Blood and Brothels in 1830s NYC

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Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of  a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (1998) was perhaps the most unique out of all of the books we have read thus far for this course. In this masterful and compelling narrative, Cohen performs intricate detective work on one woman’s life, the New York prostitution scene, moral reform, a small New England town, nineteenth century courtship, and, of course, a murder itself. While not providing a central argument throughout, as was the case of the books we have thus far covered, Cohen rather weaves together a story both sexy and tragic; while the case itself  is no mystery, Cohen’s central questions throughout are those that make this a work of historical merit: Why did the country become obsessed with the murder of Helen Jewett? What led the Judge and jury to acquit the obviously-guilty Robinson? What was this clearly intelligent girl doing as a sex worker in New York City? And what was, exactly, the nature of Jewett and Robinson’s relationship? Though Cohen does not divide this monograph into particular sections, my colleagues and I will do so in order to show as fully as possible the narrative structure and evidence used in this sinister, gory, but spellbinding work. I will be tackling the first third of the book, providing summary and introducing key characters that emerge in the early chapters.

The first six chapters of this book serve to introduce the event in question, central characters, and the nineteenth century society in which Jewett lived. Cohen opens The Murder of Helen Jewett by setting the scene of the night that Jewett was killed. For this opening chapter, Cohen primarily uses the testimony of Rosina Townsend, the brothel keeper, who discovered that “Helen Jewett had been murdered, and her companion of the previous night was nowhere in sight” (7). Richard P. Robinson, a young man not yet twenty, emerged as the primary suspect, having been Jewett’s most recent client; he was arrested and taken to jail while the investigation ensued.

The second chapter, entitled “Sensational News,” traces public reactions to the murder case through newspapers and penny presses of the day; Cohen relates that news of the beautiful, 23-year-old prostitute who had been axed in the face to death and burned had spread rapidly throughout New York City and beyond, having “struck a cord of some kind” in light of the fact that premeditated murder was actually fairly uncommon in NYC at the time (20). James Gordon Bennett emerged as a leading journalist covering the murder case, particularly attempting to answer the question that most readers wanted to know: who was this Helen Jewett, and where did she come from?

Chapter Three, “A Self-Made Woman,” introduces the back story of Helen Jewett, questioning her life and circumstances surrounding her servanthood in the home of  Judge and Mrs. Weston and the many accounts of her back story that appeared in newspapers. Born Dorcas Doyen, Jewett was sent as a domestic servant to the Westons’ home when she was 12 years old, was generally acknowledged by those who knew her to be vastly intelligent and talented, and was allegedly seduced shortly after turning 18, which forced her to leave her home in western Maine (though questions remained about her overt sexuality). Judge Weston himself had written a letter, re-published many times over in the press, which, though meant to repeal any implication of him or his family in the case, actually helped complicate further Helen Jewett’s history.

In her fourth chapter, Cohen explores the sex trade in New York City in the years surrounding Jewett’s murder. First describing the difficulty faced by Jewett’s friends in getting the public to sympathize with a prostitute, Cohen then explains the general attitude of legal indifference to prostitution in NYC in the early 1830s. As long as prostitutes and their clients were not making a scene or behaving in a disorderly way, the law regularly turned its head. However, Cohen describes a public concern over a perceived rise in prostitution, which resulted in measures taken by moral reformers and groups of ruffians. Groups of unruly and angry men hassled and roughed up prostitutes and brothel keepers, revealing their “contempt for the expensive and therefore out-of-reach prostitutes” (85). Jewett herself, Cohen explains, was a prostitute with a wealthier clientele, selling both sexual pleasure and experiences of socializing among extravagance (many sexual arrangements were made in the upper levels of theaters).

Chapter Five, “Acclaim for a Woman of Spunk,” explores sources (friends and legal) that reveal Jewett to have been a fiesty young woman who stood up to injustice “to make [her] a worthy murder victim” (87). These sources describe Jewett repeatedly going to court against men who have wronged her through either attacks on her physical person or belongings. Furthermore, Cohen describes many accounts made of Jewett emasculating men because of their behavior; however, Cohen is sure to remind readers that although Jewett’s actions may have seemed heroic to her friends, she was nonetheless not conforming to proper behavior for women at the time.

Cohen’s sixth chapter goes into detail about the ins and outs of the brothel business in 1830s New York City, particularly pertaining to the different locations Jewett herself worked at over the course of her four years in NYC. Cohen describes the lucrative real estate venture that was the loaning of buildings for brothel use that many men of means and standing participated in. Cohen writes that some prostitutes, including Jewett, also lent themselves out as “kept women” or mistresses, relationships that often entailed “an emotional dimension” as well as a business one (104). Cohen mentions that these areas with higher end brothels were often integrated into the rest of upper middle class and elite society. The merchant and young clerk class became important for this business as they increasingly moved away from home to seek employment in the big city. Importantly, Cohen notes that Jewett was able to hire a black maid, who was later called to testify in court.

While this summary does not justify the narrative mastery that is this book, I have hopefully illuminated some of the major themes running throughout. I have also not done justice to the characters studied by Cohen, characters whose experiences and actions help drive the story forward. Because this book is so interesting, my colleagues and I wanted to be able to describe its full contents at a surface level, allowing for those interested to get a full picture of the ideas at play throughout. For me, this book was a fascinating piece of story-telling that also delves deeply into matters of larger historical significance.





One thought on “Blood and Brothels in 1830s NYC

  1. Great post! I’m glad you like the book–I do too.

    What is sacrificed by not having a central argument, if anything? Should history be narrative, interpretive or both?

    Most importantly, what does it tell us about American women in this period? It seems like there are two principle groups of women that she describes: prostitutes and moral reformers. How did each group attempt to shape women’s place in American society?


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