At 3 a.m. on April 10, 1836, Helen Jewett’s body was discovered in her bed. Her skull had three mortal gashes. Her body had been crisped by the fire still smoldering in her mattress. There were no signs of struggle. She was a 23 year old prostitute working in a high end brothel. Her life was taken by a 19 year old store clerk.
The following coverage by the press of the murder and trial were the precursors to every sordid website and television show covering “true crime” and gossip we have today. This was the first time the “penny press” covered anything like this with such detail of sex, crime, seduction and romance that facts became secondary to sensation.
Jewett’s blood pooled on the floor; the smoking mattress and the body were doused with water from the backyard cistern. The police checked the backyard and found a hatchet near the fence along with a long cloak. One of Helen’s regulars had been identified by the madame of the house as having been there earlier wearing the cloak and attempting to cover his face.
The murder investigation and the lives of the victim and accused were gone over by the papers, false facts, planted evidence and speculation became common place on the front page of every penny paper in NYC. The trial began on June 2, 1836, with over 6000 people trying to get into the courthouse to observe. On day 2, the courtroom was cleared.
After five days and 56 hours in court, the jury heard closing arguments, which were considered the most entertaining part of a trial. Over more than 10 hours, the prosecution and defense concluded their cases with amazing theatricality. The press and their readers ate it up.
The accused was acquitted of the murder after the judge allowed the character of the victim (a prostitute) to be the guide for the 12 man jury. Papers were shocked. The accused moved from the NYC area, but investigations and speculation continued for over 10 years unveiling over 9 months of correspondence between the accused and the victim, including threats.