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The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York

3.70  ·  Rating Details  ·  788 Ratings  ·  65 Reviews
In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashi
ebook, 512 pages
Published November 17th 2010 by Vintage (first published 1998)
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Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: true-crime
The Murder of Helen Jewett is a misleading title, in a way. The murder takes place in the first few pages; then, this central event is set aside in favor of an exploration of Helen's life and times.

This involves a bit of historical detective work, and I will say that I am impressed with the author's scholarship and writing ability. She does an admirable job of digging into the past and shedding light on mysteries I didn't know existed.

The book follows Dorcas Doyen, aka Helen Jewett, as she is
Katherine Addison
This is the book I wanted The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York to be. If Helen Jewett had been published first, I would assume that Mary Rogers was an attempt to imitate it, but in fact, Mary Rogers was published in 1995, three years before Helen Jewett.

It's clear that Srebnick and Cohen are attempting to do the same thing: to take a cause celebre murder of New York in the mid-nineteenth century and use it to explore the ways in which class and gend
Sometimes a good cast isn’t enough to get me to continue to watch a show. Copper was such a show. I tried. I really did. I tried again when I heard that new actors were being added to the second season. I mean, Alfre Woodard. But no, couldn’t get into it. I was always left with a feeling that the show, if not the staff, really didn’t like women. Granted, it took place in Five Corners during the Civil War, but in terms of female characters you had the evil whore (she killed one of her girls out o ...more
Dixie Diamond
I thought this was fascinating and I was astonished at how much primary material--letters, contemporary accounts--was available for Ms. Cohen's research, so long after the fact. However, it's probably not for the casual reader: It's exhaustive, rather long, and you have to be interested not only in Jewett and the murder but the process of the research or you might find it tedious.

Personally, I am a detail fiend and thought that material that some reviewers feel is "tangential" was wonderful for
Sep 08, 2010 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was great. It took one event from 19th century New York and expanded upon it and all the relevant characters to provide a wealth of information about 19th century America and Americans. Really, really interesting.
Dec 21, 2009 Chana rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
History, not mystery. Historical and sociological research of 1830’s New York; it’s brothels, boarding houses, business practices, justice system, newspaper coverage and the prominent families of the times, particularly those involved with or related to Helen Jewett and Richard Robinson. The book is written around the murder of a prostitute called Helen Jewett in a NY city brothel on April 9, 1836.
The murderer most likely is a young man from a prominent family in Connecticut who is working as a
A wonderful book, not always easy to bear but always captivating. Patricia Cline Cohen tells the story of a notorious 1836 New York murder trial, using it to immerse us in Jacksonian urban society and reveal some of the anxieties the case brought to the surface of public discussion. She relates the life stories of two mysterious city dwellers, first the charismatic 22-year-old prostitute calling herself Helen Jewett and then the 19-year-old clerk accused of her murder, the well-spoken but moody ...more
Nov 04, 2011 emily rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I think I have never before read a book and thought "whoooooooeee, this could use some serious editing." The story of Helen Jewett's actual murder is fascinating and bizarre, no doubt. There's all sorts of stuff going on here that is all sorts of fascinating. We've got prostitution, cover-ups (maybe), small-town girls going off to the big city, all that.

And it's really, really meticulously researched -- heavily footnoted, tons of minor stuff sourced back to letters, you name it.

And yet.

First, it
Feb 03, 2012 Brett rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nf-hist-american
This is exactly what narrative historical nonfiction should be, in my opinion. The story of the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett in 1830s New York City is a fascinating panorama of a time & place that is so engrossing, the reader finds it almost more real than the world currently around them. Plus, it's so much more than just a book about a sensational murder & trial of days past: the birth of modern journalism, particularly of the investigative stripe, is here, as well as a look at the ...more
Apr 04, 2011 Corinne rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Corinne by: Megan Hagar
When I first started this book I couldn't put it down. It opened up with Helen's murder and then started opening up 19th century New York and Helen (born Dorcas Doyen)'s life. I could just feel the author digging around in archives to get to understand Helen (and her murderer's life).

I wanted to give this book four stars. I really did. But about 2/3 of the way in it was starting to repeat itself too much and its tangents were no longer relevant. I think I started losing my enthusiasm when there
Oct 05, 2011 Naomi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this book absolutely fascinating. I agree with reviewers who have stated that this book reads more as a history book vs. a true crime story, but I think that is why I have enjoyed it so much. The author went much deeper in her writing and research of this "story" versus your "average" true crime book. If you are looking for a book written in the style of such authors as Gregg Olsen's nonfiction work, Phelps, M. William or Ann Rule, you are going to be really disappointed.
Aug 06, 2008 Lucy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: not Megan
Cohen knows EVERYTHING about this case. It's an in-depth study of so many facets of early 19th century history: gender roles, prostitution, the justice system, the caste system, and Manhattan itself. It's exactly the kind of history book I love - when the author introduces a peripheral character, she starts with his grandfather. If you're not into that kind of storytelling and are looking for a juicier read, I recommend "Sin in the Second City" - it's a little fluffier, and reads more like a nov ...more
Fraser Sherman
Dec 06, 2015 Fraser Sherman rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is surprisingly dry, to the point of dull, for a book about a once-sensational murder involving a high-class prostitute whose client killed her with an axe, then set fire to the brothel. Normally I love history books that paint a picture of the times and this does that, with details about prostitution, small town life, sex in New York, popular views of the novel (Jewett was a voracious reader) but Cohen's handling of the story just bogs down in the detail. Very good if I needed to research ...more
Patricia Cline Cohen is a good writer, in the sense that she displays mastery of the language (a rich vocabulary and the like). But she's not a good editor. The subject matter here is terribly interesting - from the story of the murder itself to the time in which it took place. Cohen delves into the cultural elements of 1830s New York and the back stories of the main characters. Of course it's a good instinct to provide context to a murder trial, especially one that took place so long ago. She s ...more
Amelia Osterud
Jan 15, 2013 Amelia Osterud rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In 1836 New York, a high paid prostitute is murdered, her bed set on fire, and her killer suspected to be the son of a respectable family. This is not a work of fiction, but a historical account of the murder of a woman known professionally as Helen or Ellen Jewett, and the newspaper scandal that her killing created in 1830’s New York. Cline traces the crime itself through newspaper sources, including the publication of the victim’s personal letters in the National Police Gazette. The book explo ...more
If I was more of a fan of mystery, I probably would have absolutely loved this book. This book goes into amazing detail of everyone and everything that had even the slightest involvement with the story. I will say this was probably the most intensively researched book I ever read and my hats off to the author. The reading was hit and miss for me. A lot more details than I cared for in some areas. But overall I would say I liked it. In my opinion, Robinson did it. And I believe there was definite ...more
Jul 28, 2015 Guera25 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: could-not-finish
A classic case of, "My learnings, let me show you them." Terminally boring, laborious, and rife with ridiculous, interminable digressions designed to showcase the author's talent for critical analysis. I checked out this book to read about a murder in 1830s NYC, not wade through a histrionic hyperanalysis of a painting on a brothel wall.
Autumn Doughton
This is a non-fiction book about a prostitute's murder in New York City in the 1830s and the subsequent trial that followed.
The story was sort of interesting but it felt more like I was reading a historian's college thesis rather than a mysterious story about murder and prostitution.
I think the problem was that I picked the book up thinking that it was going to be more of a fictional retelling. It just wasn't what I was expecting. Sort of like when you go to take a sip of water and realize tha
Jan 06, 2015 Becky rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
A recounting of the murder of a New York prostitute in 1836 in such detailed research. What amazes me more than the story of the lives of Helen Jewett and her murderer, Richard P. Robinson, is the plethora of information there is still out there to be discovered about these people that lived and died almost 200 years ago. Historian and author, Patricia Cline Cohen, is skilled at her job. Her curiosity for accuracy drives the curiosity of the reader. While she interprets some of the evidence, she ...more
Oct 31, 2012 Michelle rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
I gave up on this book. The writing is very poorly done. She goes back and forth with the dates of the story, which is really confusing. I thought it was going to be more about the murder case itself, and how it had an impact on mid-nineteenth century New York City; instead, the book is mainly about building up the character of the prostitute Helen Jewett, who she was as a child in Maine, how she came to be a prostitute in New York City, and her love affairs leading up to her murder. When I stop ...more
Oct 20, 2014 Jackie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
this was a wonderful read based on a true story,sad,but true. Give it a try if you like a little murder in you reading diet! I know I do!
Sarah Adler
Feb 24, 2016 Sarah Adler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book several years ago and it has stuck with me. It is well wrought and colorfully told.
May 28, 2008 Laura rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: academic types
Recommended to Laura by: required reading for my Hist. of NYC class
this book was required reading for my History of NYC class...its subject matter I thought was interesting but I did not enjoy reading this book at all. It felt like I was reading an academic research paper rather than a book on prostitution in 19th century NY (which could have been a pretty juicy subject)The book just dragged for me, there was tons of information which I thought was useless (there's a chapter in the book about the great-great-grandfather of the killer...WHY?! ) and I gave up rea ...more
Ryan Williams
Nov 13, 2011 Ryan Williams rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you love history and mysteries, you will LOVE this book. Not only do you learn a myriad of information about the 19th century, but you also get a great mystery novel about a historic murder in New York City. Cohen takes non-fiction and makes you think you are reading fiction because of how well she portrays her information. Though Jewett was a prostitute, I actually took a liking to her halfway through the book and I still feel that way now. After reading this book, I've learned more than I e ...more
Oct 18, 2007 Johanna rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
So far it's this weird murder mystery (that I don't typically enjoy reading) but it's all about a real crime that happened in it's slightly more interesting. It's basically how the media twisted up this murder (the first widely publicized murder) and no one seems to know the truth about the victim or her killer. So far...very good...and historian friends of mine highly recommended this read. If looking for something non-fiction and entertaining let me know. Hopefully I'll finish it ...more
Sep 05, 2012 Natalie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Meh. This was an interesting subject matter but it was sooooo dry. I feel like the author was trying to cram in too many official documented proofs. It read too text booky. Which is unfortunate because a lot of the topics were really interesting. How the newspapers treated the story. The legal process in the 1830s. How prostitution worked in the 1830s. Etc. But man, I just could NOT get through it. I ended up skipping ahead to the last two chapters to find out if the accused murdered was found g ...more
Sep 12, 2007 Nathan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lazy serial killers.
Helen Jewett was a prostitute in 19th Century New York. One day, a man a step or two above her on the class ladder, murdered her. Then he was tried for the crime. And he got off. The Murder of Helen Jewett recounts this otherwise unsurprising case with suspense and a rare talent for social commentary. As well, the case's presence in the new tabloid industry caused it to reach from coast to coast. The temporary effect it had on the country as a whole is ably covered in this fun true crime read.

Wendy Gunderson
the book was okay, but at times repetitive. there was one point where I almost decided to stop reading it to get to something more interesting. It had some parts of interest, but sometimes dragged on.
Gregory Pedersen
One of the more interesting historical works I've read. Cohen utilizes the figure of a 19th century prostitute, and her murder, to paint a vivid portrait of the social and cultural landscape of urban America. Cohen also bring to light the struggles among gender roles and the topic of sexuality during that time. This book did tend to get bogged down in the mundane and shifted off focus a few times. That's why I rate it a "3" instead of a "4".
I'm not sure if this lower rating is because it took me two months to read, and I lost the momentum, but I thought it was good - not great. It was really interesting to see the way she delved into so many aspects of early nineteenth-century urban life and the world of prostitution. It could have been way shorter though, and it didn't move nearly as quickly as "A Murder in Virginia" - the equivalent historical murder mystery.
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Patricia Cline Cohen is Professor of History and Acting Dean of the Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara. From 1991 to 1996 she chaired the Women's Studies Program there. She is the author of A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (1985) and of numerous articles and reviews, and a coauthor of The American Promise (1997).
More about Patricia Cline Cohen...

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