment Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
An admirable if not always compelling exploration of a once-sensational murder and trial that recall our recent obsession with the Simpson case. Cohen begins with the discovery of the body of 23-year-old Jewett in a New York brothel fire set to reduce her hatcheted remains to rubble. Cohen's massive research reveals that the woman known as Helen Jewett was a one-time Maine servant girl named Dorcas Doyen, placed from youth in the service of a prominent judge's family. By age 19, Dorcas had left Maine and was an experienced 'girl on the town,' part of a bustling, 'not illegal' trade engaging, by one alarmist estimate, as many as one in seven women in 1830s New York.

Between assignations, Jewett romanced partners through letters, some of which (quoted in the book's most engaging chapter) were written to her killer. Richard Robinson, an innocent-looking New York clerk of good breeding who confided to his diary his irresistibility to women and maniacal leanings, was that partner. For several months they romanced; his infidelity ended the affair. Shortly afterward, Jewett was killed. Police retrieved evidence and arrested Robinson. But during the trial, Robinson's top-flight lawyers savaged Jewett's character, impugned prosecution witnesses, established a tight-enough alibi, and posited a theory of the 'true' killer. Robinson was acquitted, years of press uproar ensued over the travesty of 'the great unhung,' and Robinson's lawyer gained 'imperishable celebrity and never-dying fame.'

Would that the book were as exciting as the story. But it isn't, partly because of Cohen's academic style, in which context impedes narrative, and partly because the author's clear, well-organized proseinforms but doesn't transport.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679740759
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 304,073
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.05 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

Snow in April

    April 9 of 1836 was an unseasonably cold Saturday night in New York City, coming at the end of the coldest and longest winter of the early nineteenth century. Just a few days earlier, a late storm dropped snow all over the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, but now a sudden thaw seemed to be in the making, signaling the late arrival of spring. The Hudson River, extending along the west side of Manhattan Island and north into upstate New York, had been frozen since mid-December; in February New Yorkers could walk to Hoboken on the ice. That particular Saturday in April, the ninth, was the first day since winter began that steamboats ventured to depart from Albany to churn their way through the icy waters down to the metropolis. The slight warming brought a drizzle to the city that night, and the moon, in its last quarter, rose at 3:11 in the morning. The streets of lower Manhattan were cold, dark, and wet.

    Sometime in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 10, Rosina Townsend awoke in the first-floor front bedroom of a house she leased on the south side of Thomas Street in downtown Manhattan, just three blocks above Chambers Street and three blocks west of Broadway. She was roused, she maintained, by a knock at her bedroom door; a man asked to be let out the locked front entry. Rosina recalled exclaiming, without leaving her bed, "Get your woman to let you out," which was her general rule at this house on Thomas Street, a successful, well-ordered brothel. Each of the nine young women who lived in the house knew that Rosina always locked the door around midnight and knew further that the lock required a key both inside and out. Some customers came and went during the evening hours, while others stayed the night. In the event that a late-night customer had to leave before morning, the house rule ensured that each departing man would be escorted to the door, which minimized problems of mischief or theft. But no female inmate came for the key after the man's request, and Rosina maintained that she quickly dropped back to sleep. The disturbance was so minimal that her bed companion did not wake up at all.

    Soon after, Rosina awoke again, this time to a loud knocking from the outside of the street door; it also awoke her bedmate. On this occasion she checked the clock on the mantel over the fireplace in her room, which indicated it was now three in the morning. The knock signaled a regular customer who had arranged to arrive late for an engagement with Elizabeth Salters, whose room was on the front east side of the second floor. (Salters confirmed this late arrival of a friend at the trial.) Rosina checked the man's identity by peeking through her bedroom window at the front steps outside; she then lighted a lamp in her room and let him into the house. As he disappeared upstairs, she reported that she encountered her first real clue that something was amiss. Through the door at the back of the hallway, she spotted a globe lamp sitting on a marble-topped table in the parlor at the back of the house; it was out of place, and it was lighted. Only two such lamps with the distinctive round glass font fitted on a square metal base existed in her house. Each was normally kept in a second-floor bedroom.

    Rosina entered the parlor and next noticed that the door to the backyard was ajar. This was a door that did not require a key but instead locked with a bar that could be removed by anyone inside the house. The backyard, some sixty feet deep, contained a garden and trees, tables, a cistern, and an outdoor privy; it was fully enclosed by a continuous fence that varied in height from eight to twelve feet. Where a neighbor's stable backed up to her fence, Rosina had pickets installed over its top to prevent unauthorized entry. Brothel keepers in New York City found it wise to be security conscious. Three years earlier the Thomas Street brothel had been stormed by three ruffians who managed to clamber over the fence into the yard and who entered the house shouting profanities at Rosina's boarders and guests.

    Rosina concluded that a resident or guest had gone out back, possibly to use the privy, but this was a bit odd and certainly not routine, given the inclement weather and the availability of chamber pots in every room. She returned to her room and sat down, dozing for about ten minutes. But the open door and the absence of any sound of returning footsteps made her uneasy. She went back to the parlor, took up the out-of-place lamp, and called "Who's there?" out the back door several times. She next barred the door and then climbed the stairs to see which of the two possible rooms was missing its lamp.

    On the second floor Rosina first tried the door of the back east bedroom, occupied by Maria Stevens. It was locked from the inside, just as would be expected when Maria had an overnight guest. She then tried the back west bedroom door, the door to Helen Jewett's room, and found it unlatched. When she pushed open the door, smoke billowed out. Rosina's first thought was that Helen and her guest would surely suffocate in there. In fright, she pounded on the door of Caroline Stewart's room, a front west room directly above Rosina's. Caroline and her companion for the night raced into the hall, and in short order the cry of "Fire!" had awakened the entire house.

    For the next several minutes, pandemonium prevailed. Rosina recalled going down to her own bedroom window to shout "Fire!" into the street. The call was heard by a watchman stationed at a sentry post about sixty feet away, at the corner of Thomas and Chapel (now named West Broadway, two blocks west of Broadway). He came running, joined quickly by a second watchman whose post was three short blocks away at Franklin and Chapel. In the meantime, Rosina and Maria Stevens braved the smoke to try to rescue Helen and her overnight guest. What they found sent them out of the room in horror. The bed was smoldering rather than blazing; Helen was dead, her nightclothes reduced to ashes and one side of her body charred a crusty brown. More shocking still, three bloody gashes marked her brow, and blood had pooled on the pillow beneath her body. Helen Jewett had been murdered, and her companion of the previous evening was nowhere in sight.

    What had begun as a routine evening at a business establishment in New York had taken a turn into a grisly criminal event that within the week would be publicized all over the country, via a network of rapid newspaper exchanges. Rosina Townsend, thirty-nine, had enjoyed a certain confined and local reputation in her line of work, but she now suddenly found herself a public woman of quite another sort, a public woman whose name carried instant recognition for years to come. Her melodramatic account of her newsworthy moment, the discovery of Jewett's body, became a set story that she was obliged to tell--indeed, according to one reporter, was especially eager to tell--repeatedly over the next several days and weeks. On at least five occasions, her narrative of her actions on the night of April 9-10 was taken down, by a newspaperman (once) or a court recorder (four times, under oath), and while she sometimes omitted or added minor details, in all the tellings her account was essentially consistent. But a story, after all, is what it was: a first-person narrative of how she remembered discovering the corpse, a memory obscured first by the veil of sleep and then of smoke and sheer panic. In the ensuing trial, Rosina became the classic star witness for the prosecution of Jewett's accused murderer, and indeed the only witness who could place him in Jewett's bedroom at a time contradicted by his alibi. Her credibility was fiercely contested in court by defense attorneys, who planted doubts, attacked her immoral and "polluted" character, and worked hard to foster suspicion that Rosina herself might well be the murderer.

    Within minutes of Rosina's shout of alarm, four watchmen arrived at the house. Finding very nervous men in the hall, coats missing and cuffs unfastened, one of the watchmen wrongly surmised that he had been called to break up a fistfight. The fire quickly commanded their entire attention, and, helped by some of the women, they doused Helen's bed with water from the backyard cistern, using pitchers and pots that came to hand. One of them found a handkerchief marked with a man's name under a bed pillow and pocketed it as potential evidence. Rosina, fairly well agitated, recalled that her own bedmate ordered her to "compose herself," as he had apparently already done, for as soon as the front door was unlatched to allow the watchmen to enter, he and the other overnight customers of the brothel melted away as quickly as they could, some in a state of partial undress. By the time a watchman ordered that no one could leave the premises, all the men had vanished, and so had one woman from the third floor, who slipped out carrying a hat and a bandbox as though she did not intend to return anytime soon.

    New York City watchmen in 1836 were little more than a citizens' security force consisting of laboring men moonlighting for extra money. Stationed at sentry posts every few blocks, they kept an eye out for fires and by their presence discouraged burglaries and robberies. The city had no professional police force, but a small number of men had full-time employment as police and watch officers. One such was George Noble, the assistant captain of the watch, who was on duty at a sentry station at City Hall Park when word came of the murder. Noble, accompanied by two or three additional watchmen, converged on 41 Thomas Street at about four in the morning. Another professional policeman was Dennis Brink, constable of the Fifth Ward, a ten-year veteran of police work who lived two blocks north on Leonard Street. He arrived a half hour later, having been summoned by a watchman. Brink and Noble directed the watchmen to search the backyard for clues, on the reasonable theory that the murderer had escaped through the back door. No clues were found in the dark, but at daybreak someone spotted a hatchet on the ground near the southwest back fence, wet and caked with earth. A watchman then jumped the fence into the rear yard of a house fronting on Hudson Street and discovered a long cloak. It lay about fifteen feet from the fence, rather too far to make it likely that someone could have thrown it there from the Thomas Street yard. Brink and Noble theorized that the killer fled over the fence and dropped the cloak in flight. There being no exit from that yard to the street, they presumed the killer scaled several more fences to escape via an alley onto Duane Street or Chapel Street.

    Brink and Noble questioned the women of the Thomas Street brothel about the victim and the guests of the house the night before. Rosina Townsend identified the dead girl as Helen Jewett, age twenty-three, from Hallowell, Maine. (Police, newspaper writers, and witnesses all used "Helen" and "Ellen" interchangeably throughout the case; probably the girl's own friends were not aware which name she preferred, unless they had seen her signature, where she clearly put an H. It must be that both were voiced exactly the same in 183 Os New York.) Rosina then provided a chronology of the prior evening, arranging in sequence events that in the moment must have seemed to her routine and unmemorable. Every Saturday night Helen was usually visited by a young man known as Bill Easy, but on April 9 she had requested that Mrs. Townsend bar Bill Easy's entrance because she expected someone else. Rosina described admitting a young man known as Frank Rivers to see Helen between nine and ten in the evening. Although he had held a cloak up to cover his face, Mrs. Townsend had checked his voice, stature, and what she could see of his face to make sure the man was not the unwelcome Bill Easy. Rivers went right up to Helen's room, and he was still there at eleven, when Helen called for a bottle of champagne. Rosina carried the champagne up, along with two glasses, and made the essential observation of Frank Rivers--more precisely, the back of his head--lounging in Helen's bed, reading by candlelight. No one had seen Rivers leave, and no one else had arrived to see Helen. The clear presumption was that Frank Rivers was the man to find. Someone in the house supplied Rivers's business address, on Maiden Lane near Pearl Street, and policemen Brink and Noble went there and learned the suspect's real name was Richard P. Robinson, a young clerk who lived in a boardinghouse at 42 Dey Street, about a half mile south of the brothel, where they arrived at about seven.

    The house on Dey Street was operated by Mrs. Rodman Moulton; its site, near Greenwich Street, is now under the large cement plaza just east of the World Trade Center towers. (Mr. Rodman Moulton lived there too, along with at least one son the age of the boarders; but in all the court documents, the boarders called it Mrs. Moulton's house, reflecting the common understanding that it was a woman's responsibility to manage the board-and-keep arrangements.) Like the Thomas Street house, Mrs. Moulton's had many bedrooms, but it was much more crowded, with two or three young men to each room. The tenants were in their late teens and early twenties; most of them, like boardinghouse men all over the city, were not native New Yorkers but came from towns and villages in New England and upstate New York. They were generally from the middle and upper ranks of their rural societies, boys who could be spared from the farm and who desired training for a commercial or professional career beyond what their small towns could offer. Richard Robinson's Connecticut father owned many parcels of land and served eight terms in the state legislature, an indication of his solid social and economic standing in the village of Durham, seventeen miles from New Haven. Bill Easy, whose real name was George P. Marston, was the son of a lawyer and judge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Young men like Robinson and Marston came to Gotham to learn the business of business, clerking in various shops and mercantile establishments. By day they penned letters, measured cloth, swept out stores, sold to customers, or perhaps kept the books, learning the cashier's trade. At night they were on their own, unsupervised young men ready to take in the amusements of the metropolis to the extent permitted by their pocketbooks.

    Ten or fifteen years earlier, such young men typically would have followed the centuries-old custom of apprenticeship and lived with their employers--more accurately, masters--in a familial relationship. The location of work was the home, and indeed for many artisans and small shopkeepers, so it remained. But in the 1820s and 1830s, the more prosperous merchants in cities like New York departed from this practice. Urban omnibuses enabled them to move their families several miles away from their stores, into the new residential districts of the city. Mercantile clerks were on their own now, renting rooms in the many freestanding boardinghouses west of Broadway or sometimes living in rooms above the stores. (There was evidently someone living at or near Robinson's Maiden Lane business address, who at six-thirty in the morning could direct officers Brink and Noble to 42 Dey Street.) The new living arrangements allowed for a masculine youth culture to form virtually on its own, with little guidance from adults. Merchants did not totally abandon their charges, however: a philanthropic group of businessmen backed an Apprentice's Library, founded in 1820, which circulated moralistic self-help books to the clerks and offered a lecture series on topics such as "The Importance of Industrious Habits to Young Men." Cloth merchant Joseph Hoxie, Robinson's employer, was an active member of this group. Perhaps he hoped that such an organization could substitute for his not standing in loco parentis for his three young employees. It was a hope ill founded.

    The Moultons' boardinghouse made no pretense of familial support or supervision. Meals were not provided, leaving the young men to their irregular habits of meals purchased at oyster bars and small cafes. They came and went at will; each resident had his own key to the front door. Robinson shared a first-floor front bedroom on Dey Street with James Tew from Rhode Island, who clerked for a Williams Street clothier.

    Officers Noble and Brink first spoke to a servant girl who answered the door at Mrs. Moulton's on this early Sunday morning. (Having a servant in no way implied that Mrs. Moulton's house was a luxury establishment. Maintaining a boardinghouse of young men plainly required the labor of more than one woman.) The girl then knocked on Robinson and Tew's room, awakening Tew; Robinson appeared to be deep in sleep. Noble and Brink entered the room and announced they were policemen looking for Robinson. Tew shook him awake, and Robinson quickly got up and pulled on his trousers. At that point Brink noticed that one pant leg had a whitewash or paint stain on it. They asked Robinson to accompany them to the Police Office, located in a building on Chambers Street behind the City Hall in the park. Tew volunteered to come along too, to keep his friend company. While Tew dressed, Brink asked Robinson if he owned a dark cloth cloak, and the young man replied that he did not: his cloak was made of "camblet," a luxurious soft fabric made of wool and silk, and it was hanging in his room. Robinson put on a double-breasted frock coat for this sudden Sunday morning trip.

    Both Brink and Noble later testified that Robinson seemed curiously unalarmed and calm during this first encounter. Only when the carriage bypassed the Police Office, continuing north on Broadway, did he show some small trace of concern. Robinson's color changed, Brink testified, when he learned they were headed for the brothel on Thomas Street. Still, he remained impassive and unexcited, even when informed of the death of Helen Jewett. When Brink finally told him he was being arrested for her murder, he flatly denied the charge.

    By the time Robinson was ushered into the house on Thomas Street, the parlor held the eight remaining women residents; seven watchmen; the city coroner, William Schureman; and the highest-ranking police magistrate of the city; Oliver Lownds. Two neighboring brothel keepers, Mary Berry and Mary Gallagher, arrived soon after. Mrs. Gallagher, whose brothel was around the corner at 120 Chapel Street, asked Robinson "what induced him to commit so cruel and barbarous an act," and he replied, "Do you think I would blast my brilliant prospects by so ridiculous an act--I am a young man of only nineteen years of age yesterday, with most brilliant prospects." Besides, he added, "there is another man's handkerchief under the pillow with his name in full upon it; I am not afraid that I shall be convicted." This was true; George P. Marston's name was definitely linked to the crime scene via the distinctively marked silk handkerchief. Mrs. Gallagher, who had never met Robinson before, was impressed and evidently took pity on him, for she put her arm around his neck and said, "God grant that you may prove innocent for the sake of your poor mother." She asked if he had seen the body yet and predicted his heart would break to see Helen "burnt almost to a crisp" and her head "split open." Robinson complained that the police would not yet let him see her, but just then Brink stepped in and cautioned Mrs. Gallagher not to talk to the suspect. Brink reminded her that no one, the police included, could ask him anything that might cause him to incriminate himself.

    Robinson was not spared the horror of viewing the crime scene. Early American criminal legal practice had at one time set great store on the ritual moment of placing a murder suspect in direct confrontation with the victim's body; if the suspect touched the corpse, and the corpse bled fresh blood, it was taken as a powerful sign of guilt in seventeenth-century New England. The all-seeing eye of God provided such signs to leave no doubt as to guilt. New Yorkers in the 1830s retained a vestige of the earlier ritual, but now they watched the suspect instead of the corpse. Robinson was taken up to Jewett's room and confronted with the bloody and charred body. The officers scrutinizing his reaction were amazed to note his composure and impassivity. He continued to insist he was innocent, having been at home after eleven the night before.

    Around nine, two doctors summoned by the coroner, Dr. David L. Rogers of nearby Chambers Street and Dr. James B. Kassam from Walker Street, arrived to perform an autopsy. Dr. Rogers was a surgeon and "an expert anatomist," notably famous for his willingness to perform the highly dangerous ovariotomy. Rogers and Kassam moved Jewett's body out of the bed to the floor of the room. They first examined the forehead wounds and determined that they were sufficient to have caused instant death. They next made a lengthwise incision from neck to lower abdomen and sliced into several organs. They pronounced her lungs clear and healthy, her chest cavity filled with "a considerable quantity of blood," her stomach half full of partially digested food, and her uterus "unimpregnated but labouring under an old disease." Basing his opinion on the position of the young woman's body in bed and the peaceful expression on her face, Dr. Rogers concluded that the young woman had died "without a struggle" from an unexpected blow to the head; the charring of her flesh came after death.

    Coroner Schureman next rounded up twelve men to form a coroner's jury, plucking them from the crowd beginning to gather in the street; this was the customary procedure in any case of death from doubtful cause. The jury heard ten witnesses from the assemblage on the premises of the brothel. Rosina Townsend gave her first account under oath of how she had admitted Robinson to the house the preceding evening between nine and ten and how she discovered the body at about three. Next Elizabeth Salters and Emma French, residents of the house, testified to seeing Robinson arrive on Saturday evening and go upstairs with Helen. Mary Berry, the brothel keeper from around the corner at 128 Duane Street, where Helen had recently lived, identified Robinson as the young man who under the name of Frank Rivers had visited Helen regularly since 1835. Two watchmen described finding the hatchet and cloak, and Dennis Brink described the arrest. Dr. Rogers read his autopsy report into the record.

    One of the last witnesses was James Tew, Robinson's roommate. He was still hanging around the crime scene, no doubt forbidden to leave by Coroner Schureman and probably now very sorry he had volunteered to accompany his friend. When asked to tell what he knew of Robinson's movements, he produced a version of the previous evening's events that was remarkably vague and elastic. He and the accused took tea together at the boardinghouse, Tew said, until 7:30, and then went for a walk. They parted company near the American Museum on Broadway at about 8:30. Tew admitted he was at the Thomas Street house himself sometime between 9:30 and 10:30, but he stayed downstairs and talked to a young woman for only a few minutes. He could hardly avoid admitting this, since the young woman was Elizabeth Salters, present at the inquest. Tew went home by 10:30 that Saturday night and was asleep by 11:15, he testified. Robinson came in later and was in bed when Tew awoke somewhere around 1 (as he guessed) and reportedly then inquired of Robinson what time he had come in; his bedmate replied half past eleven.

    Tew was able to stick by his story of his roommate's comings and going right through the trial. He never claimed to have consulted a clock or watch for any of these times--the room was too dark, he said, and in an odd way that worked to make him a more credible witness, for a lying witness surely would have nailed down the time. But in other respects Tew fell short of credibility, for he also claimed that it was his understanding that Robinson had known Helen only for three weeks. Several of the women there knew that was untrue. His worst moment came when he was shown the cloak that had been found out back. Tew tried to equivocate: "Witness said he dont know the Cloak but has seen the prisner wear a Cloth Cloak Similar to the one shown him.--As near like it as one Cloth Cloak is like another. One newspaper reported the next day that this amounted to an identification of the cloak as Robinson's, sputtered out with "much agitation" by Tew, now fully realizing the predicament of his roommate.

    The coroner's jury quickly concluded that "It is the opinion of this Jury from the Evidence before them that the Said Helen Jewett came to her death by a blow or blows inflicted on the head, with a hatchett by the hand of Richard P. Robinson."

    Robinson was soon carted off to Bridewell, an old city jail dating from the mid-eighteenth century, located on Broadway just west of City Hall. Many hundreds of captured American soldiers had frozen and starved in Bridewell during the Revolutionary War, when the British held New York City. Now the dilapidated jail, on the verge of being torn down, was used only as a debtors' prison and a holding cell for suspects awaiting indictment. By midday Sunday, several newspapers had learned of the crime, and reporters converged on Bridewell to watch for the suspect. The Herald related that he arrived at the jail with "his countenance clear, calm, and unruffled, and on being put into his cell, his last request was for some segars to smoke."

    The citizens of the jury disbanded, and the doctors and police officers departed, but still the brothel teemed with spectators. Rosina Townsend held forth in the parlor, retelling her story to a gathering of young men. Outside, a large crowd of men and boys lined up to file through the house and view the corpse, shepherded by watch officers. (One of the onlookers was William Van Ness, a neighborhood porter, who joined the throng out of curiosity and then realized as he viewed Jewett's body that she had at times hired him to deliver letters.) By four o'clock, as twilight approached, the remaining police guards cut off the spectacle seekers but admitted the editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, for a private tour. "He is an editor--he is on public duty," the guard explained to the crowd as he opened the door to let Bennett enter.

    Bennett, a crusty forty-one-year-old Scotsman, was in many ways the most enterprising of the more than half-dozen newspaper editors of the city. In the first "Visit to the Scene," he described his entry to the house, through the crowd and past the guard, in tones of self-importance. He briefly scanned the lower floor and observed Rosina Townsend and the young men in the parlor. "This room was elegantly furnished with mirrors, splendid paintings, sofas, ottomans, and every variety of costly furniture," Bennett reported. A policeman led him to the second floor, and the editor became the eyes of all New Yorkers, now able to visualize this den of sexual iniquity in all its ghastly, bloody horror. "What a sight burst upon me! There stood an elegant double mahogany bed, all covered with burnt pieces of linen, blankets, pillows black as cinders." The body of Helen Jewett, still on the floor, was covered by a linen sheet, which the policeman pulled back. "I could scarcely look at it for a second or two," wrote Bennett.

Slowly I began to discover the lineaments of the corpse, as one would the beauties of a statue of marble. It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld--I never have, and never expect to see such another. "My God," exclaimed I, "how like a statue! I can scarcely conceive that form to be a corpse." Not a vein was to be seen. The body looked as white--as full--as polished as the pure Parian marble. The perfect figure--the exquisite limbs--the fine face--the full arms--the beautiful bust--all--all surpassing in every respect the Venus de Medicis .... For a few moments I was lost in admiration at this extraordinary sight--a beautiful female corpse--that surpassed the finest statue of antiquity.

    Bennett did not fail to linger over the "dreadful bloody gashes" on her brow and the strangely beautiful, burned skin, "bronzed like an antique statue." Her face was calm, and one arm draped over her breasts while the other, raised, encircled her head. Bennett managed to package violence, gore, sexuality, and beauty into a riveting and grotesquely erotic vision. To keep this rapturous vision of a dead Venus so pure, he shrewdly neglected the autopsy incisions made seven hours earlier, which surely disfigured the dead girl's chest and abdomen. Her "beautiful bust" had been slit down the middle and probably peeled back to enable Dr. Rogers to reach her lungs, and no amount of skilled repair work could have concealed that laceration. Bennett's rhetorical strategy favored a sexualized corpse over a mutilated one. He chose to present Jewett as a work of art perpetrated by her murderer, with head wounds and singed skin, rather than, a postmortem dissection at the hands of anatomists.

    Bennett surveyed Helen's room and pronounced it "wild and extravagant." She had a "small library" of books, by such writers as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, as well as recent copies of several highbrow literary periodicals such as the Knickerbocker, a New York monthly. A picture of Lord Byron hung on one wall, and "theatrical fancy sketches" used to advertise actors in drama productions were pinned over the mantel. The dead girl kept an album or scrapbook where she copied donna poems and other literary passages. A worktable was strewn with pens, ink, and expensive writing paper. Jewett was a letter writer, and a trunk in her room yielded over ninety letters both from and to her that were impounded by the police as potential evidence in the murder. (Bennett hoped to be able to print them in the Herald, but police magistrate Oliver Lownds prohibited it; Bennett managed to publish only one.) To find books, paper, letters, and pictures of literary celebrities in a brothel bedroom evoked surprise in Bennett. This had been a girl with not only beauty but talent and wit, wrote Bennett. "She was a remarkable character, and has come to a remarkable end."

    Bennett visited 41 Thomas Street again on Tuesday, April 12. He went in the company of a young man already familiar with the brothel, the two intending to grill Rosina Townsend about the crime. The lead paragraph of the Herald stow describing this visit introduced Bennett's growing doubts about Robinson's guilt, but his reasoning surely strained his readers' credulity: "The tragedy of Ellen Jewett, still continues to agitate the public mind. Not the slightest pause has taken place. Who is the murderer? It cannot be possible that Robinson was the person! How could a young man perpetrate so brutal an act? Is it not more like the work of a woman? Are not the whole train of circumstances within the ingenuity of a female, abandoned and desperate?" Women more brutal than men--could Bennett expect his readers to accept that? Perhaps yes, if he put the twist of class on it. Robinson was a young man with respectable family origins, while the women of Thomas Street were friendless and wretched. In desperation one of them might sink to murder for private gain, Bennett insinuated. Helen Jewett had owned considerable money and jewels; where had they disappeared to? he wondered aloud.

    Bennett's companion, a young lawyer named William Wilder, talked further to Rosina Townsend, who "sat on the sofa, talking--talking--talking, of Ellen--Ellen--Ellen" and recounting her tale of the night of the murder. Meanwhile, Bennett wandered through the house and reported on more props of sin, in addition to the mirrors and rich sofas he had previously described. He revisited Helen's bedroom; the body was gone, buried the day before, on Monday morning, and the room now was a chaotic mess from the police search. Under a boot he found a well-read copy of Lalla Rookh, an epic poem first published in 1817 by the English poet Thomas Moore, the romantic plot of which involves a Persian princess journeying to her prearranged marriage who falls in love with a servant in her caravan, only to find at journey's end that the servant is none other than her prince in disguise. A volume of poems by Fitz-Greene Halleck, a popular New York poet and member of the Knickerbocker circle of literary lights in the 1820s, had every page cut as evidence of its having been read thoroughly. Under a velvet dress the inquisitive editor uncovered copies of Don Juan and Beppo by Lord Byron with passages underscored. Bennett even rifled around in the bloodied bedsheets and found a London edition of a recent book by Lady Blessington, Flowers of Loveliness, apparently unharmed by the fire. Lady Blessington was a romantic writer who had recently produced a literary biography of Lord Byron. Her own life suggested a model for Helen's. Starting out as a servant girl, Lady Blessington capitalized on her ambition, beauty, and a determination to flaunt traditional morality to gain entry to the leading literary circles of Britain and a title in the process. Helen Jewett's taste in reading gave New Yorkers a sense of her personality: romantic, literary, running to the heart-stirring love story that crosses class lines. Bennett also added two weekly literary periodicals, the New-York Mirror and the Albion, along with the monthly Ladies' Companion, to the list of Helen's subscription reading he had noted in his first tour of the room.

    In the parlor downstairs Bennett paused to contemplate a painting in one corner, depicting a kneeling white woman about to be dispatched by two Indians wielding tomahawks. Bennett managed to turn even this item into a clue for his growing suspicion that a woman in the house could have committed the murder. "What a remarkable type--or hint--or foregone conclusion of the awful tragedy perpetrated up stairs. If a woman who had borrowed money or jewels of Ellen--if a rival in the same line of life, wanted to make away with such a troublesome competitor, would not that picture, perpetually hanging there--visible at all hours--suggest to female vengeance or female design--the very act that was perpetrated?" The picture suggested to Bennett that thoughts of raising an ax to a woman's head were never far from the mind of anyone who lived in this house.

    April 10, the day of Helen Jewett's murder, had dawned sunny and bright, still cold but with a promise that the long grip of winter was finally broken. By nightfall, Richard P. Robinson was in jail, confidently smoking "segars"; Rosina Townsend was talking up a storm about her moment of fame; and newspaper editors--James Gordon Bennett being the most inventive and industrious of the lot--were well launched on a heated, competitive rush to publish up-to-the-minute exclusive news on the crime. A young woman's intimate life, a life that intersected with many men probably not keen to have that connection be known, was about to be disseminated in newspapers in New York and elsewhere around the country. Who was the girl, and how had she met this terrible end? Who had a motive to kill her? Was Robinson really the only suspect? By nightfall of April 10, editors and policemen were asking themselves these questions, which would spill over into the columns of the papers in the weeks to come. All these questions clouded the certainty of the morning's coroner's jury. The promise of an end to winter's grip proved illusive as well: on April 13, six more inches of snow fell on the city, and spring held off until May.

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Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE Snow in April 3
CHAPTER TWO Sensational News 19
CHAPTER THREE A Self-Made Woman 34
CHAPTER FOUR New York's Sex Trade 61
CHAPTER FIVE Acclaim for a Woman of Spunk 77
CHAPTER SIX The Brothel Business 90
CHAPTER SEVEN Epistolary Enticement 112
CHAPTER EIGHT A Servant Girl in Maine 135
CHAPTER NINE Reading and Imagination 165
CHAPTER TEN Tracing Seduction 180
CHAPTER ELEVEN Adolescent Clerks 202
CHAPTER TWELVE Love Letters and Lies 218
CHAPTER THIRTEEN Blowing Up 247
CHAPTER FOURTEEN Overconfident Youth 266
CHARTER FIFTEEN Trial in June 291
CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Great Unhung 321
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Texas 344
Epilogue 355
Notes 361
Acknowledgments 417
Index 421
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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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