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Mobsters, Gangs and Killers – The Murder of Helen Jewett
She was a beautiful prostitute; he was a handsome clerk. They seemed destined to live together, happily forever after. Yet, when the disfigured and charred body of 23-year-old Helen Jewett was found smoldering on April, 10, 1836, in a brothel bed at 41 Thomas Street in downtown Manhattan, the prime and only suspect in her murder, was her boyfriend, 19-year-old Richard Robinson.
Helen Jewett was born Doras Doyen in Augusta, Maine in 1813. Her father died when she was 13, but a local judge, smitten by her remarkable beauty, took her under his wing. This judge spent a small fortune on Doras’ education, and he provided her with all the tools needed to attain a successful status in life.
Like a wild stallion needing to run free, Doris, at the age of 17, abandoned her benefactor and took off with a prosperous young banker from Portland, Maine. In Portland, the banker provided Doras with every luxury. They lived in a palatial mansion, where swanky parties and flowing champagne were the order of the day, and especially – of the night. It was apparently during this period of time that Doras first became a prostitute. Yet, Doras was am impetuous person. She and the banker quarreled often, and finally, Doras left him flat. She traveled to New York City, and changed her name to Helen Jewett.
In New York City, Helen Jewett threw herself eagerly into the profession of prostitution; working in the most luxurious brothels in town. To increase her business, Helen used to stroll invitingly down Broadway, searching for old flames, or for new men to seduce. Helen always dressed entirely in shades of green, which matched the color of her captivating eyes. As a result, Helen became know as “The Girl in Green.” In time, Helen was the most sought-after prostitute in New York City. It was said Helen had a voracious sexual appetite, and she enjoyed the company of several wealthy men a night, sometimes in groups or two or more.
Helen’s beauty was such, Warden Sutton wrote in his book, The History of the New York Tombs, “She was beautifully formed; had large green eyes which snapped with mischievousness, and one of the most fascinating faces that ever imperiled a susceptible observer. Her disposition was as beautiful as her face and figure, and she was charitable to a fault with all who required assistance.”
Richard Robinson was born in Durham, Connecticut in 1818. His parents had considerable means, and they spared no expense in raising and educating their young boy. Richard grew up to be a very handsome man, tall and broad, and always immaculately dressed. Yet Richard, as was Helen, was a free spirit, and when he reached the age of 17, he ran away from his parent’s home, and absconded to New York City.
Richard, due to the fine education he received through the good grace of his parents, was immediately hired at a dry goods store owned by Joseph Hoxie, on Maiden Lane. Richard soon became, what the people of those times called a “roisterer,” or someone who was part of the “jet set”: motoring about from one fine event to another, with nary a care in the world. Richard made a fine appearance, resplendent with dark curly hair, and dressed in his usual rich Spanish cloak.
As fate would have it, Richard was entering a downtown theater, when he saw a thug attack a young, beautiful woman, who was also about to enter the same theater. Richard, by far the bigger man, was able to easily throttle the ruffian, thereby thrusting himself as a hero in the young woman’s eyes. This young woman was none other than Helen Jewett. Immediately enthralled with the handsome young man, Helen handed Robinson a business card, that read, “Helen Jewett, Palais de la Duchesse Berri.” This was Helen way of telling Robinson that she was an high-class prostitute, who only serviced the upper crust of society.
The place where Helen worked at that time was what was called, “a furnished resort,” owned by Mme. Berri on Duane Street. Soon, Robinson became a frequent visitor of Helen at Mme. Berri’s. Instead of his real name, Robinson introduced himself to Mme. Berri as “Frank Rivers.” This was a common practice at the time, since men who had respectable jobs didn’t want people working in not – so – respectable places, like brothels, to know their real names.
Within a few weeks, Helen, although she was four years old than Robinson, was obviously more infatuated with Robinson then he was with her. Sensing something was wrong, Helen was obsessed by the idea that Robinson was maybe sharing his affections with another woman. One night, Helen disguised herself as a boy, and follow Robinson around lower Manhattan. After he made the rounds of several bars, Helen spotted Robinson entering a brothel on Broome Street. Helen somehow gained admission to the brothel, and she found Robinson in bed, in the embrace of another woman. Incensed, Helen attacked the woman, striking her repeatedly, with blow after blow on the woman’s face. Helen’s gaudy diamond rings slashed several bloody tears in the woman’s cheeks, forehead and nose.
Robinson was incredulous at the ferocity of Helen’s attacks, and he told her in no uncertain terms that their relationship was over. Helen was crushed, and she started bombarding Robinson with letter after letter, begging him for forgiveness. But it was not to be. Robinson discarded Helen like an old newspaper, and Helen, dismayed at the turn of events, left New York City, for places unknown.
Helen returned to New York City in October 1935, and immediately became employed at the brothel of Rosina Townsend, located at 41 Thomas Street. As luck would have it, while Helen with strolling on the docks by the East River, she ran into Robinson. They reconciled, and “Frank Rivers” became a frequent visitor at 41 Thomas Street.
A few months later, Helen found out, that while she was away, Robinson had become involved with another girl, who inexplicably died by ingesting poison, allegedly administered to her by Robinson. Helen confronted Robinson with this accusation, which he vehemently denied. Ultimately, Robinson was able to convince Helen of his innocence in the death of the girl in question. Robinson also told Helen that he was so in love with her, he wanted her to abandon her wicked life at 41 Thomas Street, and marry him instead.
On April 10, 1836, Robinson, the cad that he was, informed Helen that not only was he not going to marry her, but that he was, in fact, engaged to be married to a young women of great wealth and position. Helen was heartbroken. She wrote Robinson a letter saying, “You know how I have loved, but for God’s sake don’t compel me to show how I can hate.”
On the following day, Robinson wrote Helen a letter in a disguised hand, telling her that he would come to her place of business at 9 PM that evening. Robinson also insisted that Helen should be the one to greet him at the front door.
At exactly 9 PM, on April 11, 1836, “Frank Rivers” knocked at the front door of 41 Thomas Street. However, by coincidence, Rosina Townsend was near the front door at the exact moment Robinson knocked, and she admitted Robinson instead of Helen. As was his custom, Robinson wore his distinctive long Spanish cloak.
Helen, upon hearing Robinson’s voice, rushed to the front door and hugged Robinson. She said, “Oh, my dear Frank, how glad I am that you have come.”
Robinson and Helen then retired to Helen’s apartment.
Marie Stevens was another prostitute, who occupied the apartment next door to Helen’s. At approximately 1 AM, Stevens heard a noise emanating from Helen’s apartment. Stevens later said it sounded like someone had been struck by a heavy blow, and then the injured person had emitted a long, mournful moan. Moments later, Stevens heard Helen’s door being opened. Stevens opened her door just a crack, and she spotted a tall man, wearing a long cloak and holding a dimly lit candle, slither out of Helen’s apartment. Terrified, Stevens locked herself in her own apartment.
A few minutes later, Stevens heard a knock on the front door. Rosina Townsend answered the front door and admitted another male “guest.” After this “guest” went to the apartment of the “lady” he was visiting, Townsend noticed that there was a lit lamp in the parlor. Townsend examined the lamp and determined it belonged either to Helen, or Stevens. Townsend also noticed that the back door to the building was ajar. She yelled out, “Who’s there?” But there was no answer.
Townsend first knocked on Stevens’ door. After determining that the lamp did not belong to Stevens, Townsend knocked on Helen’s door. Upon hearing no answer, Townsend opened the door to Helen’s apartment, and was overcome by a large cloud of smoke. Townsend’s screams aroused the rest of the house’s occupants. In a panic, the male “guests” put on their trousers, dressed quickly, and ran from the building, lest they be caught in an embarrassing situation by the authorities.
Townsend opened the window and began screaming into the night air, “Fire!”
A night watchman, who was the precursor to a New York City policeman, heard Townsend’s cries. He rushed into the house, into Helen’s room, and he extinguished the fire. What he saw next, caused Ms. Townsend, and the rest of the female inhabitants of the building, to scream in horror.
The scantily clad body of Helen Jewett was lying on the bed. Her skull had been split open with three powerful blows, apparently made by a hatchet. Any one of the three blows would have been enough to kill her. The left side of Helen’s upper body was charred, from her having been set on fire, after she was savagely attacked.
When the authorities searched the backyard at 41 Thomas Street, they found a bloody hatchet, which was apparently the murder weapon. Found next to the hatchet was the cloak which Robinson normally wore. Apparently, the murderer had fled out the back door, dropped the hatchet and cloak, and scaled a white fence that had recently been painted. The murderer then fled down a side street. He was spotted by an Negro woman. The woman said she could not detail the man’s facial features, but that his general appearance was similar to that of Robinson’s.
No one at 41 Thomas Street knew “Frank Rivers” real name. However, one of the working girls did know that “Frank Rivers” worked as a clerk for a merchant in a dry goods shop on Maiden Lane. This young lady also knew the address of that dry goods store.
That night, watchmen Dennis Brink and George Noble went to the dry goods store on Maiden Lane and asked if anyone knew a “Frank Rivers.” They were told the man they were looking for was actually Richard Robinson, aged 19, and that he lived at a boarding house at 42 Dey Street.
Brink and Noble went to that address and found Robinson in bed. Robinson claimed he had been in his room for many hours. Robinson’s roommate verified the fact that Robinson had been home almost the entire night.
Brink and Noble searched the room and found Robinson’s trousers stained with white paint; the same type of white paint that was on the fence at 41 Thomas Street. As a result, Robinson, although he said he was innocent of all charges, was arrested and taken to the jail on Chambers Street. After an indictment came down, saying there was sufficient evidence to try Robinson for murder, he was taken to a prison cell in Bellevue Hospital on 29th Street, where he was housed with the criminally insane.
Since Robinson came from a wealthy family, his relatives immediately hired the best criminal attorneys in town. These attorneys were up against New York City prosecutors who claimed that Robinson had killed Helen Jewett, because she had threatened to reveal to his present fiancé that he had, in fact, killed his former girlfriend
The trial was scheduled for June 2, 1836.
Several mysterious circumstances suddenly started working in Robinson’s favor. The colored woman, who had seen Helen Jewett’s killer run from the scene, mysteriously disappeared. And Marie Stevens, who had seen the killer slip out of Helen Jewett’s room, died in her bed before the trial started. It could not be determined if Stevens had died of natural causes, committed suicide, or was murdered.
Without advance notice to the prosecutors, Robinson’s lawyers called a man named Robert Furlong to the witness stand. Furlong stated that Robinson, at the time of Helen Jewett’s murder, had been, in fact, sitting in his cigar store, smoking a cigar and reading the newspapers.
Notwithstanding the two missing witnesses, and the surprise alibi supplied by Furlong, the case against Robinson seem to be overwhelming. Robinson was seen entering Helen Jewett’s room by Ms. Townsend. In addition, Ms. Townsend said that at 11 PM on the night of the murder, she had entered Helen Jewett room to deliver a bottle of champagne. When she entered the room, she saw both Helen Jewett and Robinson lying on the bed.
The hatchet, which was the murder weapon, was identified by an employee at the dry goods store where Robinson worked, as the hatchet that Robinson had used frequently. Also, Robinson’s roommate admitted on the witness stand, under oath, that Robinson, in fact, had not been home the entire night of Helen Jewett’s murder.
After Robinson’s lead attorney gave his closing statement, and the District Attorney gave his closing statement, the judge inexplicably told the jury that any testimony given by prostitutes, including Ms. Townsend, because of the nature of their employment, should not be believed. This slanted the case decidedly in Robinson’s favor. The jury took less than a half an hour to render a verdict of not guilty.
The consensus in the New York City newspapers was that a guilty man had been set free. Two weeks after the trial, Robert Furlong, who had conveniently provided Robinson with an alibi for the time of Helen Jewett murder, inexplicably killed himself, by jumping into the Hudson River. And besides the judge in the case obviously favoring the defendant, it was suspected that several members of the jury had been bought off by Robinson’s rich relatives.
However, nothing could be proven, and Robinson walked away a free man. The “real murderer” of Helen Jewett was never found, nor could it be ascertained if anyone was, in fact, looking for that murderer.
Yet, justice may have been served in an unexpected manner. Ostracized by the Helen Jewett murder trial, Robinson left New York City and took up residence in the state of Texas. Two years later, Robinson contracted an unspecified illness. In a state of delirium, Robinson was taken to a local hospital. Before he died at the age of 21, on his death bed, Robinson muttered his last words: “Helen Jewett.”
The story of Helen Jewett and Richard Robinson did not end after their deaths. In the following years, their wax figurines traveled in sideshows throughout the Northeastern states. The implied message in these traveling shows, was that young people should think twice, before getting involved in a life that was steeped in decadence and immorality.
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