Murder of Helen Jewett
At the current moment, print press is widely used for providing the description of the most notable political and social events, and the formation of the views and perception of the broad audience. Usually, newspapers and magazines focus readers’ attention on the most notable topics like crimes and sexual offences. The major role in the description of these events is played by penny press. The current work will describe how murder of Helen Jewett became media sensation in 1836 and formed the background of the above mentioned situation by changing the perception of prostitutes, the role of the penny press, and the way of crime depiction. The emphasis will be made on the change of the perception of prostitutes and their position in the American society in the middle of the 19th century. Also, much attention will be paid to the increasing of the discussion to sex scandals and their coverage by penny press. Finally, the sensationalism of murder of Helen Jewett is based on the fact that its description created new form of crime depiction in press that existed and has been even flourishing till the current moment.
Reasons Why Murder of Helen Jewett Became Media Sensation in 1836
One of the reasons why murder of Helen Jewett became media sensation in the middle of the 19th century is that its depiction has considerable influence on changing the perception of prostitutes in America. This statement is based on the understanding that prostitutes started to be considered as the integral parts of the society. Before this event, the means of mass media never covered matters concerning lives and problems of these representatives of the society. In his article The Murder of Helen Jewett, Roy Rogers provided the following explanation of the position of these women in the 1830s–1840s in big American cities like New York: prostitutes were considered to be “broken pathetic persons living in squalor” . However, by various means of mass media from different parts of the USA, the bright coverage of Helen’s murder changed this understanding and made prostitutes “women of town”. Ray Rogers discussed the work of Patrica Cline Cohen The Murder of Helen Jewett concerning life and murder of Helen Jewett for supporting this idea . Helen Jewett, like many other prostitutes at that time, “acted as a substitute spouse for many clients who were not in the economic position yet to marry and establish households” . That means that the press coverage of her murder changed the perception of prostitutes from people about whom it was indecent to talk to people whose lives were actively discussed because the former were considered as the integral part of the society. Also, the change of this perception was reflected in terms of evidence provided by prostitutes to the broad audience. It should be mentioned that before murder of Helen Jewett, prostitutes’ evidence was not considered as relevant. In his work Murder of Helen Jewett Became a Media Sensation in 1836, Robert McNamara supported this idea by the following: “but given that the prosecution witnesses tended to be prostitutes whose word was suspect anyway, the case against Robinson fell apart” . However, being not recognized by the representatives of the law enforcement agency, the voice of women of town started to be supported by the broader audience through newspapers. It is notable that even for decades, the afterward stories concerning this murder appeared in press. That means that the society had some doubts concerning the innocence of Richard Robinson, notwithstanding the fact that this person had been officially acquitted of this crime. Robert Wilhelm, in his article Helen Jewett - the Girl in Green, even noted the following fact that supported the stated doubts: “after leaving the courtroom, a companion of Robinsons was reportedly seen giving an envelope to one of the jurors” . The publicity and interest to murder of Helen Jewett that kept for many years after this event showed the changes in social understanding concerning the fact that the voice of the representatives of lower classes may be closer to truth than the decision of the authorities. To summarize, murder of Helen Jewett changed the perception of prostitutes by making them the inherent part of the society and adding value and reliability to their voices.
Another reason why murder of Helen Jewett became media sensation in 1836 is that this event changed the social perception to sex scandals and their coverage by penny press. The coverage of murder of Helen Jewett became the first sexual crime that was broadly discussed in newspapers. It was one of the America’s earliest tabloid murders with blending of sexuality. That means that broad coverage of murder of Helen Jewett made the sexual crime more openly discussed by the public. Robert MacNamara made the emphasis on the fact that only yellow press described this crime “the murder of prostitute would likely have been an obscure event except for the emergence in penny press” . This fact is also supported by Michael Ayers Trotti in his book The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South . The author noted that some of the newspapers (e.g. Richmond Examiner) described this event in one-paragraph column because of their reticence to the coverage of sexual crimes concerning the representatives of the lower class . Also, the additional emphasis should be made on the increased role of penny press in the formation of social view. Michael Ayers Trotti noted the following: “the penny press with its pretrial coverage was a new force in public life” . That means that the opinion of broad audience and its perception of some events started to be formed not only by reliable and recognized newspapers but also by penny press that used not always the supported information and reliable sources. The better perception and open discussion of sexual crimes by printed mass media and the increased influence of penny press on the formation of social views formed the background of making the case of murder of Helen Jewett one of the most bright media sensations in 1836.
A final reason why murder of the Helen Jewett became media sensation in 1836 is that it created a new form of crime description in press. As it was mentioned above, the description of this crime “began a media circus” . The emphasis should be made on the fact that newspaper authors started to publish lurid descriptions of the murder scene. Journalists visited the place of murder and described dead body of Helen Jewett (often with a quasi-erotic undertone) and the interior of the room of the woman in intimate details . That means that murder description obtained some new characteristic in press: it became more concrete, more detailed, and more focused on the formation of readers’ attitude to victim. Also, the formation of a new form of crime description in press can be supported by the idea that journalists did not only described the place of murder or the related legal procedures and their outcomes, but they also paid attention to life and social position of the victim and judicially charged person. This is seen in the book The Murder of Helen Jewett written by Patrica Cline Cohen, where the author provided the description of life of Helen Jewett and Richard Robinson (before and after the lawsuit) . The emphasis was made on the lifestyle and the way of living of these individuals. Afterwards, many newspapers started to form the audience’s attitudes towards the major participants in this case. The murder of Helen Jewett created the background of a new coverage of crimes: not only simple description of the act of crime, but also the immersion of reader in the victim’s and murderer’s lives and in the moment of offence commission.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the current research paper described how murder of Helen Jewett became media sensation in 1836 by changing the perception of prostitutes, the role of penny press, and the way of crime depiction. Description of this crime changed the perception of prostitutes by making them the inherent part of the society and adding value and reliability to their voices. The better intussusception and open discussion of sexual crimes by printed mass media, and the increased influence of penny press on the formation of social views formed the background of making the case of murder of Helen Jewett one of the most bright media sensations in 1836. This event gave rise to new coverage of crimes: not only simple description of the act of crime, but also the immersion of reader in the lives of a victim and a murderer, and in the moment of the offence commission. The arguments provided in the current work immerse readers in America from the middle of the 19th century, in understandings and considerations of people from that time, their perceptions and things that were new to them, e.g. changing of the role of prostitutes in the society and open depiction of sexual crimes in details. The coverage of the current topic will most probably leave some long-lasting call for action in terms of trying new things and making covered topics open to public.