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Pretty Woman

THE MURDER OF HELEN JEWETT: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York. \o7 By Patricia Cline Cohen (Alfred A. Knopf: 432 pp., $27.50)\f7

November 08, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book Review

Helen Jewett was beautiful, smart, assertive, romantic, an avid reader, a spiffy dresser and a lovely letter-writer. She was also duplicitous, coy, histrionic and manipulative. She worked as a high-priced prostitute in New York City during the third decade of the 19th century, and she was apparently very good at her job. In April 1836, when Jewett was 23, a young client with whom she was having a turbulent, emotionally charged affair smashed her head with a hatchet and set her corpse on fire. Her death and his trial became a national obsession, a scandale, a template upon which the sexual, class and generational conflicts of Jacksonian America were projected.

This is juicy stuff, and perhaps nobody could write a bad, or at least boring, account of Jewett's life and death. But few historians, I suspect, could do what Patricia Cline Cohen accomplishes in "The Murder of Helen Jewett." Cohen combines the talents of a tireless, creative detective with those of a graceful storyteller, unearthing myriad details about Jewett's life to weave a compelling narrative that is simultaneously expansive and focused. Even more impressive are Cohen's analytic skills--her ability to discern both the complex social meanings that Jewett's life and death assumed for her contemporaries and the social divisions that they exposed. This is a superbly researched and superbly argued book.

Cohen constructs a painstakingly detailed and fascinating history of class and familial relations in Kennebec County, Maine, where, in 1813, Jewett was born (birth name: Dorcas Doyen) to a poor shoemaker; where, at the age of 13, she joined a judge's household as a servant; and where, four years later, she lost her virginity and was expelled from the community. The author seems to have read every periodical that circulated in New York City during the 1830s, from the Journal of Public Morals to the Flash, a brothel guide. She discusses the racy French wallpaper depicting bare-breasted Tahitian beauties that adorned the mansion of the judge's neighbor (and that Cohen views as a clue to the sexual fantasies of the Augustan establishment); she scoured fire insurance maps to determine the thickness of the walls in Helen's brothel room (could anybody have heard her scream?); she knows just which titles were for sale in the local bookstore that the adolescent Dorcas frequented. And even before her narrative ends, Cohen leaves little doubt that 18-year-old Richard P. Robinson--an arrogant, mercurial, well-bred clerk--did in fact kill Jewett.

At the time of Jewett's death, reported homicides were rare in New York City, but prostitution was not. In fact, it was on the rise; it was integrated into the city's "prosperous and dignified" neighborhoods; and it was legal. This does not mean, of course, that it was not also despised, denied and fetishized.

Jewett practiced a particular form of prostitution. She did not work the streets but lived in the comfort and safety of an established brothel, where middle-class men came sometimes simply to socialize and where they often spent the entire night (these were not quick tricks). She was well-paid, charging $3 to $5 per visit (a highly skilled journeyman earned $12 per week). She saw one to two clients per day and, most significant, she picked--or rejected--them as she saw fit.

"Helen Jewett preferred her prostitution all rigged up with romance," writes Cohen, who depicts Jewett's trade as an elaborate mime of bourgeois romance. Helen's customers wooed her with beseeching love letters and sentimental gifts; Helen alternated among charming, seducing and rejecting them. "Instead of emotion-free sex, Jewett saturated her sexual relationships with rituals of masculinity and femininity, and of love, romance, and intimacy. . . . Both parties to the bargain, Jewett and each client, could be playactors, and the money payment at the heart of it--unspoken but of paramount importance--gave each a measure of power and control."

Yet such power was, of course, only relative. Jewett chose to become a prostitute, but she chose from severely limited options, and the severity of those limits--more than her murder--is in some ways the most shocking part of her story. Cohen makes clear that the social fluidity, the porous sense of promise, the democratic open-endedness of Jacksonian America most decidedly did not extend to unmarried girls who had lost their virginity. In fact, such girls were regarded as terminally "contaminated, like an infected person. . . . [T]he dynamics of social ostracism . . . separate[d] the female moral leper from innocent womanhood." And yet, tracing birth and marriage records, Cohen concludes that "premarital sex was surprisingly commonplace in the years up to about 1800." But a generation later, this "tolerant climate" toward female sexuality had been effectively "reversed."

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