Murder of Helen Jewett, Media Sensation of 1836

Case of Sophisticated Prostitute Changed American Journalism

Illustration of the death of Helen Jewett

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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 (and in supermarket tabloids).

The murder of one prostitute in the quickly growing city would likely have been quickly forgotten. But the competition in the rapidly expanding newspaper business at the time made seemingly endless coverage of the case a smart business decision. The killing of Miss Jewett came at precisely the time when upstart newspapers were fighting for consumers in a new market of literate working people.

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. The resulting outrage, of course, spurred more sensational news coverage.

Early Life of Helen Jewett

Helen Jewett was born as Dorcas Doyen in Augusta, 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 again 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."

Richard Robinson, the 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 as she was accosted by a ruffian outside a Manhattan theater.

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 Night of the Murder

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 from whitewash.

Robinson was charged with the murder of Helen Jewett. And the newspapers 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 City which sold for one cent and tended to focus on sensational events.

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.

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 widely assumed 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. 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. The newspaper hinted that the acquittal of Robinson may have inspired other murders.

For decades after the Jewett case, stories about the episode 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 realized 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.

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McNamara, Robert. "Murder of Helen Jewett, Media Sensation of 1836." ThoughtCo, Sep. 18, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, September 18). Murder of Helen Jewett, Media Sensation of 1836. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Murder of Helen Jewett, Media Sensation of 1836." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).