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The Murder of Helen Jewett Paperback – June 29, 1999
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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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While there's a real tragedy going on -- someone killed, families in disarray, a killer on trial -- we hang on for the gory details.
Folks were no different in New York City in 1836, which is the setting for the real life, true story of the murder of Helen Jewett, a lady of negotiable virtue, who plied her trade at an upscale brothel. It's the story of Jewett's life, and how she came to be who she was, and how she came to do what she did for a living.
And about Richard Robinson, her accused killer, and how a mild-mannered store clerk from rural New England came to New York, and was arrested for Jewett's murder.
And about the trial, and about the crowds there (mostly young -- the defendant was 18 -- clerks like the accused), and about how long the trial lasted, and about the speculation that the judge might have been bribed.
But this is more than a murder mystery. Because the author tells us vivid details about life in New York City during that time, and how prostitutes lived in that era (I didn't know that prostitution was legal in New York at that time), and how young Americans grew up during that time, and what was expected of them as far as behavior and decorum.
This is a scholarly book. It's labeled "history/women's studies," and I wouldn't take that away Patricia Cline Cohen, the historian who wrote the book. But if you just want a better-than-average read that will entertain you as well as teach you, you can do no better than this. I might even suggest -- since I'm writing this review on May 8 -- it wouldn't be a bad beach book. The cover and title are just trashy enough that the people on the next towel won't think you're a nerd on the beach. It'll have to be a secret between you and me and the author that while you're busy turning pages, you're also having your mind expanded.