Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

The Evidence vs. the Court of Public Opinion

A grand jury convened on the case, People v. Richard P. Robinson, and returned a true bill of indictment, despite Robinsons habit of throwing notes out to the public that repeatedly expressed his innocence.  He was removed from Bridewell and taken to a cell in Bellevue at 29th Street.  Among the inmates housed there were lunatics and those awaiting criminal trials. 

Robinsons eminent employer, Joseph Hoxie, hired a trio of outstanding lawyers: Ogden Hoffman, William Price, and Hugh Maxwell.   They conferred with him and soon discovered that he was not quite the gentleman he claimed to be.  A two-volume diary had been discovered in his room which bore the warning: Whoever shall pry unbidden into the secrets of this book will violate the whole of the Ten Commandments.

The Murder of Helen Jewett
The Murder of Helen Jewett

It wasnt long before reporters had their hands on some of the pages, and editors gleefully posted excerpts.   Robinson acknowledged in the diary that while he looked innocent and naïve, he was in fact quite the depraved profligate.   His self-descriptions revealed his treatment of females to be tawdry and morally bankrupt.

It was first one girl and then another, he wrote, till like the Grand Turk I had a harem, and only threw the handkerchief to the one I chose.

Soon someone printed a pamphlet detailing this crime and containing long portions of Robinsons shocking words.   He was identified as a consummate scoundrel, while Jewett was now a beautiful girl shamelessly seduced and driven to a path she would not have otherwise chosen.  Included was a letter supposedly from Robinsons father that lay the blame on the corruption of New York City and the fact that Richard had such a weak character.  In fact, Mr. Robinson labeled his wayward son a child of the devil, and Robinson apparently wrote of himself that if he were to shake the devil out of himself, there would be nothing left.  The tone of his writing was undeniably egotistical and arrogant.

A few days before the trial was set to begin, the one girl, Marie Stevens, who had seen a cloaked man in the bordello hallway just prior to the discovery of the murder, died, so the prosecution lost a key witness.

The trial itself began on June 2, 1936, less than two months after the murder.   Robinson and his attorneys assembled with the judge, jury, and prosecutors in a second-floor courtroom of City Hall. It was raining that Thursday morning, yet a crowd of over six thousand had assembled around and inside the building.  For the first time in American history, representatives from newspapers in other cities were present for the trial.  The marshals guarding the building allowed a thousand at a time into the chamber and then rotated them out to allow more inside for a spell.  More than once, the overcrowded conditions delayed the proceedings.

In the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Judge Ogden Edwards, 55, presided.    Presenting the case against Robinson was DA Thomas Phoenix, assisted by Robert H. Morris.  Public opinion had it that these two did not stand a chance against the team of skillful orators and debaters hired for the defense, the chief of which had been a DA.

The jury selection from among the 29 citizens who showed up took five hours, and Robinson had to stand for the entire time.   He appeared to be composed as he was charged with one count of willful and deliberate murder.

Mrs. Rosina Townsend was among the principal witnesses against him and she took the stand first.   She recalled Robinson arriving at the house around 9:30 and going with Helen to her room.  She herself took champagne upstairs to the couple around 11:00, and she saw Robinson in bed with his head on his arm and his face to the wall.  She also described how she had been awakened and had found doors open and a lamp from Helens room on the table downstairs.  Then she found the burning bed and the body.

Police investigators described the crime scene, the layout of the house, and the items found in the backyard.   A porter from the store where Robinson had worked identified the hatchet as the one he always used.  It had turned up missing on the Monday after the murder.  He recognized the broken twine as well.

Phoenix tried to admit the correspondence between Jewett and Robinson, but was allowed only one letter.  Yet he got Robinsons roommate to admit that Robinson had not been in his bed by 11:00 that night as he had stated at the time of the murder.

Then there was one more revelation, offered by a clerk at an apothecary in the general vicinity of the Thomas Street house.  About a week before the murder, a man named Douglas had attempted to purchase arsenic for getting rid of rats.  The clerk had refused his request, and in the courtroom that day, this same clerk provided a dramatic moment by identifying Robinson as Douglas

Ogden Hoffman said that such testimony was irrelevant, and the judge agreed.   The clerks testimony was out.  The judge also refused to allow Robinsons diaries to be admitted into evidence, because they were not certified as having been written by him.  (It hardly mattered, since the reading public had already read the published excerpts.)

Hoffman had his own dramatic moment as he presented the handkerchief taken from under Helens pillow to show that Robinson had not been the only person in Helens room that night.   He also had a witness, Robert Furlong, provide an alibithat Robinson had been in his store that evening smoking segars and reading.  The supposed whitewash stain on Robinsons trousers was identified as paint from the store where he worked, and a manufacturer of the hatchet testified that he had sold some 2,500 in New York City.

Hoffman had taken all of the circumstantial evidence and turned it upside down.

The testimony lasted for five days before the respective sides offered their closing summaries.   Hoffman pointed the finger at Rosina Townsend, undermining her credibility and leaving the jury with the impression that such murderous conspiracies could be commonplace among corrupted women in these houses of ill repute.

Thomas spent two hours summarizing the considerable amount of circumstantial evidence against Robinson.   He referred to the young man as a monster and a vampire who had killed a woman to prevent her from exposing his shameful secrets.  But he did not have the same flair that Hoffman possessed.

That day, the trial lasted until nearly midnight, at which time the judge gave his instructions to the jury.   He strongly suggested with examples that the prosecution had failed to present its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  He also said that prostitutes were not to be believed.  He might as well have made the final decision himself.

The jury deliberated that very night, returning a verdict less than half an hour later on the early morning of June 8 of not guilty.

Robinson began to cry and many of the spectators, among them young blades wearing the glazed Frank Rivers cap or Robinson cloak, burst into cheers.   The Jewett sympathizers were shocked.

The sensational case was over and people could now go home, but journalism would never be the same.

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