Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

The Press, the Public, and the Courts

Upon seeing the scene and hearing the reports, Bennett had decided that Robinson was guilty.   Yet he ascribed to the 19th-century idea that good-looking, well-bred people would not be so morally deviant or harbor murderous impulses.  He began to cast his eye for other possibilities and looked toward jealous female rivals from the more depraved class.

That was when he invented one more journalistic device: he went to see Mrs. Townsend to get a scoop in the form of a direct interview.   They talked together for a while and once he had received all the answers he desired, Bennett began to suspect the madam herself.  She is the author and finisher of this mystery, he wrote.  He discovered that a married merchant had visited Helen as well that night and had begged the watchman to let him out of the house.  That was an important detail in this complicated case.

Bennett insisted in print that there was still a mystery and a juggle about this whole affair, despite the overriding opinion of many citizens regarding Robinsons guilt.   On April 16, he provided his lengthy interview with Mrs. Townsend verbatim in the Herald

However, the Sun then printed Mrs. Townsends claim that she had never given such an interview and that Bennett had made the whole thing up.  Bennett returned this with a printed insult against the paper.  For him, the story provided an arena to declare war on the other daily papers and to show that he alone had the real story.  His barrage of details, which the other papers reluctantly repeated, subsequently influenced the reading publicas well as those readers who would make up the jury in the months to come. 

The Sun and the Transcript sided together against the Herald, which proposed that Robinson might not be guilty, so they put their effort into opposing the idea of his innocence.  They showed sympathy for Helen.

The Sun printed a story saying that her downfall had been the result of being seduced by an unscrupulous bank cashier.  The Transcript offered a different version, initially documented by their police reporter.  Helen, it seems had been orphaned and one day the son of a merchant had seduced her.  Feeling that she was now shamed, she had come to New York on her own.  In other words, her manner of supporting herself was not her fault.

 

However, Bennett had a more accurate version, citing her real name as Dorcas Doyen, and while she had indeed been orphaned, she had been well-educated by her foster family at the Cony Female Academy.  She did lose her virginity to a bank cashier, but willingly.  As a courtesan in New York, she liked to dress in green and stroll along Broadway, catching the eye of young men she knew or whom she eventually seduced.  Bennett claimed that her murder was the fault of a society that produced conditions for young women and men to be thus involved with each other.  We are guilty alike, he wrote.

Then the Transcript published an accusation against Bennett, suggesting that he had used bribery to support his ideas that the murder was the result of a conspiracy among the women at the Thomas Street bordello.  He denied it, but the accusation made some people wonder.

Soon after the incident, Mrs. Townsend began to receive death threats.   She also noticed the decreasing numbers in her clientele, who were understandably uninterested in publicity.  Most of her girls left and within two weeks she was forced to sell some of her furnishings.  This resulted in a gruesome auction where the morbidly inclined paid to have pieces from the notorious establishment, especially the murder bed.  Once it sold, it was smashed into pieces, which were carried off by many as souvenirs.

Another market also developed among artists and lithographers.   Several developed images of the principal parties and the murder scene itself.  These sold for high fees and a few became famous around the world.

Even as this was happening, a cult-like movement developed in which young men who sympathized with Robinson began to don cloaks and caps like the one he had often worn, to show their identification with him and their belief in his innocence.   These men were at the forefront of the sporting male culture, which promoted sexual aggression, entitlement and indulgence.  Young men, they insisted, should not be subject to the threats of prostitutes, who were social leeches.  Brothels were necessary for male needs, of course, but women who worked in them were considered of no worth.  Robinson was their idol, a symbol of their sexual freedom.    

Yet Helen, too, had her supporters, says Gilfoyle, in the form of women who donned white beaver caps with a black band of crepe.   They stood in opposition to the defenders of her accused murderer, not defending her lifestyle but also not inclined to watch her killer go free.

These polarized factions would be represented at the trial, which was fast approaching.  The Herald kept the case front page news, and city papers in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., were forced by reader demand into to reprinting Bennetts detailed accounts.  People on the streets of New York could talk about nothing else.

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