Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How a Murdered Prostitute in Early America Became a Media Celebrity

Nearly 180 years ago this month, Helen Jewett, a prostitute, was murdered in New York. Her story is remembered through the pages of newspapers published in the 1800s and by historians such as Patricia Cline Cohen. Cohen’s 1998 book, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York, is a micro-history of Jewett based in large part on newspaper research.

Murdered in April 1836, Jewett’s death is a tragedy by any standard. She was bludgeoned to death with an ax and set on fire in a New York brothel. As the public devoured media details on the scandalous event and updates on the mysterious women, publishers realized Jewett's tragedy was a highly effective way to sell newspapers.  

For her part, Cohen’s book is an impressive attempt to learn all that we can about the mysterious woman who warranted so much media attention. As such, Cohen provides a detailed look into American newspaper editors in the nineteenth century. Cohen noted in a public lecture concerning her book: “I knew I would learn a lot about the newspaper world from writing this book and there's a lot about newspapers and the print exchange culture: the penny press versus the more commercial, staid press; questions about what newspapers can do when they cover major crime; canons of objectivity. I knew I would learn a lot about why newspapermen were so invested in this case.” According to Cohen, Jewett’s personal involvement with a couple of editors would "ensure that her death would not suffer neglect in the newspapers.”

When Jewett was murdered in April 1836, the First Amendment, with its guarantee of a free press, was only 45-years old. One of the more important events in the development of journalism occurred in 1833, when Benjamin Day started what became known as the penny press. Unlike today, one penny could buy a lot in early America. With six pennies, Americans could buy newspapers that were less sensational than the one-penny papers. Day “reasoned that many working class people were literate, but were not newspaper customers simply because no one had published a newspaper targeted to them.” Unlike the more sedate six-cents papers, the papers that sold for one penny essentially invented the “if it bleeds, it leads” style of journalism before it was labeled as such.

To understand just how sensational Jewett’s story was, consider that some 20 reporters covered the trial of Jewett murder suspect Richard R. Robinson. To understand how different journalism was at this time compared to today, consider that Robinson actually received less media coverage than Jewett prior to the trial. The reason? The lack of interest in reporting on Robinson prior to the trial “was quite in keeping with the prevailing journalistic practice of acquiring facts from official sources rather than by investigative reporting,” Cohen notes. In other words, many newspapers were quite content to be passive, letting officials determine what news was fit to print.

Another issue regarding historical newspapers involves determining what news is fit to be labeled reliable. Whenever historians rely on newspaper sources, they have to decide whether what they’re reading is mostly true, somewhat true or a fabrication.  

Former Times magazine Editor Thomas Griffith once wrote: “Journalism is in fact history on the run. Journalism is also recording of history while the facts are not all in.” What this reality meant for Cohen is that she expends considerable effort trying to discern between fact and fiction in the various news reports she uncovers. She notes that James Gordon Bennett, editor and publisher of the New York Herald was more innovative than most of his competitors when it came to investigative reporting skills. For one thing, Bennett actually visited the murder scene more than once, unlike other editors. Cohen gives examples of newspapers at this time that clearly relied on official sources only for news. Reprinting stories from other papers was also a common practice by publishers -- for many of them, this was the only means of information gathering.

New York (boy eating ice cream on pile of newspapers)
Source: Kertész, André, Museum of Contemporary Photography
Alexis Tocqueville, the famous French author of the 1835 book, Democracy in America, noted: “The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They, indeed, are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them.” (Here’s an interesting aside: Tocqueville died in April, 156 years ago).

Whether or not journalists were great writers was not Cohen’s primary concern, of course. To determine the reliability of the printed press, Cohen compared their reporting with non-newspaper sources and competitors. In the end, she uses her own judgement regarding what’s credible and what’s not, based on her extensive involvement in this story.
Beyond newspapers, Cohen highlights some of the social attitudes prevalent at this time, such as the fact that men walking the streets looking for sex were never arrested. In addition, women’s clothing were deemed inappropriate if they were perceived to communicate sexual messages. Also, interesting: courts allowed fines -- sometimes fines of $500 -- for jilted lovers on their wedding day. However, societal progress for women was mostly slow. For example, as Cohen points out, it was not until 1848 that married women in the state of New York could own any property or sue and be sued in their own names.

There was a growing suspicion in the 1830s that prostitution was increasing. Cohen said that perception is justified. Part of the reason for the increase was the broader economic conditions which made it difficult for women, in particular, to find employment through other means. Prostitutes were used to drum up business in the local New York area. For out-of-towners, “tours of brothers were said to be one of the more alluring perquisites ...” and men could find willing prostitutes in the theaters of the time. Thus, “a highly masculinized and pleasure-seeking social space was tempered by luxurious surroundings associated with genteel behavior” and, as such, they proved to be a relatively safe space for prostitutes. Cohen does not try to romanticize prostitution, however. Neither does she skew the facts regarding men, whether she is discussing the men who had contact with Jewett or men in the broader society. Regarding Jewett as a prostitute, Cohen points out that she was not a victim of her chosen lifestyle; instead, Jewett was a seeker of adventure. As a “girl on the town,” Jewett could be “deceitful and manipulative,” the aggressor in a sexual dance where money was the bottom line. “For Jewett, prostitution was surely a way of making a living but it may also have been a way of exercising power over men.”

Interestingly, moral opposition to brothels in America was not always so vocal. Cohen notes that female-controlled prostitution was tolerated and protected by police in the 1830s but by the 1840s official tolerance for the sex trade began to erode. Exactly what explains this shift in attitudes can be attributed to the moral reformists of the time, some of whom resorted to intimidation and property damage when arguments alone proved unsuccessful. And Americans would “read all about it” in the pages of the once-dominant media: newspapers.

It was a time "when newspapers were king." As Robert McNamara once noted, “the murder of one prostitute in the growing city would likely have been forgotten if not for the role of Jewett's murder in the evolution of American newspapers.”


Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Nineteenth-Century New York, 1998. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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