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The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York


The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York Cover

ISBN13: 9780679740759
ISBN10: 0679740759
Condition: Standard
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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed elements of traditional feminine demureness with sexual boldness.

But she was to meet her match--and her nemesis--in a youth called Richard Robinson. He was one of an unprecedented number of young men who flooded into America's burgeoning cities in the 1830s to satisfy the new business society's seemingly infinite need for clerks. The son of an established Connecticut family, he was intense, arrogant, and given to posturing. He became Helen Jewett's lover in a tempestuous affair and ten months later was arrested for her murder. He stood trial in a five-day courtroom drama that ended with his acquittal amid the cheers of hundreds of fellow clerks and other spectators.

With no conviction for murder, nor closure of any sort, the case continued to tantalize the public, even though Richard Robinson disappeared from view. Through the Erie Canal, down the Ohio and the Mississippi, and by way of New Orleans, he reached the wilds of Texas and a new life under a new name. Through her meticulous and ingenious research, Patricia Cline Cohen traces his life there and the many twists and turns of the lingering mystery of the murder. Her stunning portrayals of Helen Jewett, Robinson, and their raffish, colorful nineteenth-century world make vivid a frenetic city life and sexual morality whose complexities, contradictions, and concerns resonate with those of our own time.

From the Hardcover edition.




Includes bibliographical references and index.

About the Author

Patricia Cline Cohen is Professor of History and Acting Dean of the Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara. From 1991 to 1996 she chaired the Women's Studies Program there. She is the author of A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (1985) and of numerous articles and reviews, and a coauthor of The American Promise (1997).

From the Hardcover edition.

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Gregory Gallardo, August 3, 2009 (view all comments by Gregory Gallardo)
If you like true-life 19th century murder mysteries like "The Beautiful Cigar Girl" and "Devil in the White City", you may enjoy "The Murder of Helen Jewett." The story is developed through an in-depth exploration of how the title character became a 'fallen woman' and her relationship with the men who are her potential killers. Rather than transform her research into the story, the author allows the source documents, largely consisting of personal letters, speak for themselves. The use of language in those letters makes the book worth picking up, irrespective of the story. Using their own words makes the 1830s New Yorkers come alive; they seem quite familiar yet somehow foreign. The story develops slowly, and the detail can be overwhelming. This is not an easy book to read, but it is worth putting some effort into.
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Product Details

Cohen, Patricia Cline
Vintage Books USA
New York :
United states
New york (state)
United States - State & Local
United States - 19th Century
United States - State & Local - General
Murder - General
United States Moral conditions.
Jewett, Helen
Crime - True Crime
history;true crime;new york;crime;non-fiction;prostitution;19th century;biography;murder;women;women s history;new york city;american history;gender;women s studies
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
v. 2
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.04x5.26x1.01 in. 1.05 lbs.

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » Americana » General
History and Social Science » Crime » General
History and Social Science » Crime » True Crime
History and Social Science » Feminist Studies » Sex Industry
History and Social Science » Gender Studies » Sex Industry
History and Social Science » Gender Studies » Womens Studies
History and Social Science » US History » 19th Century
History and Social Science » US History » General

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