The Murder of Helen Jewett

 

 

[Originally written for Dr. Randolph Scully’s Gender and Sexuality in Early America class at George Mason University offered Spring 2010. Besides the Cohen text, it also contains a discussion of Daniel Cohen’s article “The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practice in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850”.]

The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patrica Cline Cohen

            What can the sensational murder of a beautiful, vivacious, and by most accounts quite successful prostitute in her bed tell us about life in New York City in the 1830s and 18490s? If one follows Patricia Cline Cohen it can tell us quite a lot, actually. In The Murder of Helen Jewett, Cohen is able to use the lives of Jewett and her accused murderer Richard Robinson to shed light on the changing nature of print culture, business practices in New York (such as the origin of the phrase “drumming up” business), mobility in a society under going economic shifts, narratives of “seduction” and, of course, prostitution. While sometimes juggling all of these themes wears down the forward momentum of Cohen’s work, she is mostly able to elucidate more of life in antebellum New York than a monograph really could.

The first thing that life of Helen Jewett – or rather Dorcus Doyen – should do is call in to question our understanding of prostitution in the 1830s and 1840s in big cities like New York. Jewett’s lifestyle and personality shatters the common ideas – particularly in the popular mind – about prostitutes as broken, pathetic persons living in squalor. Cohen’s account gives Jewett a lot of agency, from her pen emerges a smart woman quite capable of defending herself and constantly refashioning her identity to serve her needs.

Cohen makes it clear, I feel, that Jewett lived in a gray area between streetwalkers and “respectable” society. The services she provided to her clients went further than simply sex. As Cohen notes Jewett provided her clients –like Roberson – with “friendship, love, and sex.”[1] She essentially acted as a substitute spouse for many clients, who were not in the economic position yet to marry and establish households. The question remains, however, to exactly how much we can generalize from Jewett’s experience. Jewett was clearly an exceptional woman; it is unclear how many other prostitutes operated in similar ways to her – even her fellows in high-class brothels.

Of the most striking features of Cohen’s narrative is just how central prostitution was to New York life in the 1830s and 1840s. “Women of the town” played an important economic role. Merchants used prostitutes to “drum up” business by introducing out of town clients to the world of sexual pleasure the Big Apple offered. An entire tier of the theater was reserved for prostitutes to both enjoy the show – at minimal cost – and to ply their trade. Respectable brothels – like the one that employed Helen Jewett – operated more or less without sanction in good neighborhoods. Reformers, in Cohen’s telling, attempted to stigmatize and marginalize this behavior but were unable to gain the upper hand in either public policy or the discourse surrounding prostitutes. As the press coverage of Jewett when both she was alive and after her murder shows that a certain kind of “woman of the town” could receive a sympathetic portrait in the press.

An important theme in Cohen’s book is how the Jewett case exposes the changing nature of the press in the 1830s. Cohen argues that the Jewett case highlighted a transition between older forms of journalism and new forms dominated by the penny press. New journalist forms also emerged during coverage of Jewett’s murder and Robinson’s trial. James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, took the first tentative steps towards investigative journalism by actually visiting the crime scene and by gathering evidence and first hand testimony of Jewett’s murk past.

Jewett’s murder and the newspaper coverage clearly represent what Daniel A. Cohen notes is the cultural trope of “the beautiful female murder victim.” In fact, Bennett’s coverage of the Jewett crime scene is such a good example of the trope that he opens his article “The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practice in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850” with it. The central components of Jewett’s case fit Daniel Cohen’s analysis to a tee. To Cohen the “the beautiful female murder victim” is a “young, unmarried” and “beautiful female” who “is most often murdered by, or at the instigation of, a young unmarried man in the context of some sort of romantic relationship or sexual encounter.”[2] Obviously this perfectly matches with Patricia Cohen’s presentation of the press coverage of Jewett’s murder and Robinson’s trial.

Daniel Cohen’s argument overlaps with Patricia Cohen’s in several other aspects as well. Most importantly it provides additional justification of Patricia Cohen’s identification of Robinson as the murder. Daniel Cohen argues that often the “beautiful female murder victims” were victims of “crimes of rational calculation and control, instrumental acts committed by ambitious men determined to extricate themselves from relationships that threatened to limit their personal options, harm their social prospects, or drain their economic resources.”[3] This description perfectly fits Patricia Cohen’s depiction of Richard Robinson and the final days of his tragic relationship with Helen Jewett.

Yet the two Cohens are not without their disagreements. Patricia Cohen locates the origins of the discourse around Helen Jewett has having its roots in the angst unleashed by the social displacement caused by the economic changes brought about by the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the 1830s and 1840s. Daniel Cohen, on the other hand, argues that such discourses had older routes. He traces them back to 16th century England in the form of court romances, murder ballads, sentimental novels and trial reports. The form of the “beautiful female murder victim” made the jump across the pond much earlier than Patricia Cohen argues, in the 1790s and 1800s.

Both historians are noting the same sort of discourse around these sorts of murders. Daniel Cohen describes it as discourse, which “raised issues of personal character, ambition, impulse, and control.”[4] Patricia Cohen would easily use the same of language to describe the discourses of seduction that whirled around Jewett’s murder. While Patricia Cohen is convincing that Helen Jewett’s murder was an important turning point in the evolution of this discourse – which effects us to this day – but wrong to highlight its origins in Jacksonian era. Daniel Cohen is more convincing that it emerges earlier, at the turn of the century.

Patricia Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett is clearly a popular history and a deeply informed one at that. Cohen has done the deep forensic research. She convincingly connects Helen Jewett with Dorcus Doyen and persuasively argues that the letters between Robinson and Jewett were legitimate. Cohen unlike many popular histories written by journalists – and even some historians – firmly grounds her account in deep primary source research. It is clear why the book would appear to a popular publisher like Random House and popular audiences – it deals with sex, violence, and all that salable material.

Yet Cohen’s book isn’t a perfect popular history. Despite having a somewhat straightforward narrative structure given to her – murder to investigation to trial – her deep probing of Jewett’s background and other scholarly asides often stall the book’s forward momentum. While this greatly adds to the appeal of the book to scholars it makes for dense reading that may limit its general appeal.

The central question in a narrative like this is: did Richard Robinson murder Jewett? Cohen provides a solid psychological reading of her evidence that Robinson was a sociopath.  Yet her firm conviction that Robinson died having “gotten away with murder” is not entirely convincing. As Cohen notes the direct evidence against is circumstantial. But Cohen’s case straightforward case against Robinson is damaged by her own analysis. As she notes in the opening chapter New York had no real police force and no real investigative unit or apparatus. The modern investigative techniques that a generation of readers – such as myself – raised on Law & Order are bound the sloppiness at the crime scene appalling. In fact – as Cohen consistently points out – the New York City law enforcement apparatus was not up for handling this case – few worse than the Robinson’s prosecutor. The errors of the law enforcement should give the historian pause, especially since none of the evidence survives to us. Thus while Cohen’s psychological reading of Robinson is plausible we should be careful about condemning Robinson as a murderer.

Taken as a whole, however, Patricia Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett is an excellent popular history and important contribution to the historiography of “true crime.” It is also an important history of sexuality and gender that calls into question our assumptions about prostitution and its role in New York society in antebellum America. The sexual culture was far from stifled in the 1830s and 1840s, in Cohen’s telling, when compared to its depiction in some of the earlier works we have discussed – such as that of Clare Lyons.


[1] Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett (New York: Random House, 1998), 247.

[2] Daniel A. Cohen, “The Beautiful Fremale Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 2 (Winter, 1997), 277.

[3] Ibid, 294.

[4] Ibid, 295

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Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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