Helen Jewett aka Dorcas Coyen lived during the 19th century. She was an “upscale” prostitute when she was bludgeoned to death at the young age of 23 in a New York brothel. Jewett was beautiful and considered to be “sophisticated” and highly intelligent. Her fall from grace happened when she was in her teens.
Jewett was born in Temple, Maine to working class parents. Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother died when Jewett was a young child. From the age of 12 or 13 Jewett was employed as a servant girl in the home of Chief Justice Nathan Weston of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Jewett was to remain with the Westons until she was 18 and the Westons raised her as if she was their own child. She learned fine sewing and was a proficient reader, generously given the time and opportunity to indulge her taste for literature. the Westons would raise her almost as if she were their own child. The work was hard, but it was a tremendous opportunity for a bright young girl to learn culture and civility.
The circumstances of her original disgrace were a topic of debate. Something happened to Jewett in the fall of her 17th year that led to her expulsion from respectable servanthood and landed her within three months at a house of ill repute in Portland. When she was sixteen or seventeen Jewett became sexually active. The details of her seduction were not clear, but the act appeared to have been consensual. To hear Jewett tell it, she was seduced by a single well-off suitor with whom she fell in love. Her Augusta neighbours reported she brazenly sought out multiple sexual partners herself. There were a range of possible partners who might have shared many interests with the bored young girl and aroused in her a need for adventure and economic freedom:
- The Bowdoin College student who shared her love of Sir Walter Scott
- The licentious new husband of her employer’s daughter
- The local bookseller, Richard P. Robinson, who left Maine for good after the papers linked him with her murder
- Judge Weston, her benefactor
- a local banker
When the story became public, the judge had to do something. Though Jewett was only seventeen, she and the Westons agreed to say she was eighteen and end her service. This freed the judge from having to take action against her seducer, and allowed Jewett to go her own way. Whatever the case, Jewett didn’t feel at all shamed when she became a prostitute and considered herself to be born to it. She changed her name when she began sex work, which was common practice at the time, rather like strippers with stage names today. Jewett moved to Boston and finally New York using a variety of pseudonyms, finally settling on Helen Jewett.
Jewett worked in the kind of upscale brothel where madams entertained out-of-town businessmen. She wasn’t a street hooker. Her clients included politicians, lawyers, journalists, and wealthy merchants. Jewett was also popular with the young clerks who came to Manhattan from small New England towns to live in nearby boardinghouses and to apprentice themselves to office jobs. She was a familiar presence at the theater, where prostitutes had their own discount section, and she often paraded herself down Wall Street in her green silk dress and jewels at a time when ladies were not expected to be seen during the day unless accompanied by a male chaperone .
At some point Jewett became emotionally intimate with the aforementioned 19-year-old Robinson. He was a well-employed clerk from a good family with a promising career at Maiden Lane dry goods store. Richardson went under the name Frank Rivers on his frequent trips to the stylish Manhattan brothel where Jewett established herself. Helen and ”Frank” met regularly at the brothel. They were very fond of each other but Robinson hated her profession and he began to see other, more respectable women. Helen wanted him to herself and threatened to publicly humiliate him.
Although Robinson was quite enamored with Jewett she was a businesswoman first and a lover second. She continued to see clients and to have affairs. Jewett was so well educated that she managed to couch her lewd services in feminine terms. To one customer whom she was trying to recruit while she was being kept by another, she wrote, ”You do not know what a pleasure your acquaintance is to me . . . a single oasis in the vast desert of wretchedness, shame, guilt, blighted prospects and perverted powers which I am compelled to call my life.” All of which serves as pretty preparation to the most consistent message of her correspondence: ”Come and see me as soon as you can; I shall expect you every evening.”
Jewett had sex with than 10 customers a week at the relatively high wage of $5 each (her rent was $12 a week). She chose her partners as she pleased and recruited them without police detection through an alluring glance.There were stories that the beautiful Jewett put aggressive men in their place, knocking a gun from one or throwing another out in the streets. There were documents detailing Jewett’s boldness in bringing charges against a man who kicked her in the rear at the theater and against a madam who scratched her face.
In the end, Jewett proved herself to be a woman of two personas. The public Jewett was beautiful and bold. The private Jewett was quite another woman. Among remaining items belonging to Jewett were letters she wrote to her customers and to Robinson. Some of her letters were full of abject flattery and others of self-denigration. There were accounts that she tolerated abusive behavior from Robinson. Although Jewett’s letters to Robinson were driven by personal passion, they were also full of financial scheming and of regret at having given up other opportunities of ”abundance’‘ for his sake. The two communicated regularly through letters, as was typical in that day, until finally they each began returning the other’s letters as part of an angry separation. Whatever the fight was about it was never made clear.
Some letters Jewett had written to Robinson suggested that Jewett was threatening to denounce her once-beloved Frank as an embezzler. Three day before the murder Helen sent him a letter trying to reconcile and renew their relationship, but closed by saying “You have known how I have loved, do not, oh do not provoke the experiment of seeing how I can hate.” In his response Richard Robinson said, “You are never so foolish as when you threaten me. Keep quiet until I come on Saturday night and then we will see if we cannot be better friends hereafter.”
On Sunday April 10, 1836 Rosina Townsend, discovered the room full of smoke and Jewett’s body charred on one side. Her head had been bludgeoned three times with what was believed to be a “hatchet.” Based on the position of the corpse in bed, the coroner concluded that the blows were not expected as there were no signs of struggle. After inflicting the lethal blows, the murderer then set fire to Jewett’s bed.
Based on the testimony of the women who lived in the brothel, the police arrested Robinson on suspicion of Jewett’s murder. Robinson flatly denied killing her and did not display any emotion when confronted with Jewett’s burnt corpse. Nevertheless, based on the testimony of various witnesses and the recovery of a cloak that resembled Robinson’s, the coroner’s jury assembled on the scene and made up of on-lookers, concluded that Jewett met her end “by blows … inflicted … with a hatchett by the hand of Richard P. Robinson.” This was enough to gain an initial indictment.
On June 2, 1836, Robinson’s trial for murder began. Ex-D.A. of New York, Ogden Hoffman, appeared for the defence. After days of testimony from several witnesses, including Townsend, the judge gave the jury its instructions. As most of the evidence against Robinson was circumstantial, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty in less than a half hour. However, as most of the witnesses were other prostitutes, the judge ordered his jury to disregard their testimony. There was no possibility of Robinson’s conviction.
Jewett’s murder excited the press and the public. The coverage of the murder and trial was highly polarized, with reporters either sympathizing with Jewett and vilifying Robinson or attacking Jewett as a seductress who deserved her fate. A reporter from the New York Herald insisted Robinson was the innocent victim of a vicious conspiracy launched by the police and Jewett’s madam. He also emphasized the sensational nature of the story and worked to exploit the sexual, violent details of Jewett’s death. The New York Sun, on the other hand, whose readers tended to come from the working class, argued that Robinson was guilty and that he was able to use money and the influence of wealthy relatives and his employer to buy an acquittal.
Personal letters of Robinson’s that became public after the trial showed him to be capable of vicious and deviant sexual behavior. The public turned on him, including some who had been his vocal supporters, as his guilt became clear. Robinson eventually moved to Texas where he became a respected frontier citizen. Texas does seem to be populated with a few of those, doesn’t it? Robinson died two years later. On his death bed he mentioned the name Helen Jewett.
Strangely many people familiar with the murder attributed her reading and literacy to her undoing. The moral of the grisly murder, according to one pious pamphleteer, was quite simple: ”Avoid the perusal of novels . . . it is impossible to read them without injury.” It may not have been merely novels that the pamphleteer denounced, but on a broader scope, the education of women who were not of the upper class. This would be entirely in keeping with the treatment of women during this era in history.