April 10, 1836: The Murder of Helen Jewett


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


Helen Jewett was a prostitute in the 1830s who was brutally murdered by one of her regular clients, whom she had a relationship with.


The client, Richard P. Robinson, was one of her regulars. He was tried, but was acquitted of her murder. The story was one of the first American sex scandals, and received a significant amount of press after the murder, during the trial and after the acquittal.


Like in most high-profile cases, public opinion was divided. Some believed that Robinson was able to get away with it because he had friends in high places, while others believed that Helen deserved her death because of the lifestyle she lived.


THE PLAYERS (2)


Helen Jewett was born under the name of Dorcas Doyan in 1813. She was born to working class parents, but her mother died when she was young, and her alcoholic father died shortly thereafter. She was a servant girl for the local judge, Nathan Weston, who had adopted her after her parents died. As she grew older, she became more sexually assertive, eventually having an affair with a banker at the age of 17 that turned into a scandal.


As soon as she turned 18, she left the Weston household and moved to Portland, Maine where she began working as a prostitute. At this point, she changed her name to Helen Jewett. She continued as a sex worker when she moved to Boston and ultimately, New York City. She was very popular because of her good looks.


Richard Robinson was born in 1818 in Connecticut to a nice family where he received a good education. As a teenager, he found work at a dry goods store in Manhattan after moving to New York City. He got involved with a rough crowd, and would visit prostitutes under the name of "Frank Rivers".


Allegedly, he happened to run into Helen when she was being attacked outside of a theater in Manhattan, and he beat up the man. She was impressed with this, and gave him her calling card, and a relationship began between the two that was more than just prostitute and client.


THE MURDER OF HELEN JEWETT AND THE TRIAL


Because this happened in the 1830s, it is a bit tough to know exactly what happened. There are 2 prominent theories as to what lead Robinson to murder Helen that night. The first was that Helen was convinced he was planning on marrying another woman, so she threatened him, and he killed her in his anger. The second is that Robinson had been stealing money to lavish Helen, and he was afraid she would expose him. (2)


Regardless of the motive, Robinson came over late on Saturday, April 9, to visit Helen. She lived in a brothel with various women, and in the early hours of April 10, one of those women heard a loud noise, a moan, and then saw a tall figure running away. When someone looked into Helen's room, they discovered a small fire, and her body, dead, with a large wound in her head. (2)


Robinson fled via the back door and climbed over a fence, but police found him in his rented room, his pants stained from the fence he climbed over. He was charged with her murder. (2)


An initial indictment was made based off of the testimony of the women living in the brothel, other witness testimony, recovery of a cloak he was wearing, and the coroner's jury. He denied killing her and did not display any emotion, even when seeing her body. (1)


Robinson went to trial on June 2, 1836 for Helen's murder. He had rich relatives who were able to get him the best lawyers, and they were able to find a witness who provided an alibi. However, it is widely assumed that the witness who provided an alibi was a poor grocery store owner who had been bribed to lie on the stand. (2)


Because Helen was a prostitute, and because most of the witnesses for the prosecution were also prostitutes, their word was not counted as the truth. Even though it absolutely seemed like the defense witness was bribed, and there was a lot of evidence against him, the case fell apart quickly because he was rich and well-to-do and his accusers were sex workers. (2) In fact, allegedly, the judge ordered the jury to disregard their testimony. (1)


To the shock of the public, he was acquitted of the murder and released. (2) The jury returned their verdict in less than 30 minutes. (1)


THE LASTING EFFECT ON THE MEDIA (2)


This case is known as one of the first "Tabloid murders", and one of the first major sex scandals reported on. The New York City penny press ate the story up. The New York Herald took the murder and ran, creating a media circus with detailed descriptions of the murder scene, and in-depth stories about Robinson and Jewett do interest the public. Even though the information was often exaggerated, or even outright fabricated, the public couldn't get enough of it.


The residents of New York City remembered the murder for a long time. The New York Herald published a front-page article about it the year after, and alluded to the fact that the acquittal of Robinson may have inspired more murders, as murder was on the rise in New York City. (It makes sense. He clearly did it, but because it was his word against the words of sex workers, he got away with it. Anyone who wanted to try their hand at murder and who was more believable than a prostitute at the time probably could have gotten away with it.)


The murder and trial created a guideline for how to cover crime stories. Reporters realized that sensationalizing high-profile crimes, especially murder, sold newspapers. And this obviously remains to this day.


The media and public opinion was also highly polarized. Some vilified Robinson for murdering somebody, while others felt Helen was a "seductress" who deserved her fate. Like the sensationalization of sex and scandal stories in modern-day news, this remains to this day, as well. In high-profile cases, the public perception of what actually happened or who deserved what remains split.


It also aligns to modern-day treatment of sex workers. Though, hopefully, judges no longer tell the jury to disregard testimony from key witnesses because of their line of work, sex workers have historically been considered faulty witnesses, and often, their deaths aren't treated as importantly as the deaths of people who don't work in the sex industry.


Many serial killers have targeted prostitutes, but when family or friends alert police that they are missing, their "high-risk lifestyle" is often cited as a reason for not looking as hard, assuming perhaps they ran away or got into drugs. And even once their deaths are confirmed as murder, some feel the same way: Their "high-risk lifestyle", obviously, has risks involved, and some believe that one of those risks is murder.


Serial killers or rapists or other predators that target sex workers are often not found as quickly, or even identified as serial work as quickly because the lives of people who work in the sex industry are often seen a a sub category, just like what happened to Helen in 1836, 184 years ago today. Regardless of who was responsible, a bright young woman was murdered, and half of the public felt that she deserved it because of her line of work. And while it may not be half of the public today (but still very well could be), many people still feel that way when sex workers are murdered.


Sex workers are humans. Their traumas deserve to be taken seriously, their reported crimes deserve to be investigated, and their deaths deserve to be mourned, just like every other human.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Jewett

2. https://www.thoughtco.com/murder-of-helen-jewett-1773772

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