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.

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