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The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in… (1998)

de Patricia Cline Cohen

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427544,388 (3.73)17
In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett. From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed elements of traditional feminine demureness with sexual boldness. But she was to meet her match--and her nemesis--in a youth called Richard Robinson. He was one of an unprecedented number of young men who flooded into America's burgeoning cities in the 1830s to satisfy the new business society's seemingly infinite need for clerks. The son of an established Connecticut family, he was intense, arrogant, and given to posturing. He became Helen Jewett's lover in a tempestuous affair and ten months later was arrested for her murder. He stood trial in a five-day courtroom drama that ended with his acquittal amid the cheers of hundreds of fellow clerks and other spectators. With no conviction for murder, nor closure of any sort, the case continued to tantalize the public, even though Richard Robinson disappeared from view. Through the Erie Canal, down the Ohio and the Mississippi, and by way of New Orleans, he reached the wilds of Texas and a new life under a new name. Through her meticulous and ingenious research, Patricia Cline Cohen traces his life there and the many twists and turns of the lingering mystery of the murder. Her stunning portrayals of Helen Jewett, Robinson, and their raffish, colorful nineteenth-century world make vivid a frenetic city life and sexual morality whose complexities, contradictions, and concerns resonate with those of our own time. From the Hardcover edition.… (més)
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Es mostren totes 5
Scholarly account of the murder of a New York prostitute in 1836. Fascinating – she describes the social milieu of the crime and its time. ( )
  piemouth | Dec 22, 2016 |
In The Murder of Helen Jewett, author Patricia Cline Cohen uses the titular murder to examine the social, political, and cultural workings of Jacksonian-era New York City and the greater Northeast of the United States. Her brilliantly-researched narrative traces the social connections between the victim, the murderer, and all interested parties, using their experiences to shine a light on clashing cultural mores in the 1830s. Cline's greatest weakness is also her greatest asset: speculation. For most of the monograph, this works to her advantage and allows her to connect the dots and effortlessly move from one idea to another. When, however, she discusses the symbolic meaning of John Vanderlyn's 1804 paining, The Death of Jane McCrea, which may not have been at the brothel, Cohen drifts into interesting, but unnecessary, commentary that derails the narrative. With this exception, The Murder of Helen Jewett is an excellent look at the changes during the Jacksonian era and the moral reform movement. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 13, 2016 |
Not a light read, but a mighty interesting one.
Patricia Cline writes a scholarly, (perhaps overly?) researched historical non-fiction into the life of Helen Jewett, a prostitute in the bawdy 1830's in New York City.
This tale introduces the full range of life of the newly growing NYC, complete with fascinating, throroughly researched footnotes into every detail of life of that time.
Interesting to contrast what was happening "across the pond" at a similar time as Jack the Ripper in London and how things were handled differently.
Dense, but as I was just in the area in Manhattan, I found it complelling and well worth the effort to dig through this book. ( )
2 vota coolmama | May 13, 2008 |
Both a good story and good history. ( )
  Doozer | Mar 3, 2008 |
you can't skim The Murder of Helen Jewett. not in any kind of satisfying way. why not? for one thing, it's not fiction. it's historical nonfiction. continuing on that line of thought, it's a murder investigation (so the little details are important and shouldn't be inserted on whimsy by your subconscious), and furthermore, it's set in 1836 New York (a world so far removed from modern every-day experience that anything you take for granted about it is probably just plain wrong).

it reads like a documentary (a very well-done documentary, no grass-growing or paint-drying here), an expose, and of course a murder mystery all in one. kudos to the author for researching this information as immaculately as she has done, and presenting it as artfully and engagingly as she has done. she had quite the task and she has done it most commendably.

when I tell you that Helen Jewett was a prostitute who was killed by ax blows to the head... many things might come to mind. Prostitute probably makes one think of Pretty Woman or fishnet stockings and too much makeup etc etc. it is far less likely to make you think of Ninon de Lenclos, courtesans and salons, extravagantly decadent parlors, full formal dress theatre dates, independence from social constraints, and power play between women and men.

that changes things a bit. and as desensitized as we are these days, we might not pick up on the fact that premeditated murder was incredibly uncommon in those days (although death in general was not), with such cases numbering in the single digits for the entire year. add in the fact that the accused and the murdered had exchanged formal love letters and gifts and other affections, with his full knowledge of her station in life, and now you've got me wondering what brought about this brutal ending.

Patricia Cline Cohen fleshes out the backgrounds of these people. what makes a girl a prostitute? how exactly did she fall from grace, so to say? what drives a man to murder? what about their families, their neighbors, their associates?

also very interesting to me, this is also the story of the beginnings of investigative reporting (as opposed to sitting at a desk and waiting for something printworthy to come your way), as well as, unavoidably, the tabloid press. how this movement changed not only how the public viewed such happenings (as the murder), but also how the public opinon began to affect criminal investigations and proceedings.

This book is filled with stories and people that I'd never wondered about before, but I'm enjoying hearing about them quite a bit. I never really cared all that much for the New York area either (apologies, but it's a bit far from home), and yet now I am aware of what exaclty makes it so interesting to some.

it's not a light read, as I mentioned. it's not a dark read (even with murder and all), but it's nothing you can skim through surrounded by distractions.

so, meet the murder victim, alias Helen Jewett:

her own words, as she wrote them with ink-dipped quill on guilded stationary paper, from a letter to the accused:

"I love you Frank---ah! you know how I love you! but do you want to know how much I can hate you? Take care, I will show you."

meet the murder suspect, Richard P. Robinson, alias Frank Rivers:

his own words, again from a letter between them, though not in a direct reply to the above Jewett quote. no, in fact, this was rather common between them: an impassioned and bizarre relationship indeed:

"Nelly, Nelly, pause ere you go further; think of how we were once situated, and if you can convince yourself that you are acting a noble part in cutting my throat, go on, is all I have to say. My course will be short and sweet---no---bitter, bitter as well you know."

really I think maybe they both spent too much time attending the theatre; they certainly were accomplished in the dramatic! and ready to sting most anybody with sarcasm: "He has but two ideas in his head, and those two are not breeders." (Robinson, of a fellow apparently preferred over him by a certain girl.) "You are right; it is wrong in me to be hard upon so soft a subject---we never use diamonds to carve geese." (Jewett, to a man who said she was too hard on him, referring to how she refused his affection.)

They began courting in the summer of 1835, and she was murdered in April of 1836, so they had known each other intimately for almost a year.

could we compare the life of a geisha to the life of Helen Jewett? could we discuss the amazingly lax and borderline-ridiculous legal proceedings? (I esp enjoyed the delicious quote on page 369, leading me to...) could we elaborate on power and priviledge as it pertains to class and gender? yes, and more, I'm sure. some other time perhaps ;)

a great read. I'll give it a 4. keep in mind however, it is not a book you can breeze through. you need time and proper attention for it. give it that, and if you have my interest in such things, then the book deserves a 4, I say. (if you read through the epilogue, Cohen presents an overview -summary -closing statement which is the short version of the book, I suppose, and a 4 as well.) ( )
3 vota moiraji | Feb 19, 2008 |
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For my sister,
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whose love of old New York inspired my own
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April 9 of 1836 was an unseasonably cold Saturday night in New York City, coming at the end of the coldest and longest winter of the early nineteenth century.
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In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett. From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed elements of traditional feminine demureness with sexual boldness. But she was to meet her match--and her nemesis--in a youth called Richard Robinson. He was one of an unprecedented number of young men who flooded into America's burgeoning cities in the 1830s to satisfy the new business society's seemingly infinite need for clerks. The son of an established Connecticut family, he was intense, arrogant, and given to posturing. He became Helen Jewett's lover in a tempestuous affair and ten months later was arrested for her murder. He stood trial in a five-day courtroom drama that ended with his acquittal amid the cheers of hundreds of fellow clerks and other spectators. With no conviction for murder, nor closure of any sort, the case continued to tantalize the public, even though Richard Robinson disappeared from view. Through the Erie Canal, down the Ohio and the Mississippi, and by way of New Orleans, he reached the wilds of Texas and a new life under a new name. Through her meticulous and ingenious research, Patricia Cline Cohen traces his life there and the many twists and turns of the lingering mystery of the murder. Her stunning portrayals of Helen Jewett, Robinson, and their raffish, colorful nineteenth-century world make vivid a frenetic city life and sexual morality whose complexities, contradictions, and concerns resonate with those of our own time. From the Hardcover edition.

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