Scholar Sleuth Tracks Slaying of Spunky Monica Prototype

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in 19th-Century New York , by Patricia Cline Cohen. Knopf, 412 pages, $27.50.

On April 10, 1836, at the age of 23, Helen Jewett was hatcheted to death in the brothel bed where she had made her living in Manhattan’s Fifth Ward. The man with whom she had spent the night was missing and a fire had been set to consume her corpse. The press coverage of the sensational whodunit murder created a new style of sex-and-death journalism that comes down to us today in Hard Copy America direct from the bloody bed at 41 Thomas Street. The criminal trial that followed the indictment of Richard P. Robinson, a 19-year-old clerk, became a five-day spectacle, an ur-O.J. media circus that ended, as in our own time, by profoundly dividing public opinion.

Jewett’s brutal murder became a national weathervane in part because it coincided with a mass phenomenon: the decay of the farm and the rise of the factory, with the resulting migration of farm boys and girls seeking their fortune in the big cities. At the same time, a new “penny” press was emerging that upped circulation by capitalizing on public fears about unchaperoned youths “falling into sin.” The Jewett murder case pitted its victim, an intelligent, accomplished but “fallen” young servant girl from rural Maine, against a handsome, articulate, “respectable” clerk whose father sat in the Connecticut legislature.

Robinson’s crime turned the hidden world of New York’s sex trade inside out, and once it had been exposed to scrutiny, no one knew how to look at the murder for the atrocity it was. Instead, the Jewett case was sold to the public as a class story and as a morality tale, the mystery of which, according to Patricia Cline Cohen, was heightened by the “presumed incongruity of a person of reputable character committing a murder.”

For us, the Jewett case serves as an historical window through which an era can be viewed whole. Yet even as one begins this fascinating interpretive biography, one wonders how far the author can go when her subject is an obscure 19th-century figure in whose short, doomed life only one unforgettable thing happened. The answer is: as far as there is evidence to inspect with new eyes. Biography, as David McCullough says, “isn’t one subject. It’s a thousand subjects.”

Ms. Cohen, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has penetrated deeply into the meaning of Jewett’s life and death by tapping scores of related subjects. The author’s primary sources include the penny and mercantile newspapers of the period, which she deliberately read in their original, pre-microfilm state so as to become a “member of the reading public of Jewett’s day.” Ms. Cohen ransacked police court warrants, arrest dockets, probate records, divorce papers, land conveyance records, and tax assessments in the Fifth Ward. She rummaged through maps, censuses, city directories, deed books, and private letters and diaries. Even in the most voluminously researched popular history, I’ve never before seen an author thank a curator for supplying a pair of rubber gloves with which to conduct research.

Ms. Cohen probes her source material with the zeal of a Pinkerton. As she peels away layers of myth to reveal the realities of antebellum America’s false standards of sexual morality, and the complex, demanding relationships that actually took place between prostitute and client, we feel the excitement of following an investigator whose gaze is fresh and sharp. Jewett’s role as a victim of a sex crime, for example, takes on new meaning when we first understand that her life as a prostitute involved, as Ms. Cohen shows us, a reversal of sexual roles. Jewett–not her clients–held the power and controlled the liaison. “She, not they, set the terms of the relationship.”

The result of Ms. Cohen’s interpretive strategies is a sequence of set pieces that solve the puzzle of the crime and sustain our interest without a hint of the chronological tedium that more conventional biography can fall prey to. Imagine a gallery in which a genre painter exhibits richly painted scenes of lower middle-class life in 19th-century New York, the depth and hidden horror of which become more and more clear the longer we look. Ms. Cohen does for the veiled brothel world of lower Manhattan what William Hogarth did for London’s Cheapside. Instead of giving us a world we want to live in vicariously or linger over affectionately, Ms. Cohen keeps us peering into the past as if into a chamber of horrors presented on the grand scale patented by that other notorious madam: Tussaud.

From the start, we understand that the unblinking figures and queerly lifelike scenes before us are intended to have a mirror effect. Without naming contemporary names, Ms. Cohen calls to mind the cases of our own notorious and arrogant twentysomethings, Monica Lewinsky and Stephen Glass, when she asks, “How could authentic evidence be distinguished from fabrication in the press? What was to prevent editors from simply making up material to entertain or to win a competitive edge over other papers?”

Within a week of covering the Jewett case, certain metropolitan newspapers saw their home-delivery subscriptions increase by thousands. The dailies that limited their coverage to straight news quickly discovered that their sales remained flat. The same historical looking glass shows us that, then as now, “supplying or recommending sexual entertainment enhanced male sociability and helped to cement business relationships between strangers.” And even without the salesmanship of Herb Ritts to touch up her image, Ms. Cohen’s Jewett possesses the assertiveness and gumption to serve today’s reader as a spunky Monica prototype. “[Jewett] is an example of what the ‘self-made man,’ so famous to the Jacksonian era, looks like, when transmuted into the female body,” argues Ms. Cohen. She adds, “Self-invention was her stock in trade, and imaginary romance what she sold for a living.”

Jewett’s relationships were anything but casual. Before an assignation could take place, she demanded from her clients highly evolved displays of courtship. Faithfulness, reciprocity and the exchange of intimate letters were required of both prostitute and client. Jewett’s and Robinson’s correspondence, which unfolded over the course of their stormy 10-month affair, demonstrates a degree of literary skill not usually associated with commercial sex. Ms. Cohen looks carefully into the subtext at each stage of sexual interaction, and while she presents Jewett and her clients as “playactors” in a drama, she also succeeds at seeing deeply into their inner lives.

Discussing the impact of John Vanderlyn’s oil painting, The Death of Jane McCrea , on the prostitutes and clients who glimpsed it while flirting in the parlor at 41 Thomas Street, the author brilliantly analyzes the painting’s violent imagery and the role McCrea’s legend, a popular story of the Revolutionary War, may have played in the sexual fantasies and power struggles in the brothel. By the time Ms. Cohen has uncovered the deeper meaning of Jane McCrea’s murder by hatchet–”women who claim independence and freedom of choice in lovers should expect the possibility of an untimely and bloody end”–and connected it to the fate of Helen Jewett and the other women working at 41 Thomas Street, the reader is well aware that we are in the presence of an often miraculous work of scholarship.

Ms. Cohen’s visual aperçus are immensely satisfying because her writing is graphic and skillful and modest; rather than show off what she’s unearthed, she leads us to participate in her discoveries. At the same time, Ms. Cohen too often sacrifices her narrative to the mass of interpretive detail. By the time Robinson’s trial begins, more than two-thirds of the way into the book, too much of the story is still being discussed–told in the single key of ingenious scholarly sleuthing. Perhaps Ms. Cohen feared that the story had been told too many times by novelists. As recently as 1973, for example, Gore Vidal assigned Helen Jewett to Charlie Schuyler, the brothel-creeping narrator of Burr .

The Helen Jewett that Ms. Cohen reinvents for the 1990′s is a figure we know well. Thirty years ago, she might have been glimpsed in the arms of a Nehru-jacketed movie star in Hugh Hefner’s Los Angeles mansion. Ten years after that, she might have been a girl-next-door named Dorothy Stratton. We know her because she is still with us in the face of Kate Moss, and in the now ubiquitous “Presidential kneepads,” which in only six months have gone from being a national embarrassment to an accepted fantasy.

In her own age, as now, Helen Jewett epitomized the ever-shifting and always political medium known to civilization as lust. Through her, Patricia Cline Cohen has written a significant contribution to the ever-expanding literature of Old New York.