Helen Jewett in Antebellum Period
Helen Jewett (1813-1836) was a 23-year-old woman who had been working as a prostitute for six years when she was brutally murdered in her genteel New York brothel. Jewett was axed to death, before her corpse was found smoldering from a fire set in her plush mahogany bed. A trail of solid if circumstantial evidence pointed to one of Jewett's regular customers, Richard P. Robinson, who had been with her on the night she died in 1836. The murder and subsequent trial prompted a torrent of newspaper writing in New York and across the nation. Recently, historian Patricia Cline Cohen discovered that Jewett's real name was Dorcas Doyen, and that she had worked as a servant girl in Augusta, Maine before being expelled from the job and turning up in a Portland brothel.
New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett capitalized on the incident, and his newspaper became the first to publish an account of the sexually-tinged murder. The recent growth of the penny press facilitated this coverage, and reporting on Jewett's murder further popularized the press itself. Bennett became the first editor in the history of American journalism to tour the scene of the crime when he reported on Jewett's dead body, one of many descriptions that took on a quasi-erotic undertone. In his articles on the case, Bennett described Helen's luxurious room in intimate detail, making readers more sympathetic to her. For all of the public's condemnation of prostitution, the profession had enabled Jewett to maintain an exceptional degree of financial independence for a single woman in the nineteenth century. Robinson was ultimately acquitted of Jewett's murder after the judge acknowledged that the testimony of the key witness—the brothel madam—came from a "polluted" source.