The April 1836 murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute in New York City, turned into a major sensation. The newspapers of the day ran lurid stories about the case, and the trial of Richard Robinson was the focus of intense attention.
The public was outraged when Robinson, in a shocking twist, was acquitted of the crime.
Early Life of Helen Jewett
Helen Jewett was born as Dorcas Doyen in August, Maine in 1813. Her parents died when she was young, and she was adopted by a local judge who made an effort to educate her. As a teenager she was noted for her beauty, and at the age of 17 an affair with a banker in Maine turned into a scandal.
The girl changed her name to Helen Jewett and moved to New York City, where she attracted notice because of her good looks. Before long she was employed at one of the countless houses of prostitution operating in the city in the 1830s.
In later years she would be remembered in the most glowing terms. In a memoir published in 1874 by Charles Sutton, the warden of The Tombs, the large prison in lower Manhattan, she was described as having "swept like a silken meteor through Broadway, the acknowledged queen of the promenade."
Life of Richard Robinson, Helen Jewett's Lover and Accused Killer
Richard Robinson was born in Connecticut in 1818, and apparently received a good education. He left to live in New York City as a teenager, and found employment in a dry goods store in lower Manhattan.
In his late teens Robinson began consorting with a rough crowd, and took to using the name "Frank Rivers" as an alias when he would visit prostitutes. According to some accounts, at the age of 17 he happened to run into Helen Jewett when she was accosted by a ruffian outside a Manhattan theater and Robinson happened to be passing by.
Robinson beat up the hoodlum, and Jewett, impressed by the strapping teen, gave him her business card. Robinson began visiting Jewett at the brothel where she worked, and thus began a complicated relationship between the two transplants to New York City.
At some point in the early 1830s Jewett began working at a fashionable brothel, operated by a woman calling herself Rosina Townsend, on Thomas Street in lower Manhattan. At this time she continued her relationship with Robinson, but they apparently broke up before reconciling at some point in late 1835.
Helen Jewett Is Murdered
According to various accounts, in early April 1836 Helen Jewett became convinced that Robinson was planning to marry another woman, and she threatened him. Another theory is that Robinson had been embezzling money to lavish on Jewett, and he became worried that Jewett would expose him.
Rosina Townsend claimed that Robinson came to her house on a Saturday night, April 11, 1836, and visited Jewett.
Late that night, another woman in the house heard a loud noise followed by a moan. Looking into the hallway, she saw a tall figure hurrying away. Before long someone looked into Helen Jewett's room and discovered a small fire. And Jewett lay dead, a large wound in her head.
Her killer, believed to be Richard Robinson, fled from the house by a back door, and climbed over a whitewashed fence to escape. An alarm was raised, and constables found Robinson in his rented room, in bed. On his pants were stains apparently made by climbing over the whitewashed fence.
Robinson was charged with the murder of Helen Jewett. And the newspapers soon had a field day.
The Penny Press In New York City
The murder of prostitute would likely have been an obscure event except for the emergence of the "penny press," newspapers in New York which sold for one cent and tended to focus on sensational events.
One newspaper in particular, the New York Herald, which had been founded by editor James Gordon Bennett a year earlier, seized on the Jewett murder and began a media circus. The Herald published lurid descriptions of the murder scene and also published exclusive stories about Jewett and Robinson which excited the public. Much of the information published in the Herald was exaggerated if not entirely fabricated, but the public gobbled it up.
Trial of Richard Robinson for the Murder of Helen Jewett
Richard Robinson, charged with the murder of Helen Jewett, went on trial June 2, 1836. His relatives in Connecticut arranged for lawyers to represent him, and his defense team was able to find a witness who provided an alibi for Robinson at the time of the murder.
It was supposed that the defense's main witness, who ran a grocery store in lower Manhattan, had been bribed. But given that the prosecution witnesses tended to be prostitutes whose word was suspect anyway, the case against Robinson fell apart.
Robinson, to the shock of the public, was acquitted of the murder and released. Soon after he left New York for the west. He died not long after.
Legacy of the Helen Jewett Case
The murder of Helen Jewett was long remembered in New York City, and for decades afterward stories about the case would sometimes appear in the city's newspapers, usually when someone connected with the case died. The story had been such a media sensation that it seems no one alive at the time ever forgot about it.
The murder and subsequent trial created the pattern for how the press covered crime stories. Reporters and editors realized that sensational accounts of high-profile crimes sold newspapers. And, of course, that lesson endures to the present day.