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
Robinson was roused fromsleep at7:00
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
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.
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