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The Murder of Helen Jewett Paperback – June 29, 1999

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Editorial Reviews 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Massive publicity surrounded the arrest of a young clerk named Richard Robinson for murdering prostitute Helen Jewett with a hatchet in New York City in 1836. The 20 reporters and approximately 6000 spectators who attended the trial made it the most infamous case of its day and made celebrities of its attorneys and witnesses. Despite overwhelming evidence, Robinson was acquitted, but the story as presented here isn't so much a 19th-century potboiler as an examination of New York City's thriving illicit sex trade and the fascination it inspired. Cohen (The American Promise) examines the case with zeal and skill. Details of life in 1830s New York City?a time when it was surpassing Boston and Philadelphia as the country's preeminent metropolis?are involving. And Cohen's depiction of gender inequality in Jacksonian America adds to her stellar achievement. Photos.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Thus. edition (June 29, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679740759
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679740759
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,639 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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41 of 43 people found the following review helpful By D. C. Carrad on October 19, 1998
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a terrific book, a previously obscure but fascinating incident brought to light and examined in appropriate detail. The author's style is smooth and transparent, and this book really is a great pleasure to read and most enlightening about many aspects of 1830's life in New York City and America. The author does have an irritating habit of attributing everything to feminist theory, often without any justification in fact other than her pet theories. For example, at one point a gang breaks into a brothel, breaks some glasses, lights some fires, insults the madam and the prostitutes. The author insists "They were not robbers...they were contemptuous vandals, there to remind the women of the ultimate power men have over them by sheer physical force and intimidation." Well, perhaps. But it seems equally likely that they were sent as revenge by an angry customer, to intimidate by a rival brothel keeper, to frighten the madam into paying a debt...or a dozen other reasons. I don't know. Neither does the author of this book. But she leaps to this conclusion and allows of no other possibility, as she does in perhaps a dozen other places in this book. "To the man with a new hammer, everything looks like a nail" runs the old proverb, and one sees it at work here in these dogmatic assertions based on nothing but the author's late 20th century feminist theories. Fortunately these passages are few and far between in this fine book. Just ignore them when they pop up, and you will enjoy this excellent work of history written in a refreshingly jargon-free style.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Rocco Dormarunno on January 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
On one level, Professor Cohen's thorough investigation into one of 19th Century New York's most shocking murder cases doesn't tell us much that we don't already know: the society was sexist, accommodating toward the privileged, and hypocritical in its attitude toward sexual behavior (...and nothing has changed much since then). Whenever Ms. Cohen hammers these points home, and she does pretty often, the effect isn't very... well... effective. And the flow of the book suffers a little from this. Two other things hurt the story: one is the long, distracting section on the histories of the Weston and Jewett/Dorcas families in Maine; and the other is the constant need on Ms. Cohen's part to track the lineage of each and every participant in the case. But for the most part, Professor Cohen's telling of the event is engaging, chilling, and compelling. The participants are brought back to life in a way that most historical writers should envy. To me, the most rewarding part of the book was realizing how much the Jacksonian era in New York and America represented a turning point from the colonial to the modern era. This was the dawn of modern journalism and mass media--the pivotal point where newspaper publishers realized that the public wanted more than just shipping and business reports: where publishers realized there was a public at all. And the media circus--a national media circus--which surrounded this case was the first in a long line that goes on to this day. It was also the first time in western history when people no longer lived in the same place they worked, and when the entire apprenticeship culture was being replaced by the more indifferent employer/employee system. All these important factors do figure into the crime.Read more ›
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Eric Redman on December 13, 1999
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating and truly extraordinary work of history, a window on all sorts of early 19th century Americana: the complex social and economic fabric of small but burgeoning New York City; respectable (and hardscrabble) society in Maine; prostitution; the news media; the legal system; the postal system -- virtually every aspect of then-contemporary American institutions and manners up to and including nose-tweaking. In many respects, the world Professor Cohen describes is utterly unlike our own (for example, prostitution in NYC was more than merely tolerated, men did not run the business, and at least until the Jewett case, the prostitutes felt comfortable invoking the protections of police and courts). The book is naturally provocative as well as informative as an account of relations among early 19th century men and women generally, yet always balanced and never strident or didactic (which is rather surprising, considering the subject and the circumstances). It is also a satisfying detective story -- you will be eager to know whodunnit -- and includes a murder trial with some uncanny parallels to that of O.J. Simpson. Finally, though, in bringing so fully to life across a gap of so many years both Helen Jewett and her client/lover, the young Mr. Robinson, Professor Cohen has introduced us to two characters who, once discovered, simply refuse to go away and be forgotten. (These two were contemporaries of Andrew Jackson and Davey Crockett, for example, but this book makes them seem much fresher and more readily accessible.) The book is filled with detail, which may not be for everyone. But for those who find details satisfying, this book is very likely to surprise and delight you.
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