Tag Archives: prostitution

Who Murdered Helen Jewett? A horrible crime exposes New York’s darkest secret

PODCAST The story of a brutal murder in a New York brothel and the prime suspect’s controversial trial which captivated Americans in the 1830s.

In the spring of 1836, a young woman named Helen Jewett was brutally murdered with a hatchet in a townhouse brothel on Thomas Street, just a few blocks northwest from New York City Hall. [Click here to see the exact location.]

This was not a normal crime. Helen was a prostitute of great beauty and considerable intelligence, making her living in a rapidly transforming city. Among her client list were presentable gentlemen and rowdy young men alike — their kind fueling the rise of illicit pleasures throughout New York City in the 1830s.

This was the era of the sporting man. Young single men with a little change in their pocket hit the streets of New York after dark, looking for a good time. For some single young women struggling to survive, the sex industry — from the ‘high end’ brothels to the grimy upper tiers of the theater — allowed them to live comfortable, if secretive, lives. But it placed many in great danger.

The prime suspect for Helen’s murder was a young Connecticut man named Richard P. Robinson who worked at a respectable New York firm. His trial would captivate New Yorkers and even interest newspaper readers around the country. But would justice be served?

ALSO: Find out how this incident helped shape the nature of American journalism itself.

PLUS: Meet more than one person named Ogden!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #222: WHO KILLED HELEN JEWETT?


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New York City in 1830 — at Broadway and Bowling Green. The area just northeast of here would be ravaged by the Great Fire of 1835.


New York City Hall has it looked in 1830. The events of this story take place just a couple blocks to the north west of here!


The beautiful Helen Jewett (or Ellen Jewett), “from an original painting taken from life.”

From an original Painting taken from Life. Published May 1836, by H. R. Robinson, 48 Courtlandt St. N.


The prime suspect Richard Robinson, in his wig:

Taken from life as he appeared in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, on his arraignment, Tuesday, the 25th day of May, 1836. Entered according to Act of Congress in the Year 1836, by H.R. Robinson, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States of the Southern District of N.Y


Much of the extant imagery produced following the trial was obviously highly critical of Robinson, mocking him as ‘an innocent boy’, a phrase which was used during the trial.

Courtesy MCNY; Alfred M. Hoffy (1790-1860)
John T. Bowen (ca. 1801-1856? )
Designed & drawn on Stone by Hoffy. Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1836 by J. T. Bowen & A. Hoffy, in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court of the U.S. for the Southern District of New – York




One of the oldest existing buildings in the Tribeca/upper WTC district is St. Peter’s Church — seen here in a 1916 photograph — which began construction (to replace an older building) in 1836, the year of Helen Jewett’s murder. It sits in the region of the old prostitution district known as ‘the Holy Ground’.



Some images from the Life of Helen Jewett, one of several pamphlets which came out after the trial, dramatizing the lives of Jewett and Robinson. Most of the tale was fabricated for dramatic purposes.



A handy guide to the most loathsome saloons on the Bowery in 1903

Many of the bars and taverns found on the Bowery today are unfortunately clean, friendly and even trendy establishments, wonderful safe places to meet with friends and family. Not a ruffian or scoundrel in sight. Where’s the fun in that?!

Of course, for most of its history, the Bowery was one of the most notorious places in America, the location of great vice and debauchery — gambling dens, brothels, dance halls, dime museums, saloons full of soused drinkers hovering around a boxing ring. For many decades, an elevated train line turned the Bowery into a shadowy haven for illicit shenanigans of all sorts.

And so may I turn your attention to an article which ran in the New York Tribune, on April 12, 1903, that touted New York’s reform efforts along the Bowery. This report proudly lists the Bowery’s most “evil resorts” which were successfully wiped away thanks to efforts by Mayor Seth Low.

While these would surely be dangerous places to visit, you can’t deny that these lurid newspaper descriptions make even the most lowly of dives seem rather interesting.

With each address, I’ve put a link to Google Maps, revealing what stands on that spot today. In many cases, the building itself is still standing:

15 Bowery “Known to the criminal ‘under world’ as Spanish Mamie’s. Took its name from the presence of a Spanish girl, the associate of many crooks. This was a dive of the lowest sort.”

19 Bowery “A back room ‘ginmill,’ the headquarters of ‘Boston Charlie,’ a well known character, and his even more notorious woman pal ‘Boston Clara.’ Boston Charlie was known as a ‘first rate cane man’, that is, a beggar who pretended to be a cripple. He served many terms in the workhouse and gave this place a reputation in his now line. It was the resort of ‘panhandlers’.”

Below: An 1880 photograph of the Bowery at Canal Street


25 Bowery The New-York Tavern.  Here was  planned a brutal robbery and assault on a Brooklyn jeweler. A low order of ‘crooks’ made this their ‘hang out.’”

101 Bowery “A common backroom resort, a place of assignation and the gathering place of ‘crooks’ of an inferior order.”

Below: The Bowery in 1915. The establishments listed below would have been on this block

Courtesy MCNY

114 Bowery “A resort of cheap pugilists, where obscene pictures were exhibited on a screen, best known as Steve Brodie’s” [Read more about Brodie’s dive bar here]

115 BoweryLittle Jumbo. This was a notorious resort and the scene of a brutal murder. Criminals and ‘panhandlers’ made it their headquarters, and sailors were the victims of all sorts of crime, from robbery to murder. It was run for the proprietor by an Italian who was discharged and replaced by an Irishman; soon after the Irishman and the Italian had a fight and the former was killed.”


119 Bowery Flynn’s ‘Black Hole.’ This notorious resort is mentioned by Josiah Flynt as a resort of all sorts of crooks. It had a wide reputation, and went out of business soon after its proprietor, Flynn, was arrested for illegal registration in the last campaign.”

Also* — “‘Eat ’Em Up Jack’ McManus’s Rapid Transit House. This was a well known dive kept by McManus, who was formerly head bouncer for McGurk [most known for the morbid McGurk’s Suicide Hall, see below]. The assertion that no ‘touch’, that is, robbery, was ever made in McGurk’s and that such business was barred there, is somewhat justified by the fact that this place was started by a former employee of McGurk, and was famous for the ‘touches’ made there. McManus was known to his ‘pals’ as a ‘strong arm’ man, one who garrotes victims he is about to rob with his crooked arm.”

287 BoweryThe Tivoli — A concert hall where women in indecent costumes sang indecent songs on the stage; where assignation was carried on openly, and solders and sailors were dragged in and later taken to disorderly houses.”

The Bowery in 1905


291 BoweryThe Volks Garden — The most notorious concert hall in the Bowery, and, like the Tivoli, a resort for prostitutes, a place of indecent stage exhibitions and the largest of its sort on the Bowery. As many as fifty women were attached to this place, and the business was carried on brazenly, numbers of ‘barkers’ and ‘pullers in’ being stationed at the door to drag people in by main force.”

295 BoweryMcGurk’s ‘Suicide Hall’ The most notorious resort in the Bowery, the ‘hangout’ of a large number of young girls. Solders and sailors frequented the place in large numbers. Carbolic acid suicies were the special of the place and gave it its name.” [Read more about it in my piece on Suicide Hall.]

*Address not specifically listed. May have shared the building with Flynn’s Black Hole

The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The Knick Season 2: A History Recap from the brothel to the freak show

Pictured above: Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) explore several experimental procedures in the second season of The Knick, some more successful than others.

This post contains light spoilers of general themes from this season of The Knick although there are no specific plot twists discussed. You can use this as a primer for the second season before you begin, or review this list of historical moments before watching this evening’s finale.

Cinemax’s period hospital drama The Knick, now finishing its second season, spends a serious amount of time hunched over an operating table. The able and ambitious surgeons of Knickerbocker Hospital cut open flesh, severed body parts, injected experimental serums and performed delicate incisions on brains, faces, throats and abdomens.  The special effects teams should be applauded for making me want to throw up on at least five occasions this year.

But The Knick is more than a procedural about a turn-of-the-century hospital although those watching for medical drama (or horror) will come away satisfied.  With Season Two (set in 1901) this hospital drama rose to become a detective story about New York City itself. In Season One historic figures populated a story about a growing hospital. In Season Two the show finally found its footing within the messy patchwork of the Gilded Age.

Below are some historical highlights from the season, taken from some of my Tweets from the show’s original broadcast over the past several weeks.  There are no plot spoilers here — in fact, I’ve chosen to not even mention any characters’ names — and some of you might even find this helpful before you watch.



New Yorkers raced to find faster, more efficient solutions to horse-drawn vehicles. In the early years of automotive conveyance, it appeared the electric variety would lead the charge; however the earliest models were expensive and entirely inefficient. Meanwhile oil refiners like the ones in Lima, Ohio, concerned that Edison’s electric light bulb was killing the kerosene market, began looking for other uses for their product.


Apartment living was all the rage with the upper middle class in the 1880s, and developers around Central Park monopolized on the craze with lavish apartment complexes, bringing the amenities of upper crust life to those who couldn’t afford the upkeep of a mansion. In particular, the Upper West Side was rapidly developed, becoming one of New York’s trendiest residential neighborhoods by 1900.


The ground was broken on New York’s ambitious new subway system on March 25th, 1900, but not everybody considered it progress. Miles of underground tunnel required unprecedented investment which tore into busy streets, creating nuisance and danger.  Those of the more sheltered class flinched at the idea of immigrant workers ripping into their streets. Most New Yorkers were certainly unsettled at the sound of dynamite explosions and feared that whole city blocks might blow up.



Medical practice and scientific thought were expanding in the 1900s, but new modes of treating complicated conditions like drug and alcohol addiction were having a difficult time in the morality based institutions of the day.  Most physicians still believed that addictions exposed flaws of the human character and had little connection to the processes of the brain.


Deteriorated or stunted moral character was also seen as endemic of new arriving immigrants especially those from southern Italy.  The study of eugenics — belief in the improvement of the human race through selective reproduction — rapidly grow in colleges and universities in the 1900s. Naturally the eugenics argument was also used against African-Americans and wielded as a threat against any who attempted to upend the status quo.


Although the scandals of Boss Tweed were almost 30 years old by 1901, Tammany Hall still held a viper’s grasp upon New York City infrastructure — from the ports to the construction projects.  A standard building project would often require many layers of ‘greased palms’, and expensive materials were often used because a corrupt middle-man could hide more layers of kickbacks there.



While the dangerous qualities of many common drugs were well known, few were actually banned in 1901. Cocaine and heroin were still used in the operating room, and even substances we consider deadly poisons today were available over the counter.



Inspired by P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and the popular cabinet of curiosities of Europe, ‘dime’ museums became a popular pastime for New Yorkers in the late 19th century. They were a hodgepodges of exhibits, from people with extraordinary abilities to exotic foreigners.  In places like Huber’s Museum in Union Square, some of the most popular attractions were humans with various deformities, the individuals who would make up the freak shows of Coney Island. Few considered these people in need of care, and they were often harshly abused by their handlers.


In a society so clearly judgmental of non-reproductive sexual behavior, STDs were poorly understood.  Syphilis remained a deadly illness running rampant through hundreds of New York brothels. Some protection, like condoms, did exist at the time, but they were terribly uncomfortable and not consistently made. Pregnant girls were forced into the treacherous world of back-alley abortions. Many died during procedures — or afterwards due to unregulated and filthy conditions — and their bodies dumped into the river.



Violent racial tensions in neighborhoods like Five Points and the Tenderloin forced many black New Yorkers to move north — to the largely Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. By the year 1900 thousands of African-American lived here, creating a foundation for the huge wave of new residents who would arrive a couple decades later, turning Harlem into the center of American black culture.



The greatest waves of immigration into America came in the early 1900s, and the largest group among them were southern Italians. Unlike the earlier wave of Italians, Sicilians were poorer and less educated. Difficulties in understanding led many New Yorkers to consider them a vastly inferior class and even dangerous.



While the modern restaurant was essentially invented by Delmonico’s in the early 19th century, it wasn’t until the Gilded Age that the delights of public dining were properly indulged. With the influx of opulent life came the finest hotels and eateries, all equipped with modern conveniences. Most were situated on Broadway, from Union Square to Herald Square. Longacre Square (not yet Times Square) was a few years away from becoming the center of New York nightlife.


For more historical Tweets of The Knick and other television shows, just follow me on Twitter at @boweryboys. 

Don’t douse the glim! Four infamous dancehalls and dives which made the notorious reputation of Bleecker Street

“There are no lower outcasts in New York than the women who nightly creep out of the darkness and swarm the pavement of Bleecker Street…” L. Hereward, Eclectic Magazine, 1893

Sure, the Bowery was a rough and rowdy avenue, but one looking for more alternative adventures in the late 19th century might have found themselves somewhere along Bleecker Street. The college bars and cafes which inhabit the street now seem practically chaste compared to some of the dives once housed there.

At 59 Bleecker Street, for instance, one could find The Allen’s American Mabille, a ‘Parisienne’ style dance hall and den of prostitution that survived several dozen police raids — police headquarters was literally a block away — and made Allen one of the infamous proprietors in Manhattan, responsible for “the ruin of more young girls then all the dive keepers in New York.” [source]

It joined a collection of prostitution houses along Bleecker and east of Washington Square Park, so many that the neighborhood was sometimes known as Frenchtown, and not because of the fine cooking.

But American Mabille and the other ‘Paris’ houses, from all appearances, specialized in heterosexual couplings. A few places on Bleecker catered to male encounters and often of the most flamboyant kind, if accounts are to be believed. (Keep in mind the hysteria of the late 19th century press!)

The most famous of these was The Slide at 157 Bleecker Street, a basement dive filled with men in drag, horrifying proper New Yorkers with clientele “effeminate, degraded, and addicted to vices which are inhuman and unnatural” according to contemporary scandal sheet descriptions.

The Slide is somewhat well-known today as it shares the same address as rock venue Kenny’s Castaways.

Down the street from The Slide was the Black Rabbit at 183 Bleecker Street, another dive with a mixed clientele, known for scandalous sex shows, from the likes of the ‘Jarbean fairy’ and a female ‘sodomite for pay’. Like many of the others, it survived with sizable bribes to the police. The bar even scandalized thieves. In 1901, a reporter from McClure’s Magazine entered the Black Rabbit with a pickpocket who replied, “[T]his is dead tough. I wouldn’t allow this, ‘f I was the chief….I like an open town where everything goes all right enough, but I’d douse the glim here.” (douse the glim = turn out the lights)

Today, the historically themed 1849 Restaurant occupies the Black Rabbit’s address.

Nearby The Slide was Frank Stephenson’s Black And Tan at 153 Bleecker, “a place of bad repute“, specializing in mixed race heterosexual encounters, something most likely frowned upon even in many low-class Bowery dives. The phrase black-and-tan was used to describe other halls where people of different races drank and caroused together.

 Top image courtesy here.