History 246 Reading Guide

Discussion: Prostitutes, Business Clerks, and Newspapers: The changing social, eocnomic, and cultural order in Jacksonian New York City

  • Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth century New York (1998), Chapters 1-9, pp. 3-204.


Cohen’s study provides a focused, intense examination of a long decade in the Jacksonian era (1824-1836).  She explores the histories of two extended families in Kennebec Co., Me., a collection of young business clerks and prostitutes in New York city, and a view of that city’s public “underworld.”

Murders, seductions, tragedies:  these sensational events all produced individual accounts and records.  If the evidence was not necessarily sufficient for a conviction—the proverbial smoking gun, in the case of a murder or seduction—it did produce fabulous evidence for historians looking back at an era.

While we cannot generalize about a society or era from a single event, relationship, family (or set of families), the multiple sources that the murder, trial, and its aftermath produced provide a wealth of data to recreate much about that extended moment.  The newspapers sought  much more information about Jewett, Robinson, and their backgrounds in Maine and Connecticut than the police attempted to collect. With additional sleuthing, Cohen can go much further than the more focused and limited questioning and analysis of the sources and records that the district attorney pursued and that the judge, heeding the objections of the defense, allowed.  Thus, Cohen recreates the context for the murder, in New York City, Durham, Conn., and Augusta, Me., just as some of the participants did, in their interviews and testimonies.

In discussion, we will discuss some of the "themes" which emerge in the first half of the book (Chapters 1-9 only), as well as the evidence of change and of continuities.  Many of these are topics to which we will during the rest of the semester.  In addition, we begin to answer the following questions:

  • What do we know about Helen Jewett?  What can Cohen determine for certain about her and her life in Maine, Massachusetts and New York?
  • How does Cohen organize her book?  Why does she follow that particular chronology?