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Cohen's Article on Jewett

Cohen's Article on Jewett

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The Helen Jewett Murder: Violence, Gender, and Sexual Licentiousness in Antebellum AmericaAuthor(s): Patricia Cline CohenSource:
NWSA Journal,
Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer, 1990), pp. 374-389Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL:
Accessed: 03/10/2009 16:50
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 NWSA Journal.
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TheHelenJewettMurder:Violence,Gender,and SexualLicentiousnessinAntebellumAmerica
Patricia ClineCohen
OneSunday morning earlyinAprilof1836,aprostitutewhocalledherself Helen Jewett wasfoundmurderedinherbedbythelandlady,who kept the elegant brothelonThomasStreetinNewYorkCitywhereHelenhadlivedand worked.' Thevictimhad athree-inchgashinherforehead,andherbed,whichhad been setonfire,smoldered andsmoked up her room.Thepolice were called, and within hourstheyhad narrowed their suspicion toanineteen-year-oldclerk named RichardP. Robinson, who hadfrequently visitedHelenandhadbeenkeepingcompany withherforover ayear.He was her last knownvisitor onthenightofthemurder;awitnessswore shehadactuallyseen him inHelen's room at 11:00
P.M.
Robinson was roused fromsleep at7:00
A.M.
at his own boardinghouse, about a mile away, and was taken tothe murder scene wherehemaintainedanoddly impassive demeanor.Just once he deniedguilt,withaprotest thatasuch a crime woulddestroyhisbrilliantprospects.Acoroner's jury was assembled at 9:00
A.M.
to view the near-naked, charred body and to hear statementsfromtheother womeninthe house.Acloak and ahatchet found inthebackyardofthehouse werelinked to Robinsonby witnesses. Fromthissuggestive, yet still circumstantialevidence, thecoroner'sjury concludedthat HelenJewetthad died from ablow totheheadwith a hatchetheldby the hands ofRichard P. Robinson. Robinson was bound overfortrialandsentto Bellevuejail.2
Correspondenceandrequestsforreprintsshould besent to PatriciaCline Cohen,Department of History, University ofCalifornia,SantaBarbara, CA 93106.'I am indebted toKarenHalttunen, Elliot Gorn, TimothyGilfoyle, andMary Clinefortheirsuggestions and commentsabout the research forthis essay. Researchwassupported by a grant fromthe NationalEndowmentfortheHumanities given by theAmericanAntiquarianSocietyinWorcester, Massachusetts.
2
Basic facts of the crimewere establishedat the coroner'sjuryandat thetrial; officialmanuscript notes onthe former are intheDistrict Attorney'sIndictmentFiles at theMunicipalArchives in NewYorkCity;the trialproceedings takendownverbatim wereNWSA Journal,Vol.2,No.3,Summer1990, pp. 374-389374
 
HelenJewettMurder375
These are thebareoutlinesof amurdercase thatwithindayswasreportedinnewspapersallovertheeastern states.Asurveytaken thatspring of one blockinManhattancontaining twenty-twobrothelsshowedtwenty deaths,someofthemviolent,ofyoungwomenduringthepreceding threemonths.3Clearlythe demiseof aprostitute byitselfwas notearth-shakingnews. But theJewettmurderinstantly generatedmassexcitementandwidespreadpublicitythat focused ontheunusualpersonalitiesofthe twoprincipleplayers. Jewettwasrepresentedinprintto be aclassy,attractive, literaryyoungwomanwith noapparentregretsabouther chosenlife.Oncedead,she became acelebrity-butaratherproblematic celebrityforthe moralinstructionoftheyoung.And Ro-binsonseemed anunlikelymurderer;he was norowdy gangmemberbut instead thesonofarespectableandpoliticallyprominentConnecticutfamily. Earlynewsaccountsclaimedthathischaracterwas"irreproach-able."Bythe timeyoungRobinson came totrial,two monthslaterinearlyJune, twentyout-of-townnewspapershadsentreportersto coverthecourtroommelodrama.NewspapersfromMainetoMississippiwerereportinganddiscussing thecase.Informationthe morerespectablenewspapersdeclinedtoprintwasreported with enthusiasm in thepennypressand in abarrage of chapbooks-cheappamphlets-eachpurportingto tell the truestoryofthebeautiful, sinningHelen orthehandsome,yet perhapsdreadfully wicked, Robinson.Graphic artists in NewYorkCityrushedtoprintlikenesses ofbothyoung people.The ones ofRobinsonexaggeratedhisyouth, while the ones of Helenemphasizedhersexuality;oneengravingfeatured hercorpseindemure repose inasmoldering bed, with nakedbreastsdominating the center of thepicture.Thejournalistic competitionto get thescoop on this unfortunatepair generatedanextraordinary amount ofdocumentation,some trueandsomefictional. As a result, the murder caseprovideshistorians withunusuallyrichevidenceabout anantebellumsubculture of glamorous
widelyreported innewspapers andpublished inpamphletform,TheTrialof RichardP.Robinisoniorthe Muirderof HeleniJewett(NewYork,1836). Newsreportsin1836 calledthevictim variouslyHelenorEllen;most modernaccountshaveopted for Ellen.Complaintdocuments,however,bearingJewett'ssignature inPolice Officefiles intheMunicipalArchives, NewYork,clearlyshowthatsheconsidered herfirst nameto beHelen.I"MoreMustBeDone! ACollection ofFacts,"TheJournalof PublicMorals1(1May1836):1.Thisjournal wasashort-livedpublicationissuedby the malemoralreformgroup,theSeventhCommandmentSociety,looselyassociatedwiththe New YorkFemaleMoralReformSociety.TheSeventhCommandmentSociety hada malemembershipconsistingmainlyofministers fromRhodeIsland,Connecticut, and NewYork. Forthegeneralpatterns ofrisingviolenceagainstprostitutes inNewYorkCity inthe1830s,see'FimothyGilfoyle,"Strumpets andMisogynists:Brothel'Riots' and theTlransformation ofProsti-tutioninAntebellum NewYorkCity,"NewYorkHistori'68(anuary1987):45-65.

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