978-0-679-41291-5 / 0679412913

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York

by Cohen, Patricia Cline




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About the book:

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

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