Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

Exploitation

New York Herald newspaper
New York Herald newspaper

Several newspapers were a mainstay of the thriving businesses in the area, mostly engaged in printing shipping schedules, information about commerce, and political speeches.   The New York Herald was one such paper, edited by James Gordon Bennett.  In a biography entitled The Man Who Made the News, Bennett was described as a forward-thinking and innovative newsman who made significant changes in the manner in which news was reported to the people.

He was a tall, sardonic, and well-educated Scotsman who came into the newspaper business in the 1820s when newspapers had no banner heads, bylines, interviews, charts, foreign reports, columnists, gossip, photographs, or cartoons.   Mostly these papers served the interests of merchants and political parties.  Bennett thought the press was dull, so to increase both circulation and readability, he set about to deliver real news just moments after it happened, and to make it exciting and appealing to the public.

Eventually the New York Herald would become the most widely read newspaper in the country and that was due in large part to the reporting of stories like the murder of Helen Jewett (to whom he referred as Ellen).

Only a month before her murder, and less than a year into the Heralds official existence, Bennett had decided to break another tradition and start reporting the details of crimes in the city.  His competitors among the penny sheets, the New York Sun and New York Transcript, devoted no more than half a column to the court and police reports, and for a while Bennett had done the same.  But then he sensed that the populace was hungry for the details of the tragedies of fellow humans, so he had decided to describe at length the trial of Captain Harvey for the murder of one of his men. 

Portrait: James Gordon Bennett
Portrait: James Gordon Bennett

As hed hoped, the newspapers circulation took a big jump, as did the number of its advertisersand those merchants experienced such a rush of new business that some actually complained.   When the murder of Helen Jewett came to Bennetts attention hours after it happened, he turned it into the most sensational piece of journalism to be seen to date in the country.  In fact, the very first direct interview in American journalism appeared on April 16, in Bennetts paper, as part of the sensational scandal.  

The subjects of sex, crime and scandal, heretofore believed to be subjects not fit to be read by those of higher moral character, were about to become the primary targets of enterprising reporters.   Yellow journalism it came to be called, and Bennetts success with this approach forced other papers to follow his lead.  His own circulation grew so dramatically that his machines broke down several times that first week after the murder, and before the trial commenced he found himself forced to move to larger quarters.

The public was both shocked and transfixed by these accounts.   Theyd never before seen the like in newspapers.  Even as they criticized the editors and reporters for bad taste, their demand for salacious details grew.  People looked for the latest copies as quickly as they went to press.

No papers were printed on Sunday, but on Monday, April 11, 1836, the day after the murder was discovered, its sensational aspects immediately came out. 

Our city was disgraced on Sunday, announced the New York Herald, by one of the most foul and premeditated murders that ever fell to our lot to record.

Bennett was posed to print the lurid details.  Not only that, he collected them himself in yet another unprecedented move.

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