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

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9780679412915: The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York

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.

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Review:

In 1836, the murder of young New York City prostitute Helen Jewett and the ensuing trial of her lover captivated the nation. Jewett (her real name was Dorcas Doyen; Jewett used many pseudonyms during her short life) was an archetypal 1830s model of fallen virtue. A bright, literate girl who worked as a servant for a respected Maine family, Jewett became "disgraced," losing her virginity outside of wedlock, and eventually taking up work as a prostitute in bustling New York City. One of her clients, Richard Robinson, was a young clerk of uncommon literary talent. The two exchanged a long series of letters, often loving and careful, then as quickly as a summer storm, they turned violent and angry. Early on the morning of April 10, 1836, Robinson stabbed Jewett to death in her brothel room and set fire to her bed. Robinson was eventually acquitted of the crime despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that both placed him at the scene and his hand on the murder weapon. The decision was universally reviled, and Robinson became an outcast who eventually exiled himself to Texas.

Cohen ably places this rather ordinary crime within the context of 19th-century urban life and the development of a fledgling tabloid journalism, showing just how people throughout America came to be shocked by a crime that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The Murder of Helen Jewett is as much about mores and customs as it is about a lost soul. --Tjames Madison

From the Back Cover:

"This is a wonderfully vivid work of detection and history. It unravels a murder mystery at the same time that it weaves a rich historical tapestry. It brings to life New York in the 1830s, and yet it bears an eerie similarity to one of the most infamous murder trials of our time. This is a book to savor."
Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action

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