Sex Sells: Then as Now

The Murder of Helen Jewett Patricia Cline Cohen (1998)

In her book, The Murder of HIMG_1077elen Jewett, Patricia Cline Cohen reexamined the sensational murder of a young woman, Helen Jewett, in a New York brothel in 1836. Cohen skillfully incorporated the evidence of the murder, evidence not included in the trial, and her experience as a historian of Antebellum America. The Murder of Helen Jewett is a crossroads for the new American experience in the post-revolutionary world; the growth of urbanization, the new “sporting male” culture, and the ideal of the respectable middle class white woman all intersect in the case of Helen Jewett in a manner that makes this book a fascinating microhistory of New York City in the 1830s. Once again, we divided up our reading by section. I will be responding to the last third of the book (chapters 13-Epilogue), which deals primarily with the trial of Richard Robinson, and correspondence from Robinson that was left out of the trial.

Unlike our last reading, Strangers and Pilgrims, Cohen’s narrative is not easy to separate from itself due largely to the fact that the historical characters are well developed and Cohen’s examination of them reveals motivations for their behavior to the reader. In chapter thirteen, “Blowing Up”, Cohen examines letters between Jewett and her suspected murderer, Richard Robinson. With her close analysis of the writing, Cohen attempts to prove that Robinson was in fact the culprit in Jewett’s murder by emphasizing the volatile personal relationship between the two. This is evidenced when speculating about Robinson’s premediated crime “… these last two [letters] sound like the prologue to the weekend of April 9, when Helen Jewett was murdered. The sweet and all-consuming love of 1835 had degenerated into mutual threats and recriminations in 1836” (286). Cohen’s examination of their correspondence forces her audience to question if the letters had been admitted as evidence in the trial, would Robinson have been convicted of the murder? This is a question that I am not sure of, because of the way the defense used the importance of respectability in Antebellum society both to tear down Jewett’s status in society, and to reinforce the probability of Robinson’s innocence.

In modern trials, particularly ones in which the victim may not have the purest life possible, often the victim is blamed in part for the actions taken against them. By putting the victim on trial the defense can move the blame from the accused to the deceased, which is what is seen in the trial of Richard Robinson. “And how many beds do you have in your room? A defense attorney asked [Rosina Townsend] at the trial; ‘But one,’ she replied. In such small ways,” Cohen argues “the lawyers managed to hint at a brothel’s true business without raising indelicate questions about sexual services” (293). This tactic reinforced the ideal of white female purity, and emphasized Jewett’s lack of, while also including the jury in the “respectable” tier of society which Robinson belonged to. This respectable tier of society would not have discussed sexual services; Cohen describes this social group as conservative, and perhaps prudish is one looks at her discussion of the Female Moral Reform Society. No matter their actual acceptance into respectable society, having the defense connect them to those ideal meant that the jury would empathize more with Robinson. This is proved further when Judge Edwards instructed the jury to “weigh the character of the witnesses—and then he told them how much those characters weighed” as Cohen writes, emphasizing the weight to be given to the testimony of a member of a respectable family such as Robinson’s outweighed the testimony of prostitutes who associated with Jewett (360).

The Murder of Helen Jewett is not just about Helen Jewett or the trial of Richard Robinson. Cohen rests a good deal of the narrative on newspaper editor Bennett, and the media circus that followed the story from the discovery of Jewett’s body to the acquittal of Robinson. The media coverage allows Cohen to delve into the world of sporting male culture, rogues and dandies, and the Magdalen Society and Female Moral Reform Society which appeared to be at odds with each other in New York City during the period. “Curiously, the Female Moral Reformers made no original contribution to the debate over the murder of Helen Jewett. They publicized the crime, naturally, since the murder of a prostitute so perfectly fulfilled their warnings about the wages of sin” (312). I found the exploration of the media particularly intriguing given my readings last semester of The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840 New York (2008) written by Patricia Cline Cohen, Timothy J. Gilfoyle, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. The Flash Press contains weekly newspaper issues geared towards young men who were flocking to cities in the 1830s and 1840s because of urban growth, and the decline of family farms/property; which nearly perfectly de2302980-_uy400_ss400_scribes Robinson and his fellow clerks. This added

dimension to the narrative makes, in my mind, The Murder of Helen Jewett more than a social history or a microhistory, but makes it an important piece of gender history.

I think all three of us were in agreement that this was a quick read because it was written so well, and the topic was so very interesting. I read a New York Times review that compared this case to the OJ Simpson case, and it drove home the point that sex sells, then as now.

In case you missed it, we added a new page to our site! It is home to our podcasts (we have one on Helen Jewett) Please give us a listen when you can.


2 thoughts on “Sex Sells: Then as Now

  1. Excellent discussion! I’m going to ask the same question, but with a twist since you bring up gender history, and how Cline Cohen’s book illuminates both the history of manhood and womanhood in New York City. What does the juxtaposition of Helen Jewett/Rosina Townsend the the female moral reformers reveals about standards of womanhood and how they were applied differently to different groups of women? How did women adapt these ideals to their advantage?

    Similarly, what does the existence of sporting male culture alongside Robinson’s supposed respectability tell is about standards of manhood?


    1. Great questions, thank you! I think that Cline Cohen reveals the different expectations of femininity and purity based on their position in society. I read an article, “Sin, Murder, Adultery, and More: Narratives of Transgression in Nineteenth-Century America” by Ann Schofield, in which the importance of social position is explored in terms of how it allowed women (and men) to shape their sexuality differently. Schofield identifies working class individuals as the group with the most flexibility in how they adhered to the new middle class ideals. I think it is clear that Jewett and Townsend used this flexibility to their benefit as they established themselves as “respectable” women in the world of prostitution and sporting male culture.
      In a similar vein, I think that these young men who participated in the sporting male culture took advantage of their position between social tiers. These men, like women in the working class, could move between the “respectable society” of which their parents were members, and the more banal areas of society-such as brothels and salons- because there was no category available to put them in. As Cline Cohen points out, these young men flooded the cities because there was no place for them in traditional familial society, but there also was no supervision of them in the cities. This is similar to the new ideas about teenagers in the early twentieth century. The men were able to craft their own standards of manhood, because they were separated from the traditional male figures who would have previously defined manhood, and so they created the sporting man.


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