Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

A Grave Error

Helen Jewett was born in Maine in 1813. She was apparently a professional prostitute by the age of 18, when she made her way to New York.  She was a vivacious and educated beauty, which made New Yorkers wonder how she had come into the circumstance of being a harlot.  People wanted an answer, so while they awaited news of Robinsons fate the newspapers rushed to find out what they could about the young woman and her apparent effect on young menespecially a young man named Richard P. Robinson.

He had celebrated his 19th birthday on April 9 and appeared to be a fine young man with intellectual gifts and a promising career.  Born in Connecticut, he had come to New York to work in a dry goods store run by someone connected with his family.  Jeffers says that he soon became a roisterer, part of the fast set.   People viewed him as a dashing figure, with his curly hair and fine Spanish cloak.  It was said that he had met Helen Jewett at the theater, where he had rescued her from the advances of a drunken lout.  She had given him her address (at the time, at another brothel), and he was soon spending a great deal of time with her under the alias Frank Rivers.

Jewett seemed to genuinely like Robinson, though he was four years younger, and was soon writing him letters.   It wasnt long after they had met that she was declaring her love for him.

He, too, was romantic in his sentiments, referring to Jewett as Nell.   He dreamed of her, he insisted, as he waxed poetic in his own correspondence to her about their time together. 

Jewett eventually moved to Mrs. Townsends house and Frank continued to visit her.   But then their feelings ran aground.  She was finding him to be much too aloof and he admitted to feelings that could drive him crazy.  He despised how she made her living and could not bear the thought of other men purchasing her.  In almost a prescient urge, he told her in one letter about a book he was reading about a man on trial for the murder of a young girl.

He began to see other women, the news of which made Jewett unhappy, and she began to send him threatening letters.   She even went to another brothel, it was said, and attacked a prostitute there whom she believed that Robinson was frequenting.

Then the two lovers reconciled.   However, Robinson continued to be unfaithful and Helen again discovered it.  She told him she would spread a nasty rumor about him murdering a girl whom he had sullied and deserted.

Robinson responded with a promise to marry her.   Yet Jewett had already heard that he was planning to marry a respectable girl with money.  She renewed her threat to publicly humiliate him.

Then three days before her death, she begged Robinson to come and see her.   You drive me to madness, she wrote.  She wanted to renew the sweetness of their past relationship.  She ended this note by warning him not to provoke her into showing what she could do if she began to hate him.  That was likely a grave error.

Robinson sent a note saying he would come to her but asking her not to tell anyone about his visit.   He would be there on Saturday night.  That letter had a very suspicious flavor to it.

Bennett wanted to print these letters but was only allowed to publish one.

While several papers took a clear stand against the young man, some reporters began to side with him, saying that he was an unlikely candidate for this crime.   It may have been simply a means of opposing Bennetts initial assumption of his guilt or it may have been sincere, but they began to garner public sympathy for Robinson.  A reporter for the Sun wrote that he seemed too gentle and correct to be a murderer.  He was from a good family (both land-wealthy and political) and it appeared most unfortunate that he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It wasnt long before Bennett, too, began to rethink the circumstances.

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