Murder Mystery NYC Diaries - Case #1: The Murder of Helen Jewett

Live in Theater's unique interactive plays are inspired by the twists and turns of real historical murder mysteries. When participating in one of our immersive experiences, audience members must review all the facts of a case in order to solve it. But what would happen if the audience were fed sensationalized information, unable to distinguish between what's fact and what's fiction?

These Murder Mystery NYC Diaries will focus on various cases featured in "1886 Professional Criminals in America" by Thomas F. Byrnes, Police Inspector and Chief of Detectives in New York City from 1880-1895. In our next entry we'll be looking at the murder of young woman named Helen Jewett, and the unprecedented involvement of the tabloid media.

Tribeca, 1836: a young woman is found lying in bed, burned to a crisp at her residence on Thomas Street. The facts of the case are as follows: The young woman, a well-established prostitute named Helen Jewett, was bludgeoned, set ablaze, and left for dead early on the morning of April 10th. The only suspect is a long time suitor of Ms. Jewett’s: a mister Richard Robinson. Beyond that, the facts become virtually nonexistent. Unfortunately for Helen, her case fell below the sights of major news outlets and into the hands of the tabloid media. For a sixty cent paper, the object is not to give people truth, it’s to sell. And what sells? Sex.

As hundreds of words on thousands of pages were wasted on hyper-sexualized descriptions of Jewett’s body. Tabloid sales exploded without ever truly touching on the work police were doing to solve this murder mystery. Their suspect, Robinson, was shaping up to seem incredibly guilty. He was the last person seen with the victim. There was a bloody hatchet outside the home that linked him to the murder, and he was never able to never produce an alibi. Robinson’s only response to the crime was, “Why would a guy like me do a thing like that?” However, none of this was deemed important enough to include in the tabloid coverage of Ms. Jewett’s tragic demise.

This case did go to trial, and the suspect was somehow acquitted, leaving the case open and making it a classic murder mystery, NYC edition. Several scholars say that the acquittal was unexpected, but when we reconsider the role of the media, the miscarriage of justice doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The tabloids created a sensationalized narrative, and made the victim, a woman, a sexual object.Those who came to testify on Helen's behalf were also female escorts, who never got the chance to be seen as valid, truthful witnesses. If the victim had been turned into just another sexual object, what was to be said about their validity? That’s why, when a man showed up at the 11th hour to offer what may have been a false alibi, the prosecution’s case crumbled.

This case is considered to have helped set the stage for the sex and death type of sensationalism in media reporting that can still be seen today, and the effects it has on its audiences. When the media runs wild, the truth becomes unnecessary, for who needs facts when you can simply make up a story that sells.

For the introduction to this series and a look at whats to come, click here.

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