Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett


Two doctors moved Helens body to the floor and performed an autopsy there in the room to determine how and when she had died.   They decided that each of the three blows to the head had been forceful enough to have killed her instantly.  She had not struggled with her attacker, writes Jeffers, so they concluded that the attack itself had come as a surprise.  Setting the bed on fire seemed to be an afterthought, an attempt to conceal the murder. 

Leaving the corpse on the floor, they covered her with a linen sheet.   Little did they realize that they had laid the basis for another man to use this gesture to create an artistic flourish and start an industry.

The next step was to empanel a coroners jury, picking 12 men from the crowd that had gathered to hear the news.    With these men, they conducted an inquiry aimed at getting the citizens to agree that an initial indictment should be issued against Richard P. Robinson.  He claimed to be innocent, but Mrs. Townsend indicated that he owned the very cloak that had been left behind.  There was also a broken piece of twine attached to a buttonhole of his clothing that appeared to coordinate precisely with broken twine on the hatchet handle.  It later proved to be consistent with the type of twine used where he was employed.  There were traces on his trousers of whitewash, apparently from the backyard fence over which he presumably had climbed to make his escape.

It was sufficient.   Despite the young mans protests, the jury accepted the evidence and agreed that Robinson should be arrested and tried. 

P.R. Robinson, drawing recreating crime
P.R. Robinson, drawing recreating crime

She came to her death, the New York Herald would report them as stating, by blows upon her head inflicted with a hatchet, by Richard P. Robinson.

Robinson was then taken to Bridewell, a deteriorating debtors jail on Broadway that dated back to the time of the American Revolution.   He was to wait there until the grand jury hearing.  If they returned a true bill of indictment, he would be moved to another place to await a trial.

A couple of reporters had arrived at the scene and they remarked that Robinson seemed altogether composednot at all what one might expect from someone being accused of murder.   The news was related from one mouth to another and would quickly pique the interest of budding journalists.  To this point, no one had written much about crime, aside from basic facts, but things were about to change.

Deliberate murder was surprisingly infrequent in the 1830s, writes Cohen.   During the year before, New York City only had seven homicides.  And such a brutal murder, delivered by a hatchet, was unheard of.  The gossip spread quickly, especially because Helen Jewett was a well-known prostitute.  That Sunday afternoon, men crowded around the house where she had been killed, and even the mayor visited the crime scene. 

The right elements were there for this story to explode: a beautiful prostitute, a handsome and wealthy young man, a bloody murder, and a house of ill-repute in which it had been committed.   As a morality tale, it was ripe for the telling.  In Homicide in American Fiction 1798-1860, David Davis writes that already in the air were fictional accounts of the bad ends to which fallen women must come.  It was in New York that the theme of seduction and homicide received its fullest elaboration, especially after 1840  Nothing excited the indignation of popular novelists so much as the dens of abortion  The villain was usually a wealthy, aristocratic youth whose success was insured by the moral blindness of indifferent and impersonal neighbors.

From fiction to journalism, reporters were about to take up the same themes, some of them reluctantly, others with relish.

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