Helen Jewett (October 18, 1813 – April 10, 1836) was an upscale New York City prostitute whose murder, along with the subsequent trial and acquittal of her alleged killer, Richard P. Robinson, generated an unprecedented amount of media coverage.
Her murder was an early example of a media sensation when newspapers of the day ran lurid stories about the case and the trial of her accused killer. On paper in particular, the New York Herald, fixated on the case to the point that its coverage became the standard by which tabloid sensationalism such as found in supermarket tabloids is measured by even today.
The murder of one prostitute normally would even be considered news, but the competition in the rapidly expanding newspaper business at the time made coverage of the case a smart business decision. Stories about the murder and the trial in the summer of 1836 culminated in public outrage when the accused was acquitted which in turn lead to more sensational news coverage.
Helen Jewett was born Dorcas Doyen in Temple, Maine, into a working-class family. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother died when she was young. From the age of 12 or 13 she was employed as a servant girl in the home of Chief Justice Nathan Weston of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. While there, she developed into a sexually assertive young woman and upon reaching the age of 18 left the Weston home at the first opportunity and moved to Portland, Maine where she worked as a prostitute under an assumed name. She subsequently moved to Boston and finally New York under a succession of assumed names. It was in New York City that she adopted the name Helen Jewett.
Because of her attractive appearance, she found it easy to fins employment in the countless houses of prostitution in New York. 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."
Her accused killer was Richard Robinson who 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 the name Frank Rivers when he visited prostitutes. According to some accounts, at the age of 17 he happened to run into Jewett when she was being accosted by a hoodlum outside a Manhattan theater and Robinson beat up the man. Jewett gave him her calling card and Robinson began visiting her at the brothel where she worked.
At some point during the early 1830s Jewett began working at a fashionable brothel in lower Manhattan and she apparently broke up her relationship with Robinson, but by late 1835 they had gotten back together.
Accounts vary, but in early April, 1836 Jewett became convinced that Robinson was planning to marry another woman and threatened him. Another account says Robinson had been embezzling money from his employer to spend on Jewett and he became worried that she would expose him.
Jewett’s madame, 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 running away. A short time later, looking into Jewetts’ room someone found a fire smoldering in her mattress and she was dead with three wound in he head and her blood was pooled on the floor.
The women and night watchmen doused the smoking mattress and the body with water from the backyard cistern. The police checked the backyard, which seemed the likely escape route since the front door was locked. Nearby the fence was a hatchet; on the other side lay a long cloak. Richard Robinson was the suspect.
Police found Robinson in his rented room, in bed. His pants had whitewash on them that was believed to have been from the fence he had climbed over when he made his escape. It was this incriminating evidence that lead to his being charged with Helen Jewett’s murder.
Robinson told his neighbor, “Do you think I would blast my brilliant prospects by so ridiculous an act . I am a young man of only nineteen years of age yesterday, with most brilliant prospects.”
The murder happened at a time when penny press newspapers which old for a penny and focused on sensational events were emerging in New York City. The New York Herald, which had started a year earlier, seized on the murder and began a media circus.
The Herald published lurid descriptions of the murder scene and as well as exclusive stories about Jewett and Robinson, much of it exaggerated if not outright fabricated, which was gobbled up by the public.
The trial was a circus. Six thousand people crowded the second floor of city hall in hopes of witnessing the trial. On the second day, the mob broke the railings in the courtroom and fifty marshals were called to clear the building.
Robinson went on trial June 2, 1836 and his defense team, hired by his relatives, was able to find a witness who provided an alibi for Robinson. It was widely assumed that the defense's main witness, who ran a grocery store in lower Manhattan, had been bribed. The prosecution witnesses were mostly prostitutes who weren’t believed anyway. The witness, Robert Furlong, later committed suicide after his business failed. The public was shocked when Robinson was acquitted. Soon after he left New York for the West and died not long after.
The year following her murder, the New York Herald published a front-page article noting that murder was on the rise in New York City and hinted that the acquittal of Robinson may have inspired other murders. As a result of the trial newspaper men had soon realized that sensational accounts of high-profile crimes sold newspapers and began competing for readers by featuring lurid crime stories.
Thus was born a lot of what we see in print and on television today even when it comes to blurbs for “news” stories that are going to appear on the 10 o’clock news.