Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

Boy Meets Girl

The Herald reported that Richard P. Robinson had been in the habit of keeping Ellen Jewett. 

Having, as he suspected, some cause for jealousy, he went to the house [41 Thomas Street] on Saturday night as appears, with the intention of murdering her, for he carried a hatchet with him.   On going up into her room, quite late at night, he mentioned his suspicions, and expressed a determination to quit her, and demanded his watch and miniature, together with some letters which were in her possession.  She refused to give them up, and he then drew from beneath his cloak the hatchet and inflicted upon her head three blows, either of which may have proved fatal, as the bone was cleft to the extent of three inches in each place.

The account went on to say how the cold-blooded suspect lit the bed on fire and then ran from the room and left the house, unseen by anyone.   Bennett mentioned that Robinson had left his cloak behind.  When he was brought back there to observe the unfortunate girl, he gazed at her coldly and without emotion.

Nevertheless, Bennett noted that Robinson, a well-connected native of one of the Eastern states was remarkably handsome.   Yet the article indicated that his conduct stamped him as a villain of too black a die for mortal.  The crime, it seemed, had been premeditated and the further attempt to conceal it with fire to destroy evidence made it seem even more horrendous.  Within this account was expressed some fear that when the news of his deviance reached his parents, it could prove fatal.

The fact that Ellen was a finely-formed and beautiful girl was noted as welland was likely among the factors that eventually built the story into a case that received international attention.   Apparently she had talents and accomplishments, and Bennett went on to erase three years from her true age.  Now she was but a girl of 20.  Her situation [prostitution] was ignoble, true enough, but in her character she was actually above that.  One had only to see what she read and how many letters she wrote.

Bennett himself boldly went to the scene of the crime to learn what he could.   He quickly discovered what it meant to have a hot story.  (One critic, writes Oliver Carlson in Bennetts biography, compared Bennett to a vampire returning to a graveyard or a carrion bird to a corpse.) 

Not only was a visit to a crime scene unusual for its day, but Bennett even wrote about his visit in the first-person.   As he approached the violated house, he spotted a large crowd of young men outside and he asked a police officer to let him in.  The officer did so, telling the other onlookers that Bennett was there for public duty.  In a parlor, he listened to Mrs. Townsend eagerly repeat her tale to anyone who would listen.  Then another officer took Bennett to the placethe room in which the murder had occurred.  He saw an elegant double mahogany bed covered with burned blankets and pieces of linen.  Then his eyes fell to the floor.

At this point, the deceased was still in the room, covered with a sheet.   The officer uncovered the dead woman for Bennett to see.

I could scarcely look at it for a second or two, he later wrote.   Slowly I began to discover the lineaments of the corpse as one would the beauties of a statue of marble.  It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld.

He went on to describe the sensual contours of the body in detail, stiffened now with rigor mortis, but he selectively mentioned details of the womans beauty, comparing her to the Venus de Medici.   He noticed how the fire had bronzed her skin along the left side, like an antique statue.  He also noted the bloody gashes that had brought about her dissolution.

Then Bennett looked around the room, as if he himself was a detective.    Seeing nothing more of interest, aside from her considerable stock of literary works, he left the house.  However, in his observations later, he noted that a number of fashionable men had been caught in the rooms that night by the police.  He then speculated about the murderers motive:

It is said that she threatened to expose Robinson, when she lived, having discovered that he was paying attention to a respectable young lady.   This threat drove him to madness.

Davis notes that these erotic elements set the public imagination on fire.  What could be more exhilarating for the romantic imagination than a literate prostitute whose figure surpassed the Venus de Medici!  He proposed a psychological formula consistent with the ambivalent moral attitude of the times: she was attractive and sexual, so she must die.  Yet in death, she was even more forbidden and appealing.

City of Eros
City of Eros

Timothy Gilfoyle writes in City of Eros,    The persons of Jewett and Robinson brought out numerous submerged sexual tensions of antebellum America.  Jewett in particular embodied middle class fears of downward mobility.  One erotic misstep, her case seemed to say, and it was over.

The brief but salacious details (disguised in morally upright language) of Bennetts death-scene observations were sufficient to inspire people to want to know more, and his newspaper now increased its circulation exponentially.   People were beginning to realize that they could get what they wanted from him.

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