By crazy random happenstance, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately revolving around all of the biggest news of the 19th century. It’s all fascinating, really… the culture, the intrigue, the world-changing events and main attractions. And it’s truly remarkable how the biggest news of any previous era can be completely lost within a single generation. Now of course we’re accustomed to the 24-hour news cycle, and the way that the media conveniently forget yesterday’s shocking revelations in the face of today’s celebrity scandals. But in the 1840s, it probably defied belief for the people of America that anyone would ever forget the murder of Helen Jewett.
Of course, Helen was only one woman in a long line of sensationalized murder victims in American history, but her story exploded into the public consciousness — thanks to the rise of the penny press, the moral reform movements of the day, and the high-profile trial of her killer — in a way that hadn’t been seen before.
These days we’re accustomed to all the trappings of modern law enforcement. We all know a thing or two from watching CSI and we believe in the power of profiling, but in 1834, when Helen Jewett was murdered in a New York City brothel and her body set alight, nobody knew what a psychopath was, and they certainly didn’t have the knowledge of forensics to tie the killer to the crime. Still, the circumstantial evidence against the accused killer was strong, and the web of intrigue between them was compelling. And thanks to the high-profile nature of the crime and the public’s continued fascination, even after the jury had reached its verdict, author Patricia Cline Cohen had plenty of written history to draw from in the writing of The Murder of Helen Jewett. The result is a fascinating glimpse into an incident that might otherwise have been lost to the march of time.
Digging deep into every aspect of the crime and its coverage — from the social acceptability of prostitution to the weaknesses of the moral reformers to the history and characteristics that made Helen Jewett who she was — Cohen reveals a staggering amount of information not just about the crime, the victim, and the perpetrator, but also about the society that was equal parts enthralled and repulsed by the unfolding story. While a historical tale that goes into quite this amount of detail would usually run the risk of becoming mind-numbingly pedantic, Cohen’s narrative is engaging from the first word to the last, and the story that she relates is as enthralling now as it was to the public in Helen Jewett’s time.
Want to give it a read? I have a copy to give away! Mind you, I’m a lover of used books (and a devotee of paperbackswap.com) so this is not a shiny new copy, nor is it sponsored by anyone anywhere. I just like passing along books after I’ve read them. If you’d like a go at winning a free copy of The Murder of Helen Jewett, just leave a comment below letting me know you’d like to read it, and I’ll choose a winner at random. Make sure you leave some form of contact information, like an email address or blog link, so I know how to get in touch with you!