An illustrated chapbook on the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett, ca. 1878

The Truly remarkable life of the beautiful Helen Jewett, who was so mysteriously murdered. The strangest and most exciting case known in the police annals of crimes and mysteries in the great city of New York. Philadelphia, Barclay & Co, [1878]. Ca. 23,5 x 14,5 cm. [3], 20-64 pp. With 4 full-page wood engraved illustrations (one repeated on the wrappers). Original illustrated blue-grey wrappers. The wrappers show some light wear, most notably on the spine, but given the ephemeral nature of the booklet, it is remarkably well-preserved.

 

A murder pamphlet on one of the most sensational murders in American history, the killing of 22-year old New York prostitute Helen Jewett (born Dorcas Doyen) in 1836. It was one of the first sex scandals that received detailed, nationwide media coverage.

 

On a Sunday morning in early April 1836, Helen's body was discovered in her bed. Her forehead was lashed open and her bed set ablaze. The police questioned brothel keeper Rosina Townsend, who had recognized one of Helen's regular clients, Richard P. Robinson, a 19-year clerk, the previous evening. The police discovered a cloak and hatchet that could be linked to Robinson, who was subsequently indicted. The trial lasted five days, finally resulting in the acquittal of Robinson, according to some the result of Robinson's powerful connections.

 

In the decades following the trial Helen Jewett grew into legend and was the subject of dozens of chapbooks and became a fictional character in several novels, most notably in George Wilkes's The Lives of Helen Jewett, and Richard P. Robinson (1849).

 

The present chapbook, wonderfully illustrated with four evocative wood engravings, was adapted from Wilke's work. Interestingly, the illustrations have captions in both English and German and the publisher also issued a German edition in the same year. It is very rare on the market.

 

McDade, The annals of murder, 822; cf. Hill, Marilynn Wood. Their Sisters' Keepers. Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870 (Berkeley, 1993), passim.

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