Helen Jewett (October 18, 1813 – April 10, 1836) was an upscale New York City prostitute whose murder, along with the subsequent trial and acquittal of her alleged killer, Richard P. Robinson, generated an unprecedented amount of media coverage.
Jewett was born Dorcas Doyen in Temple, Maine, into a working-class family. Her father was an alcoholic; her mother died when Jewett was young. From the age of 12 or 13 Jewett was employed as a servant girl in the home of Chief Justice Nathan Weston of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. While there, she developed into a sexually assertive young woman, and upon reaching the age of 18 left the Weston home at the first opportunity. She moved to Portland, Maine, where she worked as a prostitute under an assumed name (a standard practice at the time). She subsequently moved to Boston and finally New York under a succession of fake names.
Murder of Helen Jewett
Jewett’s body was discovered by the matron of the brothel, Rosina Townsend, at 3 a.m. on April 10, 1836. The murder had taken place sometime after midnight. Jewett was struck on the head three times with a sharp object. (The coroner’s report called it a ‘hatchett’.) Based on the position of the corpse in bed, the coroner concluded that the blows were not expected: there were no signs of struggle. After inflicting the lethal blows, the murderer then set fire to Jewett’s bed. Townsend discovered the room full of smoke, and Jewett’s body charred on one side.
Based on the testimony of the women who lived in the brothel, the police arrested 19-year-old Richard P. Robinson on suspicion of Jewett’s murder. Robinson, a repeat customer of the victim, flatly denied killing her, and did not display much emotion even when confronted with the still warm corpse. Nevertheless, based on the testimony of various witnesses and the recovery of a cloak that resembled Robinson’s, the coroner’s jury, hastily assembled on the scene and made up of on-lookers, concluded that Jewett met her end “by blows … inflicted … with a hatchett by the hand of Richard P. Robinson.” This was enough to gain an initial indictment.
On June 2, 1836, Robinson’s trial for murder began. Ex-D.A. of New York Ogden Hoffman appeared for the defence. After days of testimony from several witnesses, including Rosina Townsend, the judge gave the jury its instructions. As most of the witnesses were other prostitutes, the judge ordered his jury to disregard their testimony. Presented primarily with circumstantial evidence against Robinson, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty in less than a half hour.
Jewett’s murder excited the press and the public. The coverage of the murder and trial was highly polarized, with reporters either sympathizing with Jewett and vilifying Robinson or attacking Jewett as a seductress who deserved her fate. The New York Herald, edited by James Gordon Bennett, Sr., provided the most complete (if not unbiased) coverage of the sensational murder. Almost from the beginning and throughout the trial, Bennett insisted that Robinson was the innocent victim of a vicious conspiracy launched by the police and Jewett’s madam. He also emphasized the sensational nature of the story and worked to exploit the sexual, violent details of Jewett’s death. The New York Sun, on the other hand, whose readers tended to come from the working class, argued that Robinson was guilty and that he was able to use money and the influence of wealthy relatives and his employer to buy an acquittal. This theory was still widely believed many years later.
Most notably, the trial was largely responsible for nationwide changes in the approach to sex and scandal coverage by American journalists. Prior to the case, coverage of such topics by major newspapers was nearly nonexistent. Additionally, some historians credit Bennett with the first journalistic interview, namely that of Rosina Townsend. Other historians, however, argue that Bennett never actually talked to Townsend and that his reported interview was a hoax.
Personal letters of Robinson’s that became public after the trial undercut some of his claims and showed him to be capable of vicious and (for the time) deviant sexual behavior and the public turned on him, including some who had been his vocal supporters. Robinson eventually moved to Texas where he became a respected frontier citizen.
Prostitution in New York
Five years after Helen was butchered with an ax, anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 prostitutes worked in a community of whorehouses, on street corners and even in the balconies of exquisite theaters, where they thought nothing of propositioning men in front of their wives.
Prostitution was very profitable. Women who worked in high-end brothels in Midtown New York west of Broadway, or in expensive “parlor houses” such as the one on Thomas Street where Jewett died, could clear, after fees to madams and room and board, close to $50 a week, or some $300,000 a year in today’s money.
Prostitution was illegal in New York state and had been for generations. Nothing stopped the world’s oldest profession, though.
“The actual business of prostitution in New York City is conducted in buildings which are designated as vice resorts. These resorts are of several kinds. Most prominent are the so-called parlor house or brothel, the tenement house apartment, the furnished room house, the disorderly hotel, and the massage parlor.” (Commercialized prostitution in New York City, George J. Kneeland, 1917)
High-class madams kept beautiful brothels. Men entered the home through a lobby and went to a large living room, where they met the women of the house, chose one and sat back to listen to a woman play a piano.
“The prosperity of the business depends in the main upon the quality of the inmates. If they are young and attractive, and, as one madame was heard to say in another city, “ especially womanly,” success is as- sured. Thus the value of the manager depends in the first place on her ability to secure and hold the “ right sort ” of inmate. The girls must be contented ; they must be stimulated to please; quarrels must be avoided, jealousies nipped in the bud.” (Commercialized prostitution in New York City, George J. Kneeland, 1917)
Sometimes the life of the hooker-turned-housewife was reversed. Many working-class housewives in the pre-Civil War era moonlighted as hookers to earn extra money that they thought was needed to run their homes, buy groceries and keep their children clothed. Some of their husbands urged them to do so. Hundreds of them bought provocative dresses, walked the streets, procured johns and took them to rented rooms in boarding houses for sex.
“The professional prostitute, in the sense in which the term is here used, is the woman or girl who sells herself for money, whether for her own pecuniary benefit, or under the direction or control of owners of vice resorts, of madames, procurers, or pimps. There has been much speculation as to the number of such women in New York City. Various estimates have been made from time to time, ranging from 25,000 to 100,000. A recent estimate places the number at 30,000.” (Commercialized prostitution in New York City, George J. Kneeland, 1917)
A whore’s career was usually short-lived. Women who began selling their bodies at age 20 often stopped when they turned 30 just because their looks started to fade. Men who had known them for years tired of them.
“Sometimes a girl’s lover puts her into the life or deserts her after seduction, leaving her without hope for the future: “ I was ruined anyway,” she would say, “ and I did not care what became of me.” Again, “ I loved the excitement and a good time, easy money and good clothes.” Another one remarks, “ I was born bad and actually enjoy the life.” “ I was tired of drudgery as a servant,” said another, “ I ’d rather do this than be kicked around like a dog in a kitchen by some woman who calls herself a lady.” (Commercialized prostitution in New York City, George J. Kneeland, 1917)
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