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Sensational Journalism Defined Newspapers of the Late 1890s

The Murder of Helen Jewett

The murder wasn’t especially unique. But since it involved sex, a new recipe for journalism was born. The investigation and subsequent trial exploded into a national sensation. For the first time in American history, tabloids known as “penny papers” plied a seductive narrative of sex, crime, and romance. In the media world, it was chaos, with little regard for journalistic integrity or facts.

The New York City newspapers referred to her as “the girl in green” – green was her colour and it caught reporters’ eyes. 23-year-old Helen Jewett was a beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated prostitute at Rosina Townsend’s upscale brothel not far from New York’s city hall. Her clients included politicians, lawyers, journalists, and wealthy merchants. One cold April night in 1836 one of them smashed her skull with an axe and set her bed on fire. It was the story that shocked New York and gave birth to sensational journalism.

The April 1836 murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute in New York City, was an early example of a media sensation. The newspapers of the day ran lurid stories about the case, and the trial of her accused killer, Richard Robinson, became the focus of intense attention.

One particular newspaper, the New York Herald, which had been founded by innovative editor James Gordon Bennett a year earlier, fixated on the Jewett case.

The Herald’s intensive coverage of a particularly gruesome crime created a template for crime reporting that endures to the present day. The frenzy around the Jewett case could be viewed as the beginning of what today we know as the tabloid style of sensationalism, which is still popular in major cities.

The murder of one prostitute in the growing city would likely have been quickly forgotten. But the way coverage of the Jewett murder influenced the growing newspaper business made the crime a much more significant event.

Stories about the murder and Robinson’s trial in the summer of 1836 culminated in public outrage when, in a shocking twist, he was acquitted of the crime.

For women in the nineteenth, century prostitution was a last resort, when poverty, shame or abandonment left them with nowhere to turn. But for Helen Jewett it was a true calling and she embraced it with enthusiasm.

From an original Painting taken from Life. Published May 1836, by H. R. Robinson, 48 Courtlandt St. N.

She was born Dorcas Doyen in 1814 in Temple, Maine, daughter of a poor shoemaker. Her mother died when Dorcas was a young girl and when her father remarried; he put his daughter out to service. At age 13 she secured a position in the Augusta, Maine home of Nathan Weston, Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. By arrangement, she was to work there as a servant until her eighteenth birthday and the Westons would raise her almost as if she were their own child. The work was hard, but it was a tremendous opportunity for a bright young girl to learn culture and civility. She was also given access to Judge Weston’s library and she became a voracious reader, especially fond of novels.

When she was sixteen or seventeen Dorcas became sexually active. The details of her seduction are not clear, but the act appears to have been consensual, and among the men suggested as her possible seducer, was Judge Weston himself. The details of her seduction are not clear, but the act appeared to be consensual. When the story became public, the judge had to do something. Though Dorcas was only seventeen, she and the Westons agreed to say she was eighteen and end her service. This freed the judge from having to take action against her seducer and allowed Dorcas to go her own way.

Dorcas Doyen may have been kept by a lover briefly after she left the Westons, but three months later she was living an Augusta brothel kept by Maria Stanley. Soon after, she changed her name to Helen Mar and moved to Boston. She worked there as a prostitute for five or six months then changed her name again and moved to New York City. Now known as Helen Jewett, she went to work in an upscale Manhattan brothel run by Rosina Townsend.

In New York, Helen Jewett was more a courtesan than a common prostitute. Her clients included successful lawyers, merchants and politicians who viewed their relationships with her almost as romances, with rendezvous and exchanges of gifts and letters.

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.”

This was not a normal crime. Helen was a prostitute of great beauty and considerable intelligence, making her living in a rapidly transforming city.

Taken from life as he appeared in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, for his arraignment, Tuesday, the 25th day of May 1836. Entered according to Act of Congress in the Year 1836, by H.R. Robinson, in the Clerks Office of the District Court of the United States of the Southern District of N.Y

Her favourite client was a young man who went by the name of Frank Rivers. He was handsome and dashing — the girls at Mrs Townsend’s house referred to him as “Pretty Frank.” Richard P. Robinson was a clerk with a promising career at a Maiden Lane dry goods store. They began spending time together and corresponding when they were apart. They were very fond of each other but Robinson hated her profession and he began to see other, more respectable women. Helen wanted him to herself and threatened to publicly humiliate him.

This was the era of the sporting man. Young single men with a little change in their pocket hit the streets of New York after dark, looking for a good time. For some single young women struggling to survive, the sex industry — from the ‘high end’ brothels to the grimy upper tiers of the theatre — allowed them to live comfortable, if secretive, lives. But it placed many in great danger.

Three days before the murder Helen sent him a letter trying to reconcile and renew their relationship, but closed by saying “You have known how I have loved, do not, oh do not provoke the experiment of seeing how I can hate.” In his response, Richard Robinson said, “You are never so foolish as when you threaten me. Keep quiet until I come on Saturday night and then we will see if we cannot be better friends hereafter.”

The following Sunday, April 10, 1836, Mrs Townsend was awakened by a noise at around 3 A.M. She found the back door ajar and a lamp that belonged in a second-floor bedroom burning in the hall. When she opened the door to Helen’s room black smoke billowed out. She yelled “fire” and the girls and their male companions hurried into the street. Three watchmen came and helped her put the fire out. As the smoke cleared, they saw Helen’s charred body on the floor. Her head had been smashed by someone wielding an axe.

The prime suspect for Helen’s murder the young Connecticut man named Richard P. Robinson who worked at a respectable New York firm. His trial would captivate New Yorkers and even interest newspaper readers around the country.

New York City Hall has it looked in 1830. The events of this story take place just a couple blocks to the north-west of here!

Mrs Townsend recalled seeing Robinson with Helen that night wearing a long dark cloak. Outside they found a bloody hatchet and the cloak she had seen Robinson wearing. Richard Robinson was arrested and the police, trying to elicit a confession brought him to the scene of the crime. But he showed no emotion, just calmly denied killing Helen Jewett.

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 as she was accosted by a ruffian outside a Manhattan theatre.

Robinson beat up the hoodlum, and Jewett, impressed by the strapping teen, gave him her calling card. Robinson began visiting Jewett at the brothel where she worked. Thus began a complicated relationship between the two transplants to New York City.

At some point during the early 1830s, Jewett began working at a fashionable brothel, operated by a woman calling herself Rosina Townsend, on Thomas Street in lower Manhattan.

She continued her relationship with Robinson, but they apparently broke up before reconciling at some point in late 1835.

The eighteen thirties marked the beginning of the “penny press” and the Helen Jewett murder was made to order for sensational journalism. Competing New York newspapers were in a frenzy to print all the information they could find on Helen Jewett and Richard Robinson and the public could not get enough. By the time of the trial the murder had become national news, and for the first time, reporters from other cities came to cover a New York City murder trial.

A movement had begun to grow among young men who sympathised with Robinson, asserting that men should not be subject to threats from prostitutes. They expressed their support by wearing black cloaks similar to the one worn by Robinson. In opposition, women who wanted to see Helen’s killer punished wore white beaver caps trimmed with black crepe.

New York City in 1830 — at Broadway and Bowling Green. The area just northeast of here would be ravaged by the Great Fire of 1835.

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 of the case was 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 late on a Saturday night, April 9, 1836, and visited Jewett.

In the early hours of April 10, 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 said to be a whitewash.

Robinson was not spared the horror of viewing the crime scene. Early American criminal legal practice had at one time set great store on the ritual moment of placing a murder suspect in direct confrontation with the victim’s body; if the suspect touched the corpse, and the corpse bled fresh blood, it was taken as a powerful sign of guilt in seventeenth-century New England. The all-seeing eye of God provided such signs of leaving no doubt as to guilt. New Yorkers in the 1830s retained a vestige of the earlier ritual, but now they watched the suspect instead of the corpse. Robinson was taken up to Jewett’s room and confronted with the bloody and charred body. The officers scrutinising his reaction were amazed to note his composure and impassivity. He continued to insist he was innocent, having been at home after eleven the night before.

Richard P. Robinson. A profile made in 1848 by the National Police Gazette. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Around nine, two doctors summoned by the coroner, Dr David L. Rogers of nearby Chambers Street and Dr James B. Kassam from Walker Street, arrived to perform an autopsy. Dr Rogers was a surgeon and “an expert anatomist,” notably famous for his willingness to perform the highly dangerous ovariotomy. Rogers and Kassam moved Jewett’s body out of the bed to the floor of the room. They first examined the forehead wounds and determined that they were sufficient to have caused instant death. They next made a lengthwise incision from neck to lower abdomen and sliced into several organs.

They pronounced her lungs clear and healthy, her chest cavity filled with “a considerable quantity of blood,” her stomach half full of partially digested food, and her uterus “unimpregnated but labouring under an old disease.” Basing his opinion on the position of the young woman’s body in bed and the peaceful expression on her face, Dr Rogers concluded that the young woman had died “without a struggle” from an unexpected blow to the head; the charring of her flesh came after death.

DATE:1836 Designed & drawn on Stone by Hoffy. Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1836 by J. T. Bowen & A. Hoffy, in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court of the U.S. for the Southern District of New – York

Robinson denied killing Jewett and didn’t display any emotion. Based on witness testimony and the recovery of a cloak that resembled Robinson’s, Robinson was indicted.

Robinson was soon carted off to Bridewell, an old city jail dating from the mid-eighteenth century, located on Broadway just west of City Hall. Many hundreds of captured American soldiers had frozen and starved in Bridewell during the Revolutionary War when the British held New York City. Now the dilapidated jail, on the verge of being torn down, was used only as a debtors’ prison and a holding cell for suspects awaiting indictment. By midday Sunday, several newspapers had learned of the crime, and reporters converged on Bridewell to watch for the suspect. The Herald related that he arrived at the jail with “his countenance clear, calm, and unruffled, and on being put into his cell, his last request was for some segars to smoke.”

The citizens of the jury disbanded, and the doctors and police officers departed, but still, the brothel teamed with spectators. Rosina Townsend held forth in the parlour, retelling her story to a gathering of young men. Outside, a large crowd of men and boys lined up to file through the house and view the corpse, shepherded by watch officers. (One of the onlookers was William Van Ness, a neighbourhood porter, who joined the throng out of curiosity and then realised as he viewed Jewett’s body that she had at times hired him to deliver letters.) By four o’clock, as twilight approached, the remaining police guards cut off the spectacle seekers but admitted the editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, for a private tour. “He is an editor–he is on public duty,” the guard explained to the crowd as he opened the door to let Bennett enter.

Richard Robinson, charged with the murder of Helen Jewett, went on trial June 2, 1836. And the newspapers had a field day.

Jewett’s murder excited the press and the public. New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett capitalised on the incident, and his newspaper became the first to publish an account of the sexually-tinged murder. The recent growth of the penny press facilitated this coverage and reporting on Jewett’s murder further popularised the press itself. Bennett became the first editor in the history of American journalism to tour the scene of the crime when he reported on Jewett’s dead body, one of many descriptions that took on a quasi-erotic undertone. In his articles on the case, Bennett described Helen’s luxurious room in intimate detail, making readers more sympathetic to her. For all of the public’s condemnation of prostitution, the profession had enabled Jewett to maintain an exceptional degree of financial independence for a single woman in the nineteenth century.

The coverage of the murder and trial was highly polarised, with reporters either sympathising with Jewett and vilifying Robinson or attacking Jewett as a seductress who deserved her fate. The New York Herald’s James Gordon Bennett, Sr., provided the most complete (if not unbiased) coverage of the sensational murder. Almost from the beginning and throughout the trial, Bennett insisted that Robinson was the innocent victim of a vicious conspiracy launched by the police and Jewett’s madam. He also emphasised the sensational nature of the story and worked to exploit the sexual, violent details of Jewett’s death. The New York Sun, on the other hand, whose readers tended to come from the working class, argued that Robinson was guilty and that he was able to use money and the influence of wealthy relatives and his employer to buy an acquittal. This theory was still widely believed many years later

Robinson’s relatives in Connecticut arranged for lawyers to represent him, and his defence team was able to find a witness who provided an alibi for Robinson at the time of the murder.

It was widely assumed that the defence’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.

The evidence against Robinson was largely circumstantial easily countered by the defence. The prosecution was not allowed to enter Robinson’s diary into evidence and was only allowed one letter from the volume of incriminating correspondence between Richard and Helen. Most of the testimony against Robinson came from Mrs Townsend and other prostitutes from her house. Ex-D.A. of New York Ogden Hoffman appeared for the defence. After days of testimony from several witnesses, including Rosina Townsend, the judge gave the jury its instructions. As most of the witnesses were other prostitutes, the judge ordered his jury to disregard their testimony. Presented primarily with circumstantial evidence against Robinson, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty in less than a half hour.

The legal system of the day was no better for the women that lived in that period. Like everything else, when dealing with women, their marital status was a factor that determined the outcome of the legal situation. Women were expected to be married and have children; once married, all her assets, liabilities, and everything they owned was transferred to their husbands. Consequently, if somebody wronged a woman, it is her husband that could institute charges and prosecute. Because of this, married women relied on the possibility that their husbands were kind and good people that had their best interests at heart. This meant that it was highly unlikely for single women to get a fair hearing or even any hint of attention from the law enforcement and legal authorities. This is especially visible in the trial of Richard P Robinson in the murder of Helen Jewett. The judge that presided over the particular case particularly told the jury to not consider the evidence that was presented by the prosecution’s witnesses for the reason that most of the witnesses worked as prostitutes.

So, Robinson, to the shock of the public, was acquitted of the murder and released.

There were cheers from Robinson’s supporters when they returned a verdict of not guilty. After leaving the courtroom, a companion of Robinsons was reportedly seen giving an envelope to one of the jurors.

In one interview after the trial, a reporter asked Robinson whether his conscience troubled him. Robinson replied, “Not a bit…Did it appear in Court that Helen was murdered by me?” On the question of the murder weapon, he said only a “bungler” would have used a dull hatchet “to cut up the girl…I would sooner use a jack knife.”

Likely to escape the press, Robinson moved to Texas in August 1836. Once there, he changed his name to Richard Parmalee.

Over the next two decades, until his death from brain and stomach inflammation in 1855, the media tried to track down the acquitted and make sense of his actions.

Twelve years after the trial, the editor of the National Police Gazette got his hands on a package of 90 mostly undated letters that passed between the victim and accused. He learned that the prosecution had attempted to introduce the evidence, but handwriting experts hesitated to verify them, and the judge prohibited them from public proceedings. At the time, the district attorney appeared to push the matter no further. Now, however, with the public’s demand for justice still so great, the Gazette was compelled to produce the lot.

The letters betrayed more than nine months of damning correspondence between Jewett and Robinson. The first several featured typical professions of love and flirtation between prostitute and client, but between August and the following April, the lovers expressed increasing jealousy and frustration. The missives implied Jewett was aware of, perhaps even engaged in, Robinson’s nefarious business dealings. In one plea for attention, Jewett threatens to expose her client. His reply: “You are never so foolish as when you threaten me. Keep quiet until I come on Saturday night, and then we will see if we cannot be better friends hereafter. Do not tell any person I shall come.”

The Gazette reprinted the letters in five issues, and even posted copies in their office windows, along with the murder weapon, which was also obtained from the district attorney. Crowds of people gathered to witness the disqualified evidence. But it was too late.

The world would not learn what became of Richard Robinson until a series of biographies published in the early 20th century. Within weeks of his move to Nacogdoches, Texas, he had charmed townspeople enough to act as a witness in deeds of sale and other official documents. By 1837, he worked as a saloon proprietor and later as a clerk of the court. He married and owned a series of homes — in addition to 20 slaves. He had become one of the wealthiest men in town.

The murder of a prostitute would likely have been an obscure event except for the emergence of the penny press, newspapers in New York City which sold for one cent and tended to focus on sensational events.

Penny Press was the term used to describe the revolutionary business tactic of producing newspapers which sold for one cent. The Penny Press is generally considered to have started in 1833 when Benjamin Day founded The Sun, a New York City newspaper.

Day, who had been working in the printing business, started a newspaper as a way to salvage his business after setbacks which began during a local financial panic caused by the cholera epidemic of 1832.

His idea of selling a newspaper for a penny seemed radical at a time when most newspapers sold for six cents. He reasoned that many working class people were literate, but were not newspaper customers simply because no one had published a newspaper targeted to them. By launching The Sun, Day was taking a gamble. But it proved successful.

Besides making the newspaper very affordable, Day instituted another innovation, the newsboy. By hiring boys to hawk copies on street corners, The Sun was both affordable and readily available. People wouldn’t even have to step into a shop to buy it.

Day did not have much of a background in journalism, and The Sun had fairly loose journalistic standards. In 1834 it published the notorious “Moon Hoax,” in which the newspaper claimed scientists had found life on the moon. The story was outrageous and proven false, but the public found it entertaining.

Instead of being discredited, The Sun became more popular.

The success of The Sun encouraged James Gordon Bennett, who had serious journalistic experience, to found The Herald, another newspaper priced at one cent. Other papers, including the New York Tribune and the New York Times, also began publication as penny papers.

By marketing a newspaper to the public the way he had, Benjamin Day inadvertently kicked off a very competitive era in American journalism.

The New York Herald, which James Gordon Bennett had started 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 fabricated. But the public gobbled it up.

The murder of Helen Jewett was long remembered in New York City, and for decades afterwards, 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 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 realised that sensational accounts of high-profile crimes sold newspapers. In the late 1800s, publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst waged circulation wars in the era of yellow journalism. Newspapers often competed for readers by featuring lurid crime stories. And, of course, that lesson endures to the present day.

One of the oldest existing buildings in the Tribeca/upper WTC district is St. Peter’s Church — seen here in a 1916 photograph — which began construction (to replace an older building) in 1836, the year of Helen Jewett’s murder. It sits in the region of the old prostitution district known as ‘the Holy Ground’.

Yellow Journalism was a term used to describe a particular style of reckless and provocative newspaper reporting that became prominent in the late 1800s. A famous circulation war between two New York City newspapers prompted each paper to print increasingly sensationalistic headlines. And ultimately the newspapers may have influenced the United States government to enter the Spanish-American War.

The competition in the newspaper business was occurring at the same as the papers began to print some sections, particularly comic strips, with coloured ink.

A type of quick-drying yellow ink was used to print the clothing of a comic character known as “The Kid.” And the colour of the ink wound up giving a name to the raucous new style of newspapers.

The term stuck to such an extent that “yellow journalism” is still sometimes used to describe irresponsible reporting.

The publisher Joseph Pulitzer turned his New York City newspaper, The World, into a popular publication in the 1880s by focusing on crime stories and other tales of vice. The front page of the paper often featured large headlines describing news events in provocative terms.

American journalism, for much of the 19th century, had been dominated by politics in the sense that newspapers were often aligned with a particular political faction. In the new style of journalism practised by Pulitzer, the entertainment value of the news began to dominate.

Along with the sensational crime stories, The World also was known for a variety of innovative features, including a comics section that began in 1889.

In 1895 William Randolph Hearst bought the failing New York Journal at a bargain price and set his sights on displacing The World. He went about it in an obvious way: by hiring away the editors and writers employed by Pulitzer.

The famous murder of Helen Jewett essentially created the template for what we think of as tabloid news coverage. But the Yellow Journalism of the 1890s took the approach of sensationalism to a new level with the use of large and often startling headlines.

Over time the public began to distrust newspapers which were obviously embellishing facts. And editors and publishers realised that building credibility with readers was a better long-term strategy.

But the impact of the newspaper competition of the 1890s still lingered to some extent, especially in the use of provocative headlines. The tabloid headlines we see today are in some ways rooted in the newsstand battles between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

Helen Jewett was buried in St. John’s cemetery in what is now Hudson Commons. Four days later, medical students dug up her corpse for dissection at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The Herald reported her “elegant and classic skeleton” hung in a cabinet.

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

The Mystery of Helen Jewett: Romantic Fiction and the Eroticization of Violence 

The Murder of Helen Jewett – The New York Times

Murder of Helen Jewett | Media Sensation in 1836 – ThoughtCo

Helen Jewett – Wikipedia

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Sex and Murder in the City-19th Century Style | The UCSB Current

DEATH IN A BORDELLO – The Washington Post

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