Love, Lust, Betrayal, & Murder: The Helen Jewett Tragedy

The Murder of Helen Jewett, by Patricia Cline Cohen in a tale of murder, seduction, love, betrayal, sensationalism, male sporting culture, and dominance. However, unlike many of the other books we have read this semester, in many cases the gender, societal, and cultural roles in each of these categories have been completely reversed. While the book reads like a sensational novel, in and of itself, it is a great micro-historical narrative that is both compelling and educational. My role in this book is to cover chapters 7 thru 12. Rather than summarizing each of the chapters, I have opted to discuss some of the pieces I found most enlightening, and those which had me making comparisons with previous books on our list.

The first topic I want to discuss is that of genealogical information. When I first read these chapters, I was a little put off by the background stories of all the different families – Weston, Doyen, Dillingham, Spaulding, Martson, Attree, Robinson – it seemed to never end. While interesting, I felt that they slowed down the narrative, and failed to grasp the concept of their importance. I should have known better. I should have realized that, in a book with over 400 pages, it must have been important to make the final edit. I should have looked deeper. I am grateful for our group discussions, particularly to Sarah, for pointing out to me why these histories are so important. During this period (1830-1840) in New York, people were not judged on their own merits, as much as they were judged on their family and background. That was the whole premise behind Robinson’s acquittal. He came from a good family; therefore, he could not possibly have murdered anyone, especially a lowly prostitute. These family backgrounds provided a glimpse into where Helen Jewett came from. She lived with and claimed association with these families. They were her key to respect, power, influence, and prestige – yes, even as an upper-class prostitute.

The second topic I want to draw attention to are the letters. Cohen uses snippets of letters written by and to Jewett to show how she relates to these various men that she loves. Cohen points out that these letters meant something. Jewett was more than just another prostitute that men would pay to have sex with. They were looking for something more. Cohen claims, “Jewett’s terms of conducting business required her clients to court and flatter her, write love letters, and bring gifts…Their purchase brought them an alternative intimate relationship, unburdened by the strictures and restraints of bourgeois courtship and free of the renunciations and monotony of lifelong marriage” (131). These were men of the male sporting culture who were looking for what we would call the “girlfriend experience” today. They wanted the relationship, without the ring. They did not want to be tied to one women, who would try to make claims on their time and attention. But, they also wanted more than a quick roll in the hay. They wanted that in-between, and that is what Helen Jewett provided them. However, when you compare the letters between Jewett and her men, with those between the married couples that we saw in Captain Ahab had a Wife, it is obvious that her relationships were superficial at best. The letters in Captain Ahab, show a depth of loving, understanding, and connectedness between partners that Jewett never fully attains. For instance, in a letter Ruth Sowle wrote her husband, James, she says, “I should like to know where you are today whether you are sick or well, dead or alive. I wish it was so that you could be here then I should not be so lonesome…every day I love you more devotedly, time and distance does not make me forget” (Norling, 171). Instead, from Jewett and her men we see passages based on looks, and personal desire, and flattery. We see manipulation and a power struggle between Jewett and the men she accepts into her circle of customers.

The third point I want to discuss is the idea of reinventing oneself, whether for the good or bad. In many of the books that we’ve read, women have had a choice to make. In Damned Women, they had to decide how to view their own godliness. In Revolutionary Conceptions, women began making a conscience choice regarding their sexuality, bodies, and reproduction. In Cherokee Women, they had to choose where they fit into society and how much of their individuality and power they were willing to give up and/or change. In Women of the Republic, they made a deliberate decision to embrace their roles as “Republican Mothers” and educate themselves. In each of these instance, women in their time periods have had to reinvent themselves to escape the box/definition that men and the world tried to put them in. They desired something more than they had, whether it be a sense of self, education, individual power, or social belonging. Helen Jewett was no different. She placed herself in a position that allowed her to become educated and gain the social graces necessary to rise above the lower class her family had always belonged to. She had an ideal image of what she wanted her life to be like, based on many fiction and seduction novels she had read. She saw nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage. When she lost her reputation in her small hometown, she chose to move to the city where it didn’t matter and make a name for herself. She reinvented herself, using her connections to the wealthiest families from home, as a high-class prostitute. She had servants, fine clothes, lived in a magnificent house, chose her “suitors,” and dabbled in “love.” As many others who were in her same situation, she had no desire to be “rescued” by well-meaning reform societies. She made good money and she was independent. She was living out the stories she had only read about. I’m sure, had she lived, she would have eventually chosen one to marry and live happily ever after, as many of the female protagonists in her fiction novels did.

Overall, this book is a great example of life for those living the male sporting culture. It offers a unique look at not only the prostitutes, but also the men. I think it also fits well in our historiography because it is so opposite of all the other books we have read. It adds a different dynamic and offers an opposing perspective on many of the key issues relating to women in Early America. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.


One thought on “Love, Lust, Betrayal, & Murder: The Helen Jewett Tragedy

  1. I’m finally catching up!

    Your comments about her letters and her self-invention/self-fashioning are very intriguing.

    How different were Helen Jewett’s (or Richard Robinson’s) sexual and emotional desires from our own? Is the past a different country, or were 19th c. Americans more similar to us in their courtship practices than the ideal of domesticity might suggest? We know what was expected of women, but how did they act? It is easy to say that Helen Jewett was one type of woman, who was largely excluded from respectable society, but perhaps she was not so different from other young women.

    I also appreciate your thoughts about women’s agency in creating a place for themselves given the restrictions that American society placed upon them. Do you think that is a helpful way of understanding women’s place in modern American society, given the vastly different historical context? What choices do women make today?


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