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.


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