THE MURDER OF HELEN JEWETT by Patricia Cline Cohen

THE MURDER OF HELEN JEWETT

The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York
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KIRKUS REVIEW

An admirable if not always compelling exploration of a once-sensational murder and trial that recall our recent obsession with the Simpson case. Cohen (History/Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara) begins with the discovery of the body of 23-year-old Jewett in a New York brothel fire set to reduce her hatcheted remains to rubble. Cohen’s massive research reveals that the woman known as Helen Jewett was a onetime Maine servant girl named Dorcas Doyen, placed from youth in the service of a prominent judge’s family. By age 19, Dorcas had left Maine and was an experienced “girl on the town,” part of a bustling, “not illegal” trade engaging, by one —alarmist estimate,— as many as one in seven women in 1830s New York. Between assignations, Jewett romanced partners through letters, some of which (quoted in the book’s most engaging chapter) were written to her killer. Richard Robinson, an innocent-looking New York clerk of good breeding who confided to his diary his irresistibility to women and maniacal leanings, was that partner. For several months they romanced; his infidelity ended the affair. Shortly afterward, Jewett was killed. Police retrieved evidence and arrested Robinson. But during the trial, Robinson’s top-flight lawyers savaged Jewett’s character, impugned prosecution witnesses, established a tight-enough alibi, and posited a theory of the “true” killer. Robinson was acquitted, years of press uproar ensued over the travesty of “the great unhung,” and Robinson’s lawyer gained “imperishable celebrity and never-dying fame.” Would that the book were as exciting as the story. But it isn—t, partly because of Cohen’s academic style, in which context impedes narrative, and partly because the author’s clear, well-organized prose informs but doesn—t transport. Enlivened by epistolary amours and detective-like research revelations, yet still a sluggish rendition of a resonant tale. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 11th, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-41291-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998




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