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Helen Jewett was famous in 1830s New York. Elegant and strikingly dressed, she was known to every pedestrian along Broadway. Young Richard P. Robinson, one of her regular clients at the brothel, became infamous by murdering her in bed and getting away with it.
by Doris Lane
It is the opinion of this Jury from the Evidence before them that the said Helen Jewett came to her death by a blow or blows inflicted on the head, with a hatchet by the hand of Richard P. Robinson--Coroner's Inquest April 10 1836
Helen Jewett was a great letter writer. She was a familiar figure in the mid-1830s as she strolled along Broadway to the post office at Wall Street, fashionably dressed in green silk. Among the many illustrations that appeared in the New York penny press and crime pamphlets in which she was featured dead, one with both breasts fully exposed, another with the blade about to fall on her neck, was one in which she appeared as in public life in her signature green silk dress and a veiled hat. She carried a parasol in one hand and a letter in the other.
In her room at 41 Thomas Street, one of a row of Federal townhouse brothels, Helen hung a picture of Lord Byron, who was her favorite poet. She had a small library of books by Byron, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and a copy of Flowers of Loveliness, recently published by Lady Blessington. She had current subscriptions to literary journals, such as the Knickerbocker and the Albion. Theatrical sketches were pinned over her mantle. A worktable held pens and ink and good quality writing paper. Police found a trunk in the room holding almost 100 letters to and from Helen's admirers.
One of Helen's lovers, George Marston (known in the brothel as Bill Easy), later testified to Helen's vast wardrobe of expensive gowns and jewelry; two emerald rings, earrings and belt buckles made of precious gems, and a gold watch chain. He said, "Ellen was one of the most splendidly dressed women that went to the third tier of the theater.
The April 12, 1836 edition of the New York Herald claimed, "Ellen Jewett was well known to every pedestrian in Broadway. Last summer she was famous for parading Wall Street in an elegant green dress, and generally with a letter in her hand. She used to look at the brokers with great boldness of demeanor, had a peculiar walk, something in the style of an Englishwoman." The following day the Sun cited Helen's "well-known reputation for beauty, intelligence, accomplishments, and gentility of appearance…." James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, who viewed her room and her dead body, wrote that Helen Jewett "was a remarkable character; and has come to a remarkable end."
The spelling of her name, either Ellen or Helen, perhaps was interchangeable in her day; she signed her name as "Helen."
The Sex Trade
Given Helen's high status in the world of New York prostitution, a collective shudder must have shaken the city's power elite. This was no girl of the streets. This was no early American hot sheet motel.
John R. Livingston, whose brother was recently President Jackson's secretary of state, owned 41 Thomas Street. It was a familiar address to men of the wealthy mercantile class of the city. John Livingston, himself, had been a partner of Robert Fulton in developing his steamboat, and as a young man he was equestrian guard to George Washington at his presidential inauguration.
The house, along with another, number 39-1/2 Thomas Street, had been built and furnished as a brothel from the start in 1825. A third Livingston-owned brothel was in the same row at number 39. In 1833, 39-1/2 and 41 were combined into one brothel managed by Rosina Townsend, who had occupied 41 Thomas Street since 1829.
The combined structure featured twin staircases that met on a second floor landing, before continuing to the third floor. Two large skylights illuminated the entire space. Two back parlors were knocked into a single large drawing room that overlooked a piazza running the double-width of the house and a landscaped garden complete with arbors and benches. The double parlor, richly furnished with comfortable couches, plush carpets, gilt-framed mirrors, and original oil paintings was where clients socialized with the women before retiring with one to an upstairs bedroom.
Mrs. Townsend's establishment was not uncommon in the respectable Fifth Ward neighborhood northwest of City Hall. High-class brothels existed side by side with private residences, churches, schools, places of business, and cultural and civic institutions.
Between Church Street and Chapel Street (West Broadway), Helen's first brothel address was at 55 Leonard Street in another row of substantial residences. On the northwest corner of Church and Leonard stood the Italian Opera House. Former Mayor of New York, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State Edward P. Livingston lived between Church and Broadway. Across the street from the brothel at 55 Leonard Street, which was run by Ann Welden, lived a police officer at 48 Leonard Street and Walden's landlord, John C. Van Allen, at 54 Leonard Street.
Before Welden opened the house a prominent dramatist, William Dunlap, and his brother, an attorney, occupied it. The Dunlap brothers were considered well off for the time, their personal wealth assessed at $1000. Ann Welding, a year later, was worth twice that in furnishings, art, clothes, and books, including a complete set of Shakespeare.
Ann Welden's landlord, John C. Van Allen, was no match for Rosina Townsend's, however; John R. Livingston owned some 30 luxury brothel buildings. For three decades Livingston was the single largest owner of brothels in the city. He had inherited wealth in the form of several thousand acres in the Hudson Valley and had made a personal fortune in city real estate.
Helen was already a prostitute when she arrived in New York from Boston in 1832. By later that year, she was living in Ann Welden's house at 55 Leonard Street. In April 1833, Helen and Welden had some kind of falling out and Helen moved to 72 Chapel Street, where Welden visited and apparently assaulted Helen. Whatever the trouble, although Helen had Welden arrested, she also bailed her out of jail.
Helen was next living as the kept mistress of an Englishman on Mercer Street near Broome Street in what is today SoHo. In exchange for her exclusive availability, Helen received food and shelter, clothes, maid service, and theater tickets, as well as a temporary rise in social status and possibly romance. Such arrangements were frequent, albeit temporary respites from brothel life for the better class of prostitute. Helen and her friends might undertake such a relationship a few times in a year as an aspect of doing business.
The thriving sex trade of early New York was a legal industry, so long as public order and decorum was maintained. There was no statute on the books barring the trade of sex for money. When prostitutes were arrested it was for drunkenness or vagrancy, but there was no language in the law that precluded solicitation. The charge of vagrancy was commonly leveled at prostitutes, but in the Sixth Ward, the Five Points and Bowery districts, where the sex trade was more likely to be conducted by streetwalkers. Brothel-based prostitutes of the Fifth Ward were unlikely police targets and the houses themselves, owned and frequented by rich and powerful men, were protected.
The Fifth Ward brothel district, bordering as it did the civic and cultural center, was part of the geography of the sporting culture of the day. Entertainment gardens, museums, artists' galleries, large hotels, theaters, and concert halls were all in walking distance. Respectable women escorted by men were welcome in any of these public venues. Prostitutes escorted by men were equally well received, mingling with society matrons in the first and second tiers of the Park, Bowery, Richmond Hill, and Franklin Theaters.
The theaters of the day were as ritzy as today's Broadway theaters. They were pushily appointed, elaborately painted and decorated, and gas lit by great chandeliers. Elegant prostitutes who were escorted were seated in the first and second tiers. The third tier was reserved for unescorted prostitutes, equally elegant, who attended in groups or alone. Male theatergoers visited the third tier to set up appointments for later in the evening. The theaters had special entrances and staircases for the third-tier prostitutes, but their sisters with escorts entered through the front door.
Attendance at theaters was a combination business and social outing for the women. Theater managers not only reserved special seating for them, but also often admitted prostitutes at a special rate or even for free, as an attraction to male customers. Helen Jewett attended the theater several times a week, sometimes with gentlemen, and other times as part of a group of prostitutes.
In the last two years of her life, Helen Jewett lived at three brothels, twice at 41 Thomas Street under Rosina Townsend, once at 128 Duane Street, known as the Philadelphia House and run by an Englishwoman named Mary Berry, who called herself the Duchess de Berri. A sporting man's newspaper, the Flash, published this accolade: "Her table is excellent, her boarders are ladies, her furniture is splendid. In her manner to her visitors, she merits the noble title she has acquired—the Duchess—for if not a Duchess, she is the next thing to it. We wish her all possible success, and recommend gentlemen who wish to look upon splendor and magnificence, to visit her house." Helen next lived at 3 Franklin Street with a Mrs. Cunningham, before moving back, just three weeks before her death in April 1836, with Mrs. Townsend at 41 Thomas Street.
Women in Mrs. Townsend's house saw an average of only 10 men a week. Helen had an exclusive clientele who visited regularly and paid what were high rates for the day of about $5 an encounter plus gratuities and gifts. Helen paid Mrs. Townsend $12 a week for room and board with no percentage of earned fees. Mrs. Townsend also sold food and drink in the parlor. Gentlemen were welcome to visit the parlor and socialize, eat and drink, without buying sexual services. For many younger men on their own, far from home and short of cash, the refined brothel may have provided a combination domestic and social atmosphere that was lacking in the Jacksonian city.
As a price comparison, $12 for room and board at a high-class brothel such as Mrs. Townsend's was near the cost of a good room with meals at the swank Astor Hotel a few blocks away. A prostitute making $50 a week earned three times more than a highly trained journeyman in the building trades. Helen was able to hire her own maid who came in twice a day to clean, do laundry, carry wood and build fires, fetch water, and help Helen dress for the day or evening.
Rosina Townsend's history leading to the sex trade is not untypical. She grew up near Albany, N.Y., where she married and then moved to Ohio with her husband, who deserted her. She returned to her parents' home for a short time before moving to New York City in 1825. She worked first at sewing and then entered domestic service with Henry Beekman, a prominent merchant, at 60 Greenwich Street. After a few weeks, she was installed in a "house of assignation," probably by Beekman. By April 1826, she was working in a brothel and by 1828 was the madam at 28 Anthony Street (Worth Street). In 1829, she moved her business to 41 Thomas Street, four years before the owner, John R. Livingston, joined the house with the one next door.
In 1830, a group of neighbors filed a complaint against Townsend and the two madams who ran the establishments at 39 and 39-1/2 Thomas Street, naming Livingston as their "agent." The main point of grievance was the naked women in the windows. By the time Helen Jewett entered the house in 1834, it was a much more luxurious and genteel establishment, catering to well-connected gentlemen and the young clerks of the mercantile houses of South Street. The second time she lived there in 1836, it was for only three weeks, and then she was dead.
Helen had two men who were her steady callers and on whom she depended financially. One was William H. Attree, a journalist. In June 1834, Helen, then 20, had appeared in Police Court to press an assault charge against the son of a Pearl Street merchant, who had kicked her on the stairs in the Park Theater and then laughed at her. Attree, then crime reporter for the Transcript, wrote a supportive column describing Helen's childhood as the privileged ward of a respectable family, her seduction as a young girl in Maine, and her descent into prostitution. He placed the blame for Helen's present station in life squarely on her seducer.
Attree soon became a regular client of Helen's. In a letter to her he asked, "Did you see the account I gave of you in my paper? How I have served up the immaculate rascal!" He also talked of her "rich lips" and "full bust," upon which Attree had lain. He then confessed he wished he had been the one to first seduce her.
Attree was a worldly man and had no trouble accepting Helen's clients and lovers. Two years into their friendship, not long before she died, he wrote to her asking after "Frank" (Robinson) and "Bill" (Marston). He told Helen he thought of her as a swan who crosses an "impure stream…yet the instant she is freed from immediate contact with them, she simply 'shakes her feathers,' stretches her noble pinions, and her plumage resumes its purity and beauty." He was traveling at the time in the West and wrote, "I long to see and talk to you, for I have seen such sights—but yet I have not transgressed with an Indian girl, no, nor with any other kind since I left New York, but this is not virtue, for I wish, oh, how I wish I had you with me this very night." When he returned from this trip, she was dead.
Younger and less sophisticated than Attree was her other primary client, George P. Marston ("Bill Easy"). He was only 17 when he first took up with Helen. He was devoted to her and it was with her he spent his Saturday nights, and a few nights during the week, having accompanied her to the theater. Marston was supportive even in Helen's troubles with Robinson: "Helen! If I could but restore that man to your affections; if I could but remove the cause of your unhappiness; if I could but dispel the mist and uncertainty in which you are involved; in one word if I could but make you happy, I should ever experience the liveliest joy, in knowing that my endeavors to render myself of some service to you, had not been wholly fruitless, and that I had been the humble cause of many happy hours…"
Marston was the son of Judge Stephen Marston of Newburyport, Mass. After George was involved in some juvenile scrape in 1834, his father shipped him out as a crewmember on a freighter for New Orleans. By April 1835, George was working as a clerk in New York City and living in a boardinghouse. He and Robinson were acquainted and frequently ate together at oyster bars and restaurants as part of a group of young male boardinghouse dwellers.
Marston and Robinson both were typical of thousands of New England boys who converged on cities to find work and independence in the 1830s. Only a short time earlier they would have been part of a much more restrictive labor system of master-apprenticeship. They would have lived in their employers' homes as family members with paternalistic supervision and maternalistic care. The homes in which they lived would have been near to the places of business in which they worked. Their free time would have been accountable to the confines and rules of the household; the employer fully responsible for the moral behavior of the youth.
As it happened, both Robinson and Marston entered a new world of freedom from adult supervision that was unheard of before 1820. A series of epidemics had businessmen relocating their residences now to the north and away from the downtown workplace. In the same era, a series of devastating fires leveled whole neighborhoods, resulting in acute housing shortages. Boardinghouse living became common, not only for young clerks from the rural hinterlands, but for everybody except the very wealthy. The intimate connection of the master-apprentice ended, leaving independent youth to its own devices—the theater, the concert hall, the respectable brothel, the pleasure garden, the hotel restaurant, all became centers of a masculine youth culture entirely new to the boys and to the city.
The merchant class did acknowledge the gap in supervision that endangered their young employees. Organizations such as the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen offered lectures to young men on living an upstanding life. Joseph Hoxie, Robinson's cloth merchant employer, was well-known for benevolent and educational work among youth new to the city. Robinson came to Hoxie through a family connection; his first cousin, James Robinson, was married to Hoxie's sister. Robinson could not have been better placed, if it were not for the demise of the apprenticeship structure, to learn his trade, to prosper, and to marry respectably. As it was, when Joseph Hoxie went home at night, Richard Robinson went out on the town.
There was no mystery about who killed Helen Jewett; the only mystery was why he got away with it. They met in June of 1835, the courtesan and the clerk, when Helen was already successful in her profession and he was at the bottom of his. She worked at the famous Philadelphia House under the Duchess de Berri. He worked as a clerk in Joseph Hoxie's store. He was the eighth child of 12 in the family of a prosperous farmer and landowner of Durham, Conn. She was raised as the ward/servant of a prominent New England judge who saw to her education. Helen was 22; Richard was 18.
Just as George P. Marston, Helen's regular client, had a brothel alias of "Bill Easy," Richard P. Robinson was known as "Frank Rivers" inside the walls of various brothels he frequented in the Fifth Ward of Manhattan. Once, when pretending he was married to a young girl he set up in a brothel, he called himself "Douglass."
Their relationship began the way Helen's deeper attachments always began, with letters. She wrote him on June 17, 1835: "Tonight is Chapman's farewell benefit at the Park. I have an engagement to go with Clara; and if you get in town and my letter in season, you will have arrived most opportunely, for then we may expect the pleasure of your company. However, if you do not, of course, I shall see you immediately on your return, and you do not know how much I want to see you. Believe me, I think your acquaintance a very valuable acquisition, and should dispense with your visits with much reluctance and regret; and shall never voluntarily do anything, which may render me unworthy of your confidence and esteem. Affectionately, H."
A few days later she wrote again: "I know not, my dear Frank, what your idea of this chequered life may be, but to me, the current of existence would be but a black and sluggish stream, if love did not gild its surface and impel its tide. I anticipate further acquaintance with you will throw an additional charm over my time, and make the sands of life run more gaily than before. There is so much sweetness in that voice, so much intelligence in that eye, and so much luxuriance in that form, I cannot fail to love you."
She next writes to thank him for a miniature portrait of himself he has given her, saying, "It is ever before me, and as the representative of one so dear to me, I prize it." When not gazing on the miniature, Helen wore it around her neck. The giving of a miniature portrait was a significant gesture of romantic commitment. She, in turn, gave him one of her "green rings" – perhaps an emerald.
In a June letter from him to her he says, with an element of horrific foresight: "Here I sit, now almost noon, just out of bed, fresh from heavenly dreams of you. Nell, how pleasant it is to dream, be where you will and as hungry as you will, how supremely happy one is in a little world of our own creation. At best we but live one little hour, strut at our own conceit, and die. How unhappy must those persons be who cannot enjoy life as it is, seize pleasure as it comes floating on like a noble ship, bound for yonder distant port with all sails set. Come will ye embark?—then on we go, gaily, hand in hand, scorning all petty and trivial troubles, eagerly gazing on our rising sun, till the warmth of its beams causes our sparkling blood to o'erflow and mingle in holy delight…."
A few days later he struggles with his jealousy over Helen's professional life, attempting to distinguish a client from a lover by differentiating proper names from brothel aliases: "I know I was acting wrong, in trifling with feelings such as yours, but yet, I could not help it. When you told me you were unhappy and wished me not to act so foolishly, I felt for you, and pitied you, yet I could not have spoken a pleasant word, if I could. But it is done, and the only way in which I can atone to you is, in future, to be more a gentleman, and more myself, for it was not Geo. [George P. Marston] who stayed with you last night, it was Bill E__y."
Helen was not above jealousy, perhaps seeing her professional services to other men as not constituting betrayal of her true love. In early August she suspected and then confirmed that Robinson had been with another woman. In the grand jury proceedings held a week after Helen's murder, prostitute witnesses detailed the events of August 1835.
Julia Brown, madam of a brothel on Chapel Street told of Robinson having seduced a young girl that August at 171 Reade Street. Elizabeth Stewart, who ran the house on Reade Street, testified that a girl who "had come there from school," a 17-year-old, came to board with her, telling Stewart that she was married to "Douglass," as Robinson was known there. Emma Chancellor's aunt found her at the house and told Stewart her niece had run away with Robinson, who gave the girl "several Dresses and Books." Julia Brown testified that Robinson had threatened to "blow out the brains" of any woman who exposed his affair with Emma Chancellor to Helen.
The situation with Emma Chancellor seems to have been resolved by late August when Helen and Robinson were again writing and seeing each other. By November, Helen had pleased Robinson by promising to give him a miniature portrait of her. In the same letter he writes: "No one can love you more than I do, dear Nelly; yet how strange, whenever I meet you I cannot treat you even with respect. You must think it very strange that I profess to love you so much and yet always treat you so harshly. Yet I have told you over and over again, that loving you as I do and not being able to see you, it makes me most crazy, and I have no control over my feelings, but Nelly, you must forgive me." In mid-November he writes of an occasion on which his conduct toward her was "far from being gentlemanly." He says he will never visit her again, but will "visit" no others.
In December 1835, although they wrote to each other, apparently they were again having problems. Helen traveled to Philadelphia in her work for the Mrs. Berry. Robinson took the opportunity to visit Helen's brothel in New York and tried to engage another girl for the evening. This was a breech of brothel etiquette and the other prostitute refused. The Duchess immediately wrote to Helen in Philadelphia that, "Your Frank came about nine o'clock, inquired for Hannah… judge my surprise when he told me he wanted to remain with her. I told him he should not but he tried to insist upon so doing, but I again told him I would not suffer such a thing." Hannah, reported the Duchess, "rejected his offer with becoming dignity."
Helen returned right away and wrote to him, "I have returned to town, and wish to see you this evening without fail. I am back thus soon on your account, so you will please sacrifice an hour of your time on mine. It may be for your interest to accede to this request."
He avoided going that night, but wrote the next day, "My dearest Nell—Forgive me, forgive me! Though things may look against me, I can easily explain, and, as I think, to your satisfaction." Helen answered, "My dear Frank, You are perfectly aware of the disappointment I felt at not seeing you, also my anxiety to do so, but dearest, you know I can forgive you anything."
In the grand jury proceedings, the Duchess testified that Robinson had been banned as a troublemaker from her house. Helen had written to Robinson, "I am at a loss to know what you mean 'if Mrs. Berry will admit you,' for Heaven's sake tell me, for if you have been refused, I will vacate the premises immediately…I am ill, I mean sick, sick at heart, and you don't know how unhappy I shall be until I see you."
Helen moved out of the Philadelphia House in January 1836, but did not inform Robinson of her whereabouts at Mrs. Cunningham's house on Franklin Street. On Jan. 12, he wrote, "Hearing you had left Mrs. B's, I am astonished that you don't inform me. Is it that the name of Frank has no power to please you longer; is it true that you have made up your mind to forget me; TO DENOUNCE ME, to those you most sacredly promised not to? Am I not then debased enough when I deserve to be forgotten by you, but that you must go still further and betray me? Nelly, Nelly, pause ere you go further; think of how we were once situated, and if you can convince yourself that you are acting a noble part in cutting my throat, go on is all I have to say. My course will be short and sweet! No, bitter, bitter as well you know."
Helen appears to have had some knowledge of his business activities that, if exposed, or "blown" in the term of the day, would ruin him. She responded immediately, mollifying yet asking for a meeting in a public place: "My Dearest Frank—I have not forgotten you, believe me, I am very desirous of seeing you, and cannot tell what you mean by sending me an unsealed note and your expressions relative to blowing you, which you have my word, that I will never under any circumstances do…. I will meet you tonight at eight o'clock on the corner of Chapel and Franklin by Tom Reilly's Hotel. Be punctual. Yours ever."
Between late January and April, their letters continued, with expressions of love and jealousy, and with his apologies for abusive behavior toward her, but she had apparently been putting some distance between them. He wrote: "Nelly, for God's sake, write me soon and tell me how you are getting along! By heavens, you are in my thoughts day and night all the time. If I knew you thought half as much of me as I do of you, it seems as though I should be most happy…. I know you think me a strange being, yet cold and insensible as I sometimes appear, I have feelings over which I have no control, and which, if trifled with in any way, would make me unhappy and almost crazy."
Robinson had grown more and more jealous of her professional life and objected to an encounter with another man when she and Robinson were together at the theater. "Can you think it is in my power to sit at your side a whole evening; however much I may want to, your friend—watching you, and you him, and feel happy? Those who do not feel as interested in you as I do, might, but Nelly, I cannot, I cannot sit with you in the presence of one who has, and may again purchase you as his; do you really think I can? I again repeat I cannot, I cannot. I am glad to see you; yet I am never more unhappy than when with you at the theater." In the same letter, acknowledging her need for the financial support she received from Marston, he says, "Never for one moment think that I would have you offend for me, or that I am angry with you for having such a friend, for it is not so."
Robinson was in some kind of trouble that spring of 1836, perhaps involved in an embezzlement scheme connected with his workplace, the firm of Joseph Hoxie. In searching his room the day after the murder, police found a wallet stuffed with money and a large number of bills of exchange made out to Hoxie, which could be cashed by the bearer.
There is some indication that he used Helen as an intermediary with other men in carrying out the theft. Her letters to him mention his being watched or followed, she having vital information for him, and, as their relationship deteriorated, Helen holding a threat of exposure over him. She tells him, "I feel amazingly like blowing you up, if I dared—not with powder."
He apparently has begun avoiding her, and she has entirely lost patience, when she writes, "My Dear Frank—You have passed your promise by two nights, and yet you have not thought proper to send me a single line, even in the shape of an excuse. Do you think I will endure this? Shall I who have rejected abundance for your sake, sit contented under treatment which seems invented for my mortification; nay, for my destruction. Pause, Frank, pause, ere you drive me to madness…. Slight me no more. Trample on me no further. Even the worm will turn under the heel. You have known how I have loved, do not, oh do not provoke the experiment of seeing how I can hate. But in hate or in love, Your Helen."
He answered, "Women are never so foolish as when they threaten. You are never so foolish as when you threaten me. Keep quiet until I come on Saturday night, and then we will see if we cannot be better friends hereafter. Do not tell any person I shall come."
Murder in the Brothel
On March 18, 1836 Helen Jewett moved back into Rosina Townsend's brothel on Thomas Street. Mrs. Townsend would testify that in the last three weeks of Helen's life that she lived in the Thomas Street brothel, Robinson visited perhaps eight times in the evening and one Sunday afternoon. As Helen and Robinson were in the habit of meeting outside the brothel, as well, this is no indication of how often they met in her last days.
Another girl in the house, Elizabeth Salters, had begun a business relationship with Robinson in February while Helen was still living elsewhere. Salters testified that Helen had no knowledge of it. "I never said anything to her about his visiting me. I thought she had the most right to him, as I understood from her that she had known him intimately for a long time." Miss Salters told the court, "I have more than once seen the prisoner with his clothes off." She said of Helen, "She was a favorite amongst all the girls, and I never knew or heard of her having a quarrel with anyone in the house."
Rosina Townsend said of Robinson that on his visits to her house while Helen lived there, "he habitually pulled his cloak up to avoid being seen by other visitors." Townsend testified, and was backed up by Salters and another prostitute, Emma French, that in late March, Robinson asked Helen to return or destroy his letters, telling her he was about to be married.
April 9, 1836, a Saturday
Helen Jewett and Elizabeth Salters went walking down Broadway in the late afternoon. Outside A.T. Stewart's department store they met up with Edward Strong, a young clerk, who followed them back to the house on Thomas Street. Strong and Helen went up to her room where her maid, Sarah Dunscombe, had just built a fire in the fireplace. Strong sat in a chair with Helen in his lap, as Dunscombe went about her evening tasks of carrying water and preparing Helen's clothes. When Sarah was finished, Helen told her she could go home to her mother.
The previous morning, Sarah would recall, she had dusted Robinson's miniature portrait, returned it to its Moroccan-leather case, and placed it in a bureau drawer. Sarah had often seen Helen wear it about her neck. Helen told Sarah she was expecting Robinson to visit the next night, Saturday.
After Edward Strong left, Helen had tea with Townsend, Salters, and French in the parlor. It was about 7 p.m. Helen was concerned that George Marston, who regularly called for her on Saturday nights, would arrive when Robinson was with her. She asked Townsend if she would please tell Marston, if he showed up, that she was unable to see him tonight.
Between 9 and 9:30, Mrs. Townsend answered a knock at the street door. A male voice asked for Miss Jewett. Townsend recognized Robinson's voice, but wanting to be absolutely sure she did not admit Marston by mistake, asked the man to repeat himself. When she was doubly sure it was Robinson she opened the door. Robinson, as was his custom, drew his cloak up to hide his face. However, as he stood in the light of a globe lamp, Townsend had no trouble recognizing Robinson in the moment before he disguised himself.
Emma French was standing in the doorway of her first floor room, situated across the hall from Townsend's own room. French, despite the cloak, also recognized Robinson, or the man she knew as Frank Rivers. Townsend opened the parlor door and announced her guest to Helen. Robinson started up the right staircase. Helen took the left one and they met on the landing.
"My dear Frank," she was heard to say, "I am glad you've come."
Two young men, James Tew, who was Robinson's roommate, and Rodman Moulton, came to the house about 9:30. They talked a while with Elizabeth Salters, who told them Frank Rivers was upstairs with Helen. Tew and Moulton had both taken tea earlier with Robinson at their boardinghouse on Dey Street. They left with a fourth boarder, Charles Tyrell, and walked up Broadway. At City Hall Park, Tyrell later testified, Robinson left them. He was wearing, according to Tyrell, a dark cloth cloak with a velvet collar and facings.
Sometime before 11, a shoe man delivered boots Helen had in for repair. She came downstairs to pay the man. Emma French said that at this time Helen was still dressed as she had been earlier in the parlor. At about 11, Helen came out of her room for the last time. She was dressed in nightclothes. She ordered a bottle of champagne, which Townsend served herself. Helen invited the madam to have a glass, but Townsend refused, chatting a few moments from the doorway.
The bed was opposite where Townsend stood, a French mahogany sleigh bed. Robinson was lying against the footboard, his head resting on his left elbow, reading by the light of a candle in front of his face. She saw his head and the side of his face clearly, she testified, and noticed a bald spot at the back of his head. Mrs. Townsend had a guest of her own for the evening, she closed Helen's door, and went downstairs.
There were seven customers in the house that night: Charles Humphrey with Rosina Townsend; Frank Rivers with Helen; a "gentleman" with Caroline Steward; a "friend" with Amelia Elliot; and two men with Maria Stevens. At 3 a.m., James Ashley was expected for Elizabeth Salters.
Mrs. Townsend locked the inside lock on the street door at a quarter after midnight and took the key to her room. This was the customary time for the house to close up, but since Ashley had a late appointment, Townsend allowed Salters to sleep until that time, and would answer his knock herself. Mrs. Townsend would be awakened once that night before Ashley arrived, when one of the guests, finding himself locked in, knocked on her door for the key. Rosina called out sleepily, "Get your woman to let you out." It was a rule of the house that gentlemen be escorted out, if they left before morning, by the women with whom they had lain. Townsend's bedmate, Mr. Humphrey woke up at 3 a.m. to Ashley's knock at the front door.
Mrs. Townsend checked through a bedroom window first, to be sure it was the expected customer, and then lit a lamp to let Ashley into the house. As he went upstairs, she looked down the hall and noticed a lamp out of place in the back parlor. The lamp was lit. It was one of two that belonged in second floor bedrooms. When she entered the parlor, she saw the back door was unlocked and standing partly open. This door locked by a bar from the inside, a bar she knew she had set in place, as she closed the house for the night soon after midnight.
Townsend kept chamber pots in every room and the night was cold for April, so she doubted a guest had gone out to use the privy, leaving the bar off the door. But, just in case, she went to her room and sat up waiting about ten minutes. When she heard no return, she went back to the door and called out a few times, "Who is there?" She had the lamp in her hand. She decided to see which of the two bedrooms was missing its lamp, so she would know who had left the house. When she opened Helen's door, smoke billowed out. Mrs. Townsend yelled, "Fire!"
She ran to a front window and shouted for the watchman. She and Maria Stevens rushed into Helen's room to try and rescue Helen and Robinson. The bed was not on fire, but it was smoldering, the bedding in ashes, one side of Helen roasted brown, and Robinson nowhere to be seen. There was a pool of blood on the pillow and Helen's forehead was split open in three places. Four watchmen responded to the alarm. As soon as the door was opened to them, the overnight guests of the brothel disappeared into the night.
Toward dawn, two professional policemen arrived; two of very few in the city, which had no official police force before the 1840s. There were eight watchmen now in the house and they were directed by the police to search the yard. A hatchet was found near the back fence, and a long cloak on the other side of the fence, in the yard of a house on Hudson Street. Caught on the hatchet was a bit of velvet, a tassel that matched a torn part of the velvet facing on the cloak, which still held its matching velvet tassel. The fleeing killer lost the cloak, the police decided, while having to jump several fences to reach an alley to the street.
Richard P. Robinson was arrested at his boardinghouse next morning and taken directly to the crime scene. Neighboring brothel keepers had arrived to comfort Mrs. Townsend, including Mary Berry and a Mrs. Gallagher from 120 Chapel Street. Mrs. Gallagher demanded of Robinson, "What induced you to commit so cruel and barbarous an act?" He replied, "Do you think I would blast my brilliant prospects by so ridiculous an act—I am a young man of only 19 years of age yesterday with most brilliant prospects." He then directed the police to George Marston's handkerchief that Helen kept under her pillow, saying, "I am not afraid that I shall be convicted." He denied owning a cloak or a hatchet; indeed, he denied ever being at the brothel.
Observers were shocked at how calm and collected the suspect was, even as he viewed the bloodied and burned corpse of his lover. But Robinson's assurances of his own safety proved foretelling. As a young man of "brilliant prospects" his interests would override those of any prostitute's, living or dead. Even his lies about the ownership of the cloth cloak found in the brothel neighbor's yard would be believed over multiple witnesses who swore otherwise.
The Aftermath of Murder
Helen Jewett had been a celebrity in life; Richard P. Robinson became one soon after he killed her. The city press turned against Helen, even her client Bennett who had championed her initially. The merchant class drew behind the young clerk, unable to believe a respectable youth could commit such a barbaric crime.
Young clerks by the thousands thronged the street outside the court, the lucky ones getting to sit inside. They formed "Robinsonian Juntos" and dressed in the dandy style Robinson affected—plum-colored coats with velvet collars, black scarves, and floppy caps. Even if Robinson had killed her, his young followers saw no reason for him to hang for it. She was only a prostitute, after all.
The grand jury hearings on April 18 and 19 saw crowds jeering Townsend and her girls as they entered the courtroom. Rosina Townsend's business came to a screeching halt and she was forced to auction off her splendid furnishings in late April. She received death threats warning she would not live three days after testifying against Robinson. The brothel building was soon vacant and crowds of curiosity-seekers paraded through.
Lithographers did a brisk business in turning out prints of Helen Jewett, alive and dead, that were sold in bookstores and street stalls. One print entitled ironically "The Innocent Boy" showed Robinson slinking away from Helen's bloody bed. He was dressed in the cloak with both velvet tassels; carrying the globe lamp later found by Townsend in the parlor, and in his other hand the hatchet. Other prints circulated more sympathetically the image popular in the minds of Robinson's supporters, but which irked him. "How damned innocent they made me look!" he commented in an interview after his trial. "I should take myself for one of the babes in the woods. I look as harmless as the infant Jesus."
On April 15, five days after the murder, 1,500 people attended a moral reform meeting near City Hall Park. The meetings continued to be well attended for some months as Helen Jewett was portrayed as "leprous in soul and body" and Robinson as an innocent boy lost in "sinks of iniquity."
But a diary of Robinson's found in his room by police soon cast doubt on Robinson's innocent boy image. The Transcript said of the diary, "Not only does it show that he has been for a considerable time past squandering large sums of money, but it also exposes a course of vice which but few of the most depraved individuals even, ever indulge in." James Gordon Bennett wrote in the Sun, "Robinson's private life appears to have been, so far as the female sex was concerned, licentious in the extreme. Yet he has not been sunk in pollution lower than hundreds of his age and sex and at this day, still moving in respectable society, smiled upon by the virtuous; adorned by the beautiful and desired by the witty and accomplished." Bennett cautioned that a dissolute life was no proof of murder.
Joseph Hoxie hired the silvery-tongued former Congressman Ogden Hoffman, one of the city's greatest trial attorneys, the day after the murder. Hoffman's associate, William Price, in his closing statement appealed to the jury's prejudice against prostitutes and its cultural affiliation to clerks. "Gentlemen, is he from one of yourselves—does he seem like an old convict that would go into a house and commit murder and arson?" Price presented the social status of Rosina Townsend as debased and her testimony as worthless. His attempt at insinuating Townsend herself as the killer met with applause in the courtroom.
Ogden Hoffman asked, "Can a juror go with his oath based on the polluted declarations of a common prostitute?" He pondered whether Townsend herself had set the bed afire in an attempt to burn down the brothel and collect fire insurance. He next implied that Elizabeth Salters was angered by Robinson's neglect of her once Helen moved back into the house. In short, he proposed an entire conspiracy of women against the accused. "A woman never forgets—a prostitute, when once her pride is injured, will pursue her victim to the grave…It is contrary to woman's character to bear such a thing without feelings of revenge." The "secret" Robinson wanted to hide was his immoral dealings with prostitutes, nothing more than "a peccadillo."
Thomas Phoenix reviewed the evidence, recreating the murder scene, the murderer sneaking out the back door, losing the cloak and hatchet in flight through neighboring yards. If the fire had blazed instead of only smoldered, the murder would have gone undetected. But the porter at Robinson's place of business swore the hatchet was from Hoxie's; witnesses swore the cloak was Robinson's.
Phoenix noted Robinson's strange calmness in the face of his lover's loss. "She whom he had been so long in intimacy with, with whom he had been but a few short hours before mingling his caresses! Why, gentlemen, even a dog would have howled forth his lamentations…His appearance in this case seemed unnatural, and the next thing to his manner would have been to eat a portion of her flesh and drink a portion of her blood." The secret Helen held over Robinson could not have been his dalliances, since Robinson and Jewett went about in public openly and were a well-known couple in both their circles of friends.
Judge Ogden Edwards spent an hour instructing the jury to weigh the characters of all involved, victim, accused, and witnesses. Specifically, the prostitutes were not to be believed unless their testimonies were corroborated by respectable individuals. He went even further, suggesting that perhaps Robinson had visited the house earlier and left his cloak behind. Perhaps he carried the hatchet as a matter of self-protection on his visits to brothels and had forgotten he had it with him. As for the miniature, Sarah Dunscombe's testimony, he ordered, was to be disregarded, as "she is attendant on that stew." If the jury felt Robinson's guilt was beyond doubt, then convict; if not acquit, and do "not immolate an innocent victim."
About 10 minutes later the jury, made up largely of merchants, returned a not-guilty verdict. Robinson burst into tears and was escorted out by his father and Joseph Hoxie.
The Aftermath of Trial
The public was stunned by the acquittal. The male visitors to the brothel on the night of the murder had never been called to appear before the court. Their names were never printed in any newspaper. If the poor character of the prostitutes required their testimony be corroborated, why weren't these respected men called in to do so? If the fact of the prostitutes' work in a brothel rendered their testimony unacceptable, then why was the testimony of Robinson's friends who frequented brothels not equally doubtful?
D.A. Phoenix defended his decision not to call the brothel clients. The man with Rosina Townsend, for example, who could have confirmed the knocks on the doors and her discovery of the open rear door, and, more importantly, defend her against the insinuation that she was the murderer—this man was not called by Phoenix, he said, because the man "was one of the merchants, a single man of good business standing, and with the exception of the cloud that this might throw around his good name, one that stands well with his fellow men." Besides, Phoenix continued, the man had begged to be spared.
The other men were similarly described as "genteel," "local merchants of respectability." A clerk who was present that night was of "respectable connections, and plead with tears, not to be brought to the stand, as it would, he said, destroy him in the estimation of his employer and his friends."
Censure of Phoenix appeared in the press in and outside New York City. Phoenix's defensive statements were called by the Newburyport (Mass.) Daily Herald "lame and impotent." The column continued, "It would seem from his own confession, that charity for the seniority and respectable standing (was it not for the long purses) of some individuals, who were not willing to bear the shame of testifying in this case, led him to dispense with evidence which could not have failed to convict the criminal." The Boston Courier asked, "What right has Mr. Phenix [sic], as a public prosecutor, to allow compassion for such an unprincipled fellow to interfere with his official duties?" The Middletown Advocate in Connecticut said, "Those who haunt such places ought to be liable to all the difficulties into which they may be brought by their companions in vice. If they cannot be competent witnesses, every crime committed in such a place is almost sure to escape the law."
According to Phoenix, nobody was more surprised at the verdict than he, claiming that he had fully expected the cloak, hatchet, and miniature to bring in a guilty verdict. Later in life he was to express regret for his role in the jury's verdict.
Except for two New York City newspapers, the New York Herald and the Commercial Advertiser, the verdict was denounced everywhere. The Albany Evening Journal called the verdict "a mockery of justice" and the prostitutes "less guilty and more entitled to sympathy and forbearance" than the "poor boy," (as the defense called Robinson), who committed the dreadful crime.
Beyond the verdict's legitimacy, public curiosity about the "secret"—the only motive seriously presented in the trial—resulted in an alternative scenario appearing first as rumor and then in the press. Both the Sun and the Ledger concluded that Robinson killed Jewett to cover up an earlier murder of the seduced girl, Emma Chancellor. It had come up at trial that Robinson attempted to purchase arsenic shortly before the unfortunate girl died of an undetermined illness. The papers claimed that beyond his shady business dealings, Robinson had murdered the girl and Helen Jewett knew it.
A further development was the arrest in July of William D. Gray, Robinson's former roommate whose cloak Robinson wore in lieu of an outstanding loan. Gray was convicted of theft of his employer by collecting store debts and not entering them on the books. At the time of his arrest, Gray had in his pocket some letters written by Robinson from jail as he awaited his trial for Helen's murder. The letters indicated the two clerks were engaged in a scheme to cheat several businessmen of their bank accounts.
In the course of the correspondence, Robinson discussed his seducing wives of men who were seeking divorce, including Gray's own wife, should he need the assistance. Gray was scheduled, but was not called, as a witness in Robinson's murder trial. Robinson casually mentioned in one of the notes to Gray a plan to rape a servant woman he called "a damning deceitful lying bitch." All of the notes were written in the two weeks before Robinson's trial and Gray said he'd destroyed the very worst ones, the ones "unfit for the eyes of anyone."
The incident managed finally to convince even Robinson's strongest supporters that the "poor boy" was capable of murder, after all. The Herald reported that even Joseph Hoxie "believes now, since the developments made by Gray, that Robinson was guilty of murder and arson, and that if Hoffman had been public prosecutor, he would have been convicted." D.A. Phoenix and Judge Ogden Edwards were subjected to petitions calling for impeachment signed by "distinguished laymen and lawyers."
The Great Unhung
Richard Robinson, nicknamed now "The Great Unhung," left New York for his parents' home in Connecticut. When an interviewer remarked that the public viewed Robinson as "worse than a savage," he answered, "The public is a damned, long-eared ass." Asked if he thought Helen had loved him, he said, "How could she help it?" About his lie as to the ownership of the cloth cloak, he said, "Deny! Why should I deny—or confess? It was not any of Brink's (the police officer's) business to inquire into the state of my wardrobe. I told him a lie because it was natural." Later in the interview he stated—"They can't prove that I ever saw Helen." Asked if he'd loved her, he said, "Sort of."
The Alamo had fallen in March. Robinson outfitted himself as a soldier and left for Texas in July. On the steamboat Tuscarora, Robinson mingled with passengers, joining freely in conversations about the Helen Jewett murder, flirting with young women, and talking of his bright future in Texas.
Rejected by the army to fight in the war with Mexico, Robinson settled in Nacogdoches in East Texas, taking the name of "Richard Parmalee." He owned a saloon and billiard hall there and served in 1838 as deputy clerk of the court. He bought a property called Spring Farm with a business partner and bought and sold town lots throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s. In 1839 he joined the local Masons and served as recording secretary, hosting lodge meetings in his own house. He later owned a stagecoach line. Robinson's marriage to a young widow in 1845 brought him a new farm and more than 20 slaves. His Connecticut family, brothers and married sisters, visited and settled near him in Texas. Many local people apparently knew of his true identity and he is reported to have kept a crime pamphlet of the Jewett murder on his parlor table.
Robinson visited New York City several times as Richard Parmalee. In 1855 he took ill aboard a steamboat in the Ohio River. He died in a Louisville hotel room of an inflammation of the brain and stomach. An elderly black woman who attended his deathbed said he was delirious and often ranted about his wife, or so the woman thought, whose name was Helen Jewett. Shipped back to Nacogdoches, his body was given a Masonic burial there.
Helen Jewett was not so honored when she was buried twenty years earlier in St. John's Burying Ground on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village. Medical students, notorious grave robbers in her day, dug her up a few nights later. After dissecting her body and boiling her bones, the Herald reported, they hung her "elegant and classic skeleton" in a closet at the College of Physicians and Surgeons on Chapel Street, a block from the Park Theater, in Helen's old hunting ground.
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