May 19, 2023, 05:57AM

From Bed to Morgue

How prostitution helped create tabloid journalism.

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Credit: Michael Gentile

On April 10, 1836, 19-year-old Richard Robinson rushed out of a posh townhouse brothel at 41 Thomas St. a little after midnight. The business clerk from Connecticut was in a huff after an incident. He couldn’t brush the white stripe stains, not the Bill Clinton kind, off his trousers. In the moonlight of a neighborhood now called Tribeca, walking the desolate cobblestone streets, he murmured to himself. A chilly air whirled with his breath. At daybreak, New York City newsboys would cry out “penny paper” headlines.

In the early-19th century, the United States was still learning to read. A nation’s rising working-class audience yearned for the skill; their eager ink-stained hands enjoyed flipping through daily newspaper pages. Long before Succession, Rupert Murdoch or William Randolph Hearst, editor James Gordon Bennet of The New York Herald pioneered a style of reporting based on society’s controversial human behaviors. Tabloid journalism was born, sparked by a wanton crime and trial that took on a life of its own.

The plot, as is so often the case back then, involved sex and New Yorkers. Helen Jewett, a stunning 23-year-old who created the world on her own terms died as a result of domestic violence. Born Dorcas Doyen in Maine, the sophisticated Jewett went by a number of aliases while working as a prostitute. Once described as a “peaches and cream, vivacious and well-educated” woman, her tempting lips thrilled many to their shoestrings. Problem was the kitten in Madame Rosina Townsend’s cathouse fell into a sea of passion with the wrong person, which put her in a dangerous situation.

Prostitution was legal in America.  Women often turned to risky sex work out of necessity. There were “Parlor houses”—expensive, high-end bordellos; family-owned brothels run by mothers and daughters; open-door policy “Public houses”; “Panel houses” where victims were seduced and robbed. And for those on foot patrol, there was brazen solicitation of business by self-employed harlot streetwalkers.

Though some found sex work repugnant, there were those who were fascinated by it. The overall general public sentiment regarding the subject: discussed in private only. What wasn’t a secret, given New York City’s rapid adult population growth, it was the prostitution capital of the US.

Richard Robinson was also known as “Frank Rivers.”  Many men in the 19th century used an alias, especially when indulging in bordello services. Today, he might be described as someone suffering a personality disorder.

How did Robinson meet Helen Jewett? When he was 17, Robinson noticed a maiden in distress one evening in front of a Broadway theater. A thug’s unsettling behavior disturbed the woman. The young buck jumps in and delivers a few rapid-fire punches to the intended target. After the beat down, Jewett seemed impressed. “Miss, are you going to tell me your name?” Robinson asked. “I believe you’ll find this enjoyable.” Jewett handed him her calling card. Frank Rivers became a loyal client, as well as an envious lover in a difficult relationship.

Around 9:30 p.m. on April 9th, in front of the door of the well-known Manhattan house of ill repute, a man threw a Spanish cloak around his head and knocked. The watchful eye of Madame Rosina Townsend peered out from inside the doorway. Townsend surveyed the situation. Select client vetting was done with the utmost discretion for her nine alluring sex workers. Despite the bizarre disguise effort, Townsend recognized the man as a regular customer and let him enter.

Later that evening, there was a commotion in an upstairs room. Robinson wanted a break-up, his watch and old letters. Jewett said, “No.” Flushed with anger, Robinson flew into a rage. He swung a hatchet. “Don’t!” Jewett sobbed. Robinson shuddered briefly; he didn’t realize someone could die so quickly. One last look at his ex-lover’s lifeless, bloodied body, and then he decided to set the bed on fire. Her death covered under a blanket of smoke.

Thanks to Madame Townsend’s smoke detector nose and alert neighborhood watchmen, the discovery of the murder and a small fire contained, the whorehouse was preserved. The smoldering corpse in the bed was still warm. In order to escape, Robinson climbed over a whitewashed fence in the backyard. His pants now had the infamous white stripe stains. A cloak and bloody hatchet with threads were found on the property.

Constables had no trouble apprehending the suspect in a neighboring boarding house because the accused was a well-known client. Robinson behaved in a strange manner when brought to the crime scene, as was customary at the time. Helen Jewett was murdered instantly by a hatchet blow to the skull, according to an on-the-spot autopsy.

According to The New York Herald, “One arm lay over her bosom; the other was inverted and hanging over her head.” The testy James Gordon Bennet was given full access to the Thomas St. crime scene to gather information for a story, the day after the murder as a courtesy to the public. The body was still there, which would never happen today. “For a few moments, I was lost to admiration at the extraordinary sight—a beautiful female corpse—that surpassed the finest statue of antiquity… A morbid excitement pervades the city.”

Although murder was less frequent than today, there was still plenty of crime to go around. The 17th-century nighttime guard system employed by the Dutch settlers was still in place; it would be a while before a rank and file, full-time fire and police department formed in New York. For the first time, the public read about a highly publicized trial.

The trial was overcrowded, people poured onto the streets around the courthouse. Some accounts demeaned the murdered woman. The judge, Ogden Edwards, questioned the reliability of prostitute witnesses. Despite all the evidence, public opinion favored an embattled Robinson, who appeared complacent at times during the proceedings. Then a shocking verdict: an all-male jury acquitted Robinson on all charges after a 15-minute deliberation.

The murder becomes more distressing when additional post-trial evidence surfaced: a stash of perverse, personal love letters and notes from Robinson to Jewett. All proved beyond a reasonable doubt the couple maintained an ongoing relationship, her death was premeditated.

Richard Robinson was the “Patrick Bateman” of his time—a man who exuded aloofness, his resentful thoughts culminated in an ultimate act of violence. Robinson quickly left New York, days after his acquittal. He moved to Texas, changed his name and died in 1855. What ever became of Helen Jewett?  Leave it to The New York Herald to report an “elegant and classic skeleton” is displayed in a medical school cabinet for doctor and surgeon studies.

A few conclusions show similarities to the present. It’s not surprising that influential media and tech still employ the same fundamental procedures and strategies to gather news items more than 200 years later. The growth and success of US newspapers can be traced back to prostitution. Legislative reform is needed to address sex workers continued criminalization. Homicide is hard to hide. And the world’s oldest profession remains prostitution.


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