Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett


Those newspapers that had speculated about Robinsons guilt criticized the verdict as a terrible injustice.   They thought he should now be tried for arson, to skip around the rule of double jeopardy.  James Gordon Bennett did not concur.  He merely wrote, The publication and perusal of evidence in this trial will kindle up fires that nothing can quench.  He hoped that now that prostitution in the city had been so flagrantly exposed, men who had frequented the Thomas Street brothel that night would be arrested and tried.  In other words, he hoped for yet more fodder out of the case to keep his paper alive.

Andrew Roth, who provides a tour of New Yorks famous crime scenes, writes that Robert Furlong, the witness who had given Robinson his alibi, had been bribed to do so.   In fact, it was apparently well-known that corruption had filtered into the jury as well.  Two weeks after the end of the trial, Furlong inexplicably committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson River.

Richard Robinson walked away a free man.   Yet he did not stay in the city.  Instead he went to Texas.  Roth indicates that two years after arriving in Texas, which had recently declared its freedom from Mexico, Robinson died.  However, Jeffers and Cohen both indicate that his death occurred in 1855 after he had contracted a fever.  At the time, he was taken off a steamboat and placed in a bed in a hotel, and in his delirium he reportedly repeated the name, Helen Jewett.

Helens real murderer was never apprehended.

Rumors had it that her body did not rest easily. Supposedly resurrectionists or medical students exhumed her, defleshed her bones, and used her skeleton as a medical exhibit.  She and Robinson did become part of a wax chamber of horrors that traveled along the East Coast, warning other young men and women of the consequences of such morally impure lives.   

Frank Rivers, Or the Dangers of the Town
Frank Rivers, Or the Dangers of the Town

Seven years after the murder, Joseph Holt Ingraham published Frank Rivers, Or the Dangers of the Town.    It was a fictionalized account that contrasted masculine nature prone to sexual error against the seductions of feminine nature, which could only be pure or depraved.  He apparently viewed the murder as an unfortunate accident, with the theme that a man may sin but does not thereby lose his basic moral nature, while a fallen woman is incapable of either remorse or redemption.

As with the trial, the attitude of the day was that men could be absolved of their sexual transgressions (including murder) because female sexuality inspired it.  Davis writes that nothing could so clearly reflect an anxiety concerning the changing and ambiguous position of women in the early nineteenth century.

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