Sunday, January 19, 2014

109. Two Forgotten New York Murders

     New York City has seen its share of murders over the years; this post will describe two of them that have some aspect that makes them of interest.

Helen Jewett, 1836

File:Helen Jewett.gif    Called the Girl in Green because of the clothes she wore, in the 1830s Helen Jewett was the city’s most famous prostitute.  Born in Maine to a working-class family, at the age of about twelve she went to work as a servant girl in the home of a judge, but at the age of eighteen, perhaps because of a seduction, she left there and moved to Portland, where she became a prostitute under an assumed name.  After that, still using fake names, she moved to Boston and finally to that magnet of hustlers and achievers, New York.  There she flourished in a fashionable brothel at 41 Thomas Street, where her beauty attracted numerous clients, including lawyers, merchants, and politicians.

     About 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 10, 1836, one of the girls in the house heard a loud noise from Helen’s room, then a moan, and saw a tall figure hurrying away down the hall.  Two hours later Rosina Townsend, the madam, noticed that the door to Helen’s room was partly open.  Entering, she encountered billowing black smoke from a fire near the bed.  Immediately she roused the other girls, opened a window, and cried “Fire!”   Several night watchmen came quickly to put out the fire, though not before several male clients had managed to slip out, some of them half clothed at best.  Only then, as the smoke cleared, did they find Helen Jewett’s body in the bed, her nightclothes burned, her body on one side charred, and her bloodied head caved in from wounds by an ax.

     The murderer had fled through a back door, left his cloak and a bloodied ax outside, and climbed over a whitewashed fence to escape.  Based on the testimony of the other inmates of the house, the police went to the home of 19-year-old Richard Robinson, a clerk in a dry goods store, and arrested him on suspicion of murder.  From a respectable family in Connecticut, Robinson was a “fast” young man and one of Helen’s regular customers; he had visited her that night.  He protested his innocence, insisting that he had been asleep in his bed at the time of the murder, but on his pants were stains of whitewash. When shown the still-warm corpse, he displayed no trace of emotion.  A hastily assembled coroner’s jury heard the testimony of various witnesses and concluded that he had killed her with a hatchet and should be held for trial.

File:Jewett Robinson.jpg
How the press imagined the scene of the murder.  The real scene was bloodier.

     Helen Jewett’s murder became big news in the press.  Up till then American newspapers were devoted mostly to the dry statistics of business and the speeches of politicians.  Doing historical research, I have consulted them and found only masses of fine print devoid of bold headlines, interviews, gossip, cartoons, charts, maps, or other illustrations – nothing, in fact, to entice the eye or entertain the mind.  James Gordon Bennett, founder and editor of the New York Herald, was determined to change this and attract a wider readership. 

     When news of Helen Jewett’s murder first broke, Bennett assumed that Robinson was guilty and managed to be admitted to Helen’s room, where he viewed the body -- “the most remarkable sight I ever beheld” – whose sensual contours, now stiffened by rigor mortis, he described at length in his paper, likening them to sculpted marble.  Bennett then surmised that Robinson had been in love with Helen; jealous of her association with other men, he had decided to break with her, went to her room to extract from her some letters of his and other items that she refused to give up, whereupon he produced a hatchet from beneath his cloak and murdered her, set a fire to cover traces of the crime, and fled.  When Bennett printed all this in lurid detail, the public gobbled it up, the Herald’s circulation soared, its overworked presses broke down several times, and the newspaper had to move to larger quarters.  So began the reign of yellow journalism in this country, a reign that continues to this day.

     Bennett interviewed Rosina Townsend as well and began to suspect the madam herself and the other girls in the house, while reversing his opinion of Robinson’s guilt.  He was soon entangled in a spirited controversy with the Sun and other papers convinced of the young man’s guilt.  (The Times and Tribune were not involved, as they had yet to be launched.)  Meanwhile business fell off sharply at the brothel, the girls started leaving, and Mrs. Townsend was forced to sell some of her furnishings, including the murder bed, which, once sold, was smashed into pieces that were carried off by many as souvenirs.  Before the trial began, young men were rallying to support Robinson, viewing prostitutes as social leeches who, while necessary to satisfy male needs, were themselves of little worth.  But some women came forth in sympathy with the victim; while not defending her life style, they insisted that her killer should be held to account.  The case now was front page news in other cities, and the citizens of New York could talk of nothing else.

     The trial began on June 2, 1836, less than two months after the murder.  (Things moved faster in those days.)  The courtroom was packed, and – unusual for the time -- representatives of out-of-town newspapers were present.  Defending Robinson was no less a legal luminary than Ogden Hoffman, the son of a New York State attorney general and himself a former district attorney.  Many witnesses testified, including Rosina Townsend and a number of prostitutes.  Powerful circumstantial evidence  was skillfully countered by Hoffman: yes, Robinson was known to have a cloak similar to the one found outside the brothel, but so did many other citizens; etc.  When the judge gave the jury its instructions, he ordered them to ignore the testimony of prostitutes, thus demolishing much of the prosecution's case.  In less than half an hour the jury returned with its verdict: not guilty.  Robinson wept, his supporters cheered, and Helen Jewett’s supporters were stunned.  The Herald was satisfied; the Sun insisted that Robinson had used the money and influence of wealthy relatives and his employer to buy an acquittal.

     After the trial some pages from Robinson’s diary were made public, showing him to be callous in his treatment of women.  Public opinion, including even some of his supporters, turned against him, being convinced now of his guilt.  In time he decided to transfer his talents to the Republic of Texas, where he is said to have become a respected citizen of the frontier.  Whether this meant fighting Comanches and Mexicans or just behaving himself, isn’t clear, though he seems to have opened a dry-goods store and other businesses.

     No one else was ever tried for the murder of Helen Jewett, who continued to be viewed as either a victim of society or a scheming seductress who, like all of her profession, took advantage of male vulnerability and its proneness to sexual error.  Nor was Helen’s memory left in peace.  Rumors circulated that resurrectionists exhumed her, stripped her bones, and used her skeleton as a medical exhibit.  What happened for certain was that her wax likeness became part of an East Coast traveling show warning young men and women of the fatal consequences of depraved behavior.

     What is one to make of all this today?  First, the hypocrisy of the double standard: a man who frequents prostitutes is simply yielding to base instincts aroused by female wiles; the prostitutes are far more guilty than he.  This attitude was even pushed so far by some as to declare, “No man should hang for the murder of a whore.”

     Second, the newfound role of sensationalist journalism in publicizing crime, sex, and scandal, even to the point of tainting the proceedings of justice, since potential jurors could not but be aware of the conflicting opinions about a case that would soon be tried.  It’s worth noting, too, that the burgeoning yellow press of the day – Bennett’s Herald and other publications that followed his lead – addressed a primarily male audience, since no respectable lady should read such stuff.  What, then, were respectable nineteenth-century ladies supposed to read?  Godey’s Ladies Book, with its tinted plates showing current female fashions, and The Ladies’ Repository, a Methodist-sponsored monthly whose articles, poetry, fiction, and expositions of sound Methodist doctrine could be safely read by the gentler sex.  Foxy Lady lay a long time in the future.

     Today, opinion inclines strongly to a belief in Robinson’s guilt.  Which makes me wonder why some of us, when provoked, commit crimes of violence, while most of us do not.  Criminologists will have the final say on the matter, but I’ll toss my modest two cents in, for whatever it is worth.  My inmate pen pal in North Carolina – who will soon be released, by the way – once wrote a vignette of prison life entitled “Murderers I Have Known.”  In it he explains that one never asks another prisoner what he is in for, since to do so is to court trouble.  But some inmates, upon getting to know you, will volunteer their stories, and he relates several.  The common denominator, I concluded, was an inability to control anger, and a tendency to yield to impulse without considering the consequences. 

     The most striking account told how a young man, when he failed to get the promised Christmas gift of a motorcycle from his parents, was so angry that he got a gun and killed them both.  Then, panicking, he rushed to the garage to escape -- to where he didn’t know -- in the family car.  And there in the garage he discovered a shiny new motorcycle that his parents intended as a surprise.  Try as I may, I can’t understand the young man’s deed.  I can imagine him raging and ranting against his parents, threatening to run away or doing it, or breaking some object cherished by them.  But I can’t conceive of getting a gun and murdering them.  Are some of us wired differently so that, if provocation arises, we do unlooked-for acts of violence?  I’ll let criminologists explain the matter.  But the very thought of it is scary.

     Finally, I can’t help but wonder who Helen Jewett was.  She was portrayed by contemporaries either as an unfortunate young woman seduced and led astray, or as a wanton seductress taking advantage of her male clientele, but both these views are stereotypes.  Who was she really?  There are those today who see her as a bold sexual adventurer and independent woman – a feminist before her time – but this strikes me as a projection of current attitudes unsupported by the facts of the case.  Who she really was we don’t know and never will.

     The Helen Jewett murder has taken up so much space, and led in so many directions, that I’ll add only one more murder here.  So now we’ll zip forward into the early twentieth century, when the vigorous muscular frame of Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, bustled its weight in the White House, and America, the victor in the Spanish American War, was becoming a recognized world power.  But we’ll linger far from the centers of national power, settling down for a moment in Chinatown, New York, where different powers held forth and a different war was raging.

Ah Hoon, 1909

     Ah Hoon was a Chinese American comedian performing in the Chinese Theater on Doyers Street, where Chinese spectators mixed with English-speaking visitors whose interest in exotic Chinatown was not diminished by the occasional whiz of a bullet or the aroma of gunpowder often in the air.  The bullets and gunpowder were the result of a tong war between the dominant On Leongs on the one hand, and the rival Hip Sings, led by a young upstart named Mock Duck, and their ally, the Four Brothers association; at stake was control of the illegal but very lucrative gambling and drug activities in Chinatown.  (The tongs of the time were mutual aid societies that had evolved into murderous gangs.)    Mock Duck was a formidable figure, strutting around Pell Street covered with diamonds, his sinister image enhanced by long, lethal fingernails indicating that he left the dirty work to his lowly associates.  Knowing his life in danger, he wore a chain-mail vest and, if attacked, was said to squat down in the street, shut both eyes, and fire two handguns at his assailants.  Rough on passers-by, but it must have worked since he survived.

Mock Duck, with neither vest nor diamonds
nor weapons visible.

     This sinister figure was not one to trifle with, but Ah Hoon did just that.  Being associated with the On Leongs, during his performances in April 1909 he began making fun of Mock Duck and the Hip Sings and Four Brothers, and in the months that followed, his gibes got fiercer.  Mock Duck and the Hip Sings were not amused; in fact, their appreciation of Ah Hoon’s humor was in such scant supply that they finally sent an emissary to the comedian to inform him he would die on December 30, 1909. 

     This notice must have caused Ah Hoon some anxiety, but the On Leongs rallied to his support.  On December 29 a police sergeant and two patrolmen were assigned to guard Ah Hoon during his performance in a sold-out theater jammed with spectators eager to see a public execution.  After the performance the three policemen escorted Ah Hoon through a tunnel back to his Chatham Square boardinghouse.  There the comedian went upstairs and retired to his room, whose only window faced the wall of the building next door, while a squad of heavily armed On Leongs stood guard outside his locked door, and dozens more kept watch in the street below.  Feeling safe, Ah Hoon went to bed.  The next morning he was found dead with a bullet in his heart.

     In celebration of their victory, the Hip Sings paraded through the streets of Chinatown with the requisite fireworks, music, and dancing dragons.  The police were baffled; how had the Hip Sings managed it?  In time, another police investigation figured it out.  The Hip Sings had entered a nearby tenement and mounted to the roof, then jumped across three roofs to the roof of the building next door to Ah Hoon’s, and before midnight lowered a hit man in a chair by rope; the hit man had then stealthily entered the room through the window, approached the bed, and shot the sleeping comedian with a silencer-equipped gun, after which he regained the chair and was hoisted back up to the roof.  Ah Hoon probably never knew what happened, nor was a suspect ever arrested.   Meanwhile the tong war continued.

     Mock Duck, who must have ordered the murder, won the war against the On Leongs, but was arrested several times in the following years; finally convicted for operating a policy game (an illegal lottery), he served two years in Sing Sing.  In 1932 he helped arrange peace among the Chinatown tongs and retired to Brooklyn, where he died in 1941.

     Ah Hoon’s murder does not prompt me to the many reflections that Helen Jewett’s does, for it was simply a gangland murder, Chinatown style.  Who was Ah Hoon?  Did he have a family?  Why did he risk his life by making fun of a rival tong?  It was like a comedian in Chicago in the 1920s making fun of Al Capone.  The sources say nothing of all this; they simply record the basic facts of an ingenious murder.

     Me and Teddy Roosevelt:  Ah Hoon's murder, like that of Stanford White (post #107), occurred when Teddy Roosevelt was President, which prompts a personal reflection.  Teddy Roosevelt is the only President from before my time whom I have related to personally.  Back in my tender years my father, a great sportsman and lover of the outdoors, often told his younger son, a bookworm with no aptitude for sports, how Teddy Roosevelt had been a puny little pantywaist, easily bullied by other boys, until he went out West, toughened up, and became a muscular, two-fisted specimen whom no bully would mess with: he became a man.  As a result, all through my grade school and junior high school years I nourished an intense desire to mount a picture of T.R. on my bedroom wall, so I could use it as a dartboard and implant a barrage of sharp objects in his beefy, toothy grin.  Intensifying this urge was the fact that T.R.’s favorite exclamation was “Bully!” – which can be interpreted variously. 

File:Theodore Roosevelt laughing.jpg

File:Darts in a dartboard.jpg

     Alas, I never obtained the picture or the dartboard, and in time myself and my views ripened.  Today I have to acknowledge the following:

·      T.R., albeit a racist and imperialist, was also that rarity of today, a progressive Republican.
·      He established the National Park system.
·      He busted trusts.  (Ah Teddy, in this era of too-big-to-fail banks, where are you when we need you?)
·      I myself have been known to say, ”Bully!”  Albeit a bit facetiously.
·      I once took an obligatory boxing class in college and survived.  Once, I even merited praise from the instructor, a professional boxer with an impressive build.  But I saw boxing as a game, almost a dance, nothing more.
·      Still, I am not a hunter, and think it both ridiculous and repellent that those who are have traditionally mounted on their walls the heads of creatures they have slain.  I have often fantasized seeing the head of the hunter himself mounted there beside them: a delicious thought.

File:Roosevelt safari elephant.jpg
Big man kills big elephant: big deal.

     Me and hunting:  To talk about Teddy Roosevelt is to talk about hunting.  Yes, in this regard I've just tried to have a laugh at his expense, but as a child of the Midwest and son of a hunter I know that it's not that simple.  As my father explained to me long ago, hunting is an instinct, stronger in some than in others.  In him it was strong; in me, practically nonexistent.  I came in time to inherit his love of the outdoors, but had no interest in his fishing poles and shotguns, his most cherished possessions.  But  urban liberals usually fail to grasp how important hunting is to many people in other parts of the country, how it's in their blood.  My own feelings are mixed.  Hunting to obtain a truly necessary supply of food I have no quarrel with, nor hunting to thin out an overabundance of wildlife, since that will actually benefit the wildlife.  As for hunting as a sport -- the kind of hunting most Americans do -- I have no personal interest in it, but wouldn't want to interfere with those who do.  It needs to be regulated, obviously, for the sake of all concerned.  If, as Tennessee Williams's character in The Glass Menagerie insists, man was meant to be a lover, a warrior, and a hunter, maybe being a hunter is the easiest to achieve.  The trouble is, too often there are far more hunters than game; the hunting instinct persists, but the wilderness that accommodates it is much diminished.  Do I believe in gun control?  You bet!  But in control of handguns and automatic weapons, which have nothing to do with hunting.  Leave it to the NRA to try to muddle the issue, so as to enlist hunters against even moderate gun control -- a fight that continues, and that so far the NRA is winning.  

File:Model 37.jpg
My father loved them, I did not.

     Coming soon:  New York and the Slave Trade.  And a sequel:  The Slave Trade: How Did They Get Away with It, and How Did It End?  Also:  New York and the China Trade.  (Titles tentative.)

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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