Richard Parmelee Robinson Trial: 1836

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Richard Parmelee Robinson Trial: 1836

Defendant: Richard Parmelee Robinson
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Ogden Hoffman, Hugh Maxwell, William Price
Chief Prosecutors: Thomas Phoenix, Robert H. Morris
Judge: Ogden Edwards
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: June 2-7, 1836
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Perhaps the first of the sex-sin-and-mayhem cases that have come to dominate much of the daily news, the Helen Jewett murder gives us insight into the intimate side of life among young men and women some 125 years before the sexual revolution.

At 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 10, 1838, at a prosperous brothel on Thomas Street in lower Manhattan, a highly paid prostitute known as Helen Jewett, whose clientele included numbers of the city's gentry, was found dead in her bed. The bedclothes had been set afire and still smoldered. Blood had poured from three deep gashes in her head.

New York City then had almost no professional police force. "Watchmen" at sentry posts a few blocks apart, most of them laborers moonlighting for small pay, were alert for fires and robberies, while a few worked full-ime as officers. Two such, watchman George Noble and constable Dennis Brink, raced to the whorehouse and ordered watchmen to search for clues. A long cloak was found in a rear yard nearby. In the brothel's backyard, a hatchet caked with wet earth turned up.

Bill Easy and Frank Rivers

Brink and Noble questioned brothel proprietor Rosina Townsend, her "girls," and their Saturday night "guests." Most Saturday evenings, they learned, 23-year-old Helen Jewett entertained a man known as Bill Easy. But on April 9 she had told Townsend not to send Easy to her. Instead, between nine and ten o'clock, another young gent who was also a frequent visitor, Frank Rivers, had been admitted. An hour later, when Townsend delivered a bottle of champagne ordered by Jewett, she saw the back of Rivers's head as he relaxed in Jewett's bed. No other man had called to see Jewett. No one had seen Rivers depart. Townsend had discovered the fire, and the body, after a late-arriving customer knocked at the street door.

Brink and Noble soon learned Rivers's business address and his real name: Richard Parmelee Robinson. The 19-year-old son of a Connecticut landowner and state legislator, he was living in a crowded boardinghouse while clerking in a big-city store to learn business. The investigators also learned that Bill Easy was really another young clerk, George P. Marston, whose father was a lawyer and judge in Massachusetts.

At the boardinghouse, Brink and Noble awakened Robinson and his roommate, James Tew. The watchmen escorted both to the crime scene, which Robinson viewed with, they thought, surprising composure. The roommates said they had gone together to Townsend's the night before. Tew said he lingered there briefly, then went home and to bed, leaving Robinson, who insisted he had returned home by eleven thirty.

A coroner's jury quickly concluded that " Helen Jewett came to her death by a blow or blows inflicted on the head, with a hatchett [sic] by the hand of Richard P. Robinson." The accused was jailed.

Well Known to Every Pedestrian "

The Jewett murder rapidly became one of the era's most sensational crimes. Prominent New, York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett himself examined and reported on the crime scene, noting that "Jewett was well known to every pedestrian in Broadway." Another visitor, New York City Mayor Cornelius W. Lawrence, made his distress clear: New York, a city of 270,000, had seen only seven official homicides the year before. The crime immediately boosted the circulation figures of a dozen or more New York newspapers, all of which vociferously argued the likelihood of Robinson's guilt.

Research by editor Bennett disclosed that Helen Jewett was a Maine native named Dorcas Doyen. She had wended her way to Massachusetts as an apprenticed servant girl, learning "gentle manners" and an appreciation of the arts and literature. Seduced at 16, she had taken the first of four assumed names as she moved into brothel life in Portland, Maine, then in Boston. She had worked in New York for three years.

Joseph Hoxie, proprietor of the store where Robinson clerked, hired a prominent lawyer, Ogden Hoffman, to defend him. As the trial opened on Thursday, June 2, some 6,000 would-be spectators thronged the city hall courtroom and corridors. Twenty reporters strained to catch the testimony (no official transcripts were made) as Judge Ogden Edwards repeatedly demanded quiet. Next day, the judge summoned 50 extra marshalls to maintain order. When only 21 of 59 called jurymen appeared and only seven were seated, the judge ordered the drafting of "talesmen"individuals rounded up from streets and stores nearby. All but one were established businessmen.

Opening for the prosecution, District Attorney Thomas Phoenix called on Rosina Townsend. She testified that Robinson had visited Jewett frequently in recent weeks but that George Marston, known as Bill Easy, was Jewett's usual Saturday-night client. Cross-examination by defense lawyer Hugh Maxwell failed to shake her story of admitting Robinson, seeing him in Jewett's room, and discovering the murder and fire.

Hatchet, Cloak, and Tassel

Constable Brink testified on Robinson's denying ownership of a cloth cloak that later witnesses said he did own. Other witnesses ascribed string found on the hatchet to a tassel on the cloak. A porter from Hoxie's store identified the hatchet as one used to open crates.

The defense produced differing testimony. Had the tassel been added to the hatchet and the cloak after the crime by brothel-mates determined to frame Robinson? Might the jurors consider jealousies among the "girls" as motives for the murder? One, Elizabeth Salters, testified that she had been intimate with Robinson for some weeks before Jewett moved into the house. Servant Sarah Dunscombe said she dusted a miniature portrait of Robinson in Jewett's room on Friday-the same miniature found in Robinson's room when he was arrested on Sunday.

A police witness described the impecunious Robinson's wallet as fat with bills of exchange (equivalent to today's bank checks) made out to his employer Hoxiea tantalizing implication of embezzlement. Prosector Phoenix failed to pursue the subject.

Seeking evidence that clerk Robinson obtained the hatchet from the store on Saturday evening, Phoenix could not get proprietor Hoxie to say the accused had a store key. Next, Phoenix failed to link Robinson's handwriting to letters that could tie him to murderous threats. A defense objection to Phoenix's reading the letters aloud led to the prosecution's resting its caseleaving the jury to wonder whether the letters might have revealed a motive.

Now the defense introduced a surprise witness, Robert Furlong, owner of a small grocery store. He testified that on Saturday evening Robinson bought a bunch of cigars, smoked one while sitting on a barrel and reading a newspaper, checked his pocket watch when the store clock struck ten, and departed at 10:15 saying, "I believe I'll go home, I am tired." Cross-examined, Furlong provided details of the coat, not cloak, Robinson wore.

James Tew testified that Robinson was in bed at home before 2:00 a.m. Fellow boarder Rodman Moulton, while testifying that he had seen Robinson wearing a cloak with tassels, could not identify the cloak in evidence. The defense rested.

Jurors Knew Star Witness

During rebuttals, one juror, allowed (in the legal convention of the time) to question a witness, revealed that he and other jurors knew witness Furlong personally and held him in high regard. Judge Edwards permitted prosecutor Phoenix to read a letter from Robinson to Jewett entreating her to break off their relationship and return the prized miniature of him, which witness Dunscombe had dusted in Jewett's room on April 8 and police had found in Robinson's quarters on April 10.

Following closing arguments that consumed ten and a half hours, the jury began deliberations at half-past midnight. Less than 15 minutes later, Robinson was acquitted. No one else was ever brought to trial.

Within a year, under the name Richard Parmalee, Robinson opened a saloon and billiard room in Nacogdoches, Texas. Using the business acuity learned in Hoxie's store, he built a trade in clothing and personal items. He bought a farm, married in 1845, and died of an unidentifiable fever in 1855 during an Ohio River steamboat trip.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Cohen, Patricia Cline. The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Centnry, Vew York. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Halttunen, Karen. Murder Most Foul. The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1998.

Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Paul, Raymond. The Thomas Street Horror: An Historical Novel of Murder. New York: Viking, 1992.

Srebnick, Amy Gilman. The Mysterious Death of Maty Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Centuy NewYork. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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