Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Recent Tragedy

James Gordon Bennett (1795–1872)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

“Ellen Jewett. Supposed Murdered by Richard P. Robinson at 41 Thomas St. (Taken from her Miniature the only one in the City.)” Published April 18, 1836. Click on image to see entire print. Library of Congress.
The following is adapted from Harold Schechter’s introduction to True Crime: An American Anthology and his headnote for the Bennett selection in that book:
Regarded—for better or worse—as one of the founders of modern American journalism, James Gordon Bennett was raised on a farm in northern Scotland and educated at a Catholic seminary in Aberdeen. Immigrating to Halifax, Nova Scotia, at 24, he worked briefly as a teacher before making his way to Boston, where he scratched out a living as a proofreader in a printing house. Three years later he moved to New York City, where a chance encounter led to a job with the Charleston (South Carolina) Courier. In the course of the next ten years he wrote for various newspapers, honing a lively and entertaining style that—in a pattern that would characterize his entire career—attracted the public while incensing his more high-minded peers.

In 1835, after several failed ventures as a publisher, he launched The Herald, a four-page “penny paper” aimed, as Bennett proclaimed in the inaugural issue, at “the great masses of the community.” Among his innovations were firsthand coverage of the financial markets and a commitment to what we now call investigative reporting.

As the founder of America’s first unabashedly sensationalistic newspaper, Bennett was a seminal figure in the history of true-crime journalism. While earlier newspaper publishers, including Benjamin Franklin, recognized the popular appeal of grisly murder stories and offered readers the occasional account of a particularly hideous slaying, no one before Bennett was so attuned to the public’s interest in tales of crime and violence. American readers, he declared, “were more ready to seek six columns of the details of a brutal murder . . . than the same amount of words poured forth by the genius of the noblest author of our times.” Bennett was happy to give the public what it wanted, providing extensive and extremely graphic coverage of the most shocking crimes of the day, most famously the 1836 hatchet murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett.

Such was the success of Bennett’s formula that by the 1850s Ralph Waldo Emerson was complaining in his journal that his countrymen spent their time “reading all day murders & railroad accidents.” Among the most devout of these readers was Emerson’s Concord neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne. A self-confessed lover of “all sorts of good and good-for-nothing books,” Hawthorne was an avid reader of murder pamphlets and trial reports throughout his life. His craving for such fare was so intense that while serving as the American consul in Liverpool he had a friend ship him the penny papers so that he could keep up with the grisly goings-on back home. [Hawthorne’s journal entry describing his visit to “a show of wax-figures, consisting almost wholly of murderers and their victims,” including Jewett and her killer, is a previous Story of the Week selection.]

A former servant girl, born Dorcas Doyen, from Augusta, Maine, Helen Jewett was killed with an axe in a stylish Manhattan brothel in the spring of 1836. One of her regular clients, a young, well-bred clerk named Richard P. Robinson was arrested, tried, and ultimately acquitted, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Thanks largely to Bennett’s graphic reporting, the story became a nationwide sensation, America’s prototypical media circus. The case has recently been explored in depth in Patricia Cline Cohen’s superb book The Murder of Helen Jewett.

Addendum: Days after his acquittal, Robinson fled the city and ended up in Nacogdoches, a small town in east Texas, where he went by Richard Parmalee (his middle name, which had been his mother’s maiden name). Within a year he was the owner of a saloon and worked over the next decade as a clerk of the county court. Three of his siblings followed him from Connecticut to Nacogdoches. As Cohen details in her book, his marriage in 1845 to a widow with two children made him the owner of a large farm and one of the ten wealthiest men in town, as well as one of the largest slaveowners in the region (most of the enslaved, who numbered as many as twenty, were women and children). He died in Louisville, Kentucky, of an unknown illness, possibly yellow fever, while on a business trip in 1855.

Notes: According to Cohen, “police, newspaper writers, and witnesses all used ‘Helen’ and ‘Ellen’ interchangeably throughout the case; probably the girl’s own friends were not aware which name she preferred, unless they had seen her signature, where she clearly put an H.” At the end of his article, Bennett calls Jewett “a perfect Millwood,” a reference to the 1731 drama The London Merchant (or The History of George Barnwell), an adaptation of a popular seventeenth-century ballad by English playwright George Lillo. In the play, Barnwell engages in an affair with the prostitute Sarah Millwood, steals money from his employer to fund his relationship, and then robs and murders his uncle. They both are sentenced to be hanged.

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MOST ATROCIOUS MURDER—Our city was disgraced on Sunday by one of the most foul and premeditated murders, that ever fell to our lot to record. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.