The Sporting Life in old New York

Despite the attempts of reformers to keep Americans pure and more moral than their European ancestors, life during the 1830s and 1840s was leading many young men and women into temptation. The growth of cities and the lack of new land for farming, meant that many young men had to leave the villages where they had grown up so that they could make a living as clerks, storekeepers, lawyers or doctors. As the young men left the countryside, opportunities for girls to find husband who could support them grew fewer, so many of them left too. They moved into cities to work as servants, milliners or seamstresses. With so many unattached young people unsupervised by parents or employers, it was natural that many of them would fall into unapproved activities like gambling or prostitution. Cities, especially New York and New Orleans, soon became famous for the number and attractiveness of their prostitutes.

One of the most attractive and popular prostitutes in New York was Helen Jewett, who had changed her name from Dorcas Doyen, and moved Helen_Jewett,_sketchfrom Maine down to the city. She was a clever woman who formed strong attachments to her clients through her skill in writing letters and building up a feeling of intimacy. She attended the theater, an excellent place to meet men, and pursued those who attracted her. When you contrast her life with the lives of virtuous women of the time who were restricted to their own homes and their own husbands, you can’t help wondering whether Helen’s choice was a good one. While most women had many children to care for and were in charge of managing a house and servants and keeping their husband happy, Helen could afford to hire servants of her own and let them do the housekeeping. The woman who owned the brothel saw to meals and refreshments and Helen was able to socialize with the other prostitutes and with the men who visited them.

Helen might have lived her life successfully, probably becoming a brothel keeper after she grew tired of being a prostitute, except for the unfortunate accident of arousing the wrath of one of her clients. She was murdered one night and charges were brought against a young man, Richard Robinson, who was her friend and lover. The scandal of the trial made newspapermen happy and increased the sales and prestige of many of the local newspapers. Readers across the country were happy to read about poor Helen. Was she really a temptress who led young men astray? Or was Robinson a scoundrel who took advantage of a young woman who had been seduced into a life of sin? You can find the full account of the events in Patricia Cline Cohen’s book The Murder of Helen Jewett, or a brief outline of the plot in the ever-useful Wikipedia.

No matter what form you choose to read her story, it’s worth spending some time thinking about the life she led and the reasons for it. She had the usual unfortunate family background of an alcoholic father and a mother who died while Helen was young. You can explain her life on the basis of her unfortunate upbringing, but that is hardly the full story. Women who chose to make a living by selling sex are usually boxed into a closed category—a pitiful victim or a predatory stalker—but each one of them has her own story to tell. Reading about Helen Jewett is one of the few chances we get to read and ponder the life of one individual who chose an unconventional path. Perhaps we should do that more often.


Who was Helen Jewett and what was her profession?

Prostitution is one of the oldest professions in the world but aside from stories about the horrors of human trafficking we seldom hear much about it. Prostitution has flourished throughout history, but the individuals who work in the sex trade mostly keep a low profile. Even today

Sex worker statue in Amsterdam.
Sex worker statue in Amsterdam.

there are very few places except Amsterdam where sex workers are acknowledged and even honored by a public statue. In past centuries, prostitution was a topic often whispered about but seldom mentioned in public.

English majors may have read the Victorian novels that portray “fallen women” as outcasts aware of their pariah status. Remember Nancy in Dickens’ Oliver Twist who described herself as an “infamous creature” and is brought to tears of joy when a “respectable” woman says a kind word to her? Dickens was sympathetic to the problems of prostitutes, but he still portrayed them as beyond the reach of normal life and in need of rescue. Was 19th century prostitution really like that? Was it populated only by outcasts who had been seduced and betrayed by a man and by wantons who had an abnormal desire for sex? Or is it possible that it was a reasonable career choice for some women?

Recently I came across a book about Helen Jewett, a young prostitute who apparently lived a comfortable life in New York City during the 1830s. She was suddenly swept into prominence by a violent crime that made her famous throughout the East, but she has long since vanished from history. Her death, of course, was tragic, but it is only because she died violently that we have learned about how the sex trade in New York operated during the decades before the Civil War.

The first surprise for many of us is to learn that prostitution was not illegal in New York, as it was in most states, at the time. The police did not care much about people’s private sex lives, although they might arrest women for disorderly conduct or vagrancy. Keeping a brothel was illegal, but the crime was not often prosecuted. New York was growing very quickly during these years and many young men poured into the city seeking jobs. Most people accepted the idea that young men would seek out sex and that the women who provided it were a normal part of it city’s population. Prostitution was not defended by respectable men, and middle-class women were assumed not to even know about it, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it actually became illegal.

All of this was the background for the story of Helen Jewett, who moved from Maine to New York and joined the ranks of those women earning their living in the sex trade. I will write more about her in my next post, but if you want the full story, you might want to read Patricia Cline Cohen’s well-researched book The Murder of Helen Jewett.