It is impossible to read The Murder of Helen Jewett and not be reminded of the O.
J. Simpson murder trial. The similarities are striking: a beautiful young woman found murdered, the victim of a brutal slashing; a handsome, prosperous man arrested for the crime; a mad scramble by reporters to reveal every detail of the case; a high-profile trial complete with bungling prosecutors and slick defense attorneys; and finally, a stunning acquittal of the accused.
So why bother reading Patricia Cline Cohen's account of a 19th-century prostitute when we have O.
J.? Perhaps to understand that history does repeat itself; maybe to realize that elements we find abhorrent about today's legal system and media coverage have been commonplace since the infancy of our nation; or simply because the demise of Helen Jewett makes for an interesting potboiler.
Cohen is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and she approaches her subject with the keen eye of an historian. This prosaic style can lead to some dry spots in the text. There is, for instance, more information than most readers need about the history of the sex trade in New York City, the setting for the story. But much of the chronicle of Helen Jewett's life and violent death is engrossing, and the care Cohen gives to relating each detail paints a vivid portrait of the crime.
Helen Jewett was discovered murdered in her bed on April 10, 1836. Three bloody gashes covered her face, and her body had been set on fire by her assailant. When the flames were extinguished, constables discovered a man's handkerchief near the bed. Later, a hatchet was found in the back yard. Evidence quickly mounted against Richard P. Robinson, a frequent client and sometime suitor of Jewett. The mercantile clerk, an educated man from an established East Coast family, was arrested, setting the stage for a lurid passion play that enthralled New York and the nation.
Among the more interesting facets of the book is Cohen's analysis of how the press covered the crime and subsequent trial. Jewett's murder occurred at the beginning of a circulation war among a dozen or so New York newspapers, many of which used the grisly crime to sell more copies. The intense competition compelled reporters to constantly dig for new information, and some resorted to fabricating evidence and confessions. Even the reputable newspapers were forced to chose between responsible journalism and higher revenues, most settling for the latter.
Actions in the courtroom were equally reprehensible. Cohen shows how the prosecution failed to introduce key evidence, including a series of love letters between Jewett and Robinson. One of the last letters Robinson wrote was threatening in nature. Meanwhile, his trio of high-profile lawyers took courtroom oratory to new heights, mesmerizing the jury. Robinson's eventual acquittal resulted in the same kind of shock waves as when Simpson was found not guilty.
The Helen Jewett case ultimately fails to match the excitement and emotion generated by the Simpson trial. But readers can come away from Cohen's book with a deeper historical perspective of the imperfections inherent in the criminal justice system and the press and a realization of how little things have changed in 160 years.
John T. Slania is a writer from Chicago.