The Destroying Demon of Debauchery

In the summer of 1829, an upstate Presbyterian evangelist named Charles Grandison Finney descended on New York City to establish the Kingdom of God in Manhattan. The revivalist’s energetic and colloquial style—“We must have exciting, powerful preaching,” Finney thundered, “or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save”—had recently ignited a spiritual firestorm in sin-soaked towns along the Erie Canal. Unlike most millenarians, who believed Christ’s Second Coming would inaugurate the thousand years of holiness promised in Revelations 20, Finney argued that Jesus’ arrival would culminate—indeed be predicated upon—a ten-century reign of peace and justice. Finney’s millennium would be attained by human action, not divine fiat: pious men and women who had saved themselves had now to save society.

Finney’s upstate activities had brought him to the attention of the Manhattanbased Association of Gentlemen. This informal junta of transplanted Yankee merchants and bankers—among them Anson Phelps, Arthur Tappan, and David Low Dodge—had abandoned their parents’ gloomy belief in predestination. Self-made men, they believed that sinners could be saved by applying the kind of disciplined effort that garnered success in the business world. They begged Finney to bring his crusade to (as Phelps put it) “our Stupid, Poluted, and Perishing City,” promising him to put up the money for a “free” church that would allow the poor to attend without paying the pewrents still required by every denomination except the Methodists. Finney accepted, and by the fall of 1829 he had been installed as the temporary pastor of the First Free Presbyterian Church on Thames Street.

Finney’s arrival under the auspices of the Association of Gentlemen was a signal that the cause of social reform in New York had entered a new and more aggressively evangelical phase. Those genteel Knickerbockers who had dominated the work of char­ity and benevolence from 1790 to 1820 were passing away—Divie Bethune in 1824, Thomas Eddy in 1827, De Witt Clinton in 1828—and even the venerable John Pintard, now approaching seventy, was beginning to slow down. The wealthy Yankees who took over from them made no secret of their intention to do things differently. Nominally Presbyterians, they had lost patience with divines like Gardiner Spring of the Brick Presbyterian Church and Samuel Cox of the Laight Street Presbyterian Church, who opposed Finney-style revivals as theologically unsound as well as undignified. From the Yankee point of view, too, the older generation of reformers had been insufficiently concerned with a swarm of new threats to social stability and tranquility: trade unions, Tammany politicians, the Catholic Church, and the freethinkers flocking to Fanny Wright’s Hall of Science.

Over the next half-dozen years, accordingly, the Association of Gentlemen stepped up their support of Finney by providing him with bigger and better church buildings. In 1832 they converted the former Chatham Street Theater into the Chatham Street Chapel, also known as the Second Free Presbyterian Church. The huge barn of a place, hard by the burgeoning Five Points, had been deserted by fashionable patrons, while working-class customers opted for its competitor, the Bowery Theater. Finney worried about the neighborhood—“Is not the location too filthy for decent people to go there?” he queried Tappan—but it could seat twenty-five hundred worshipers, and he moved in anyway. Several years later, in 1835, the association established him in the massive new Broadway Tabernacle (at what is now Worth Street) directly across from New York Hospital and near the new Masonic Hall and Columbia College. The tabernacle’s great rotunda, with tiers of pews rising steeply from the central pulpit, served to focus all eyes on the preacher and carried his voice clearly to the throngs that came to hear him.

By the end of the decade, Finney’s crusades in New York had spawned eleven “free” churches with several thousand members, all bundled into a Third Presbytery created by the Synod of New York (the alternative being schism). He saved disappointingly few working-class men, however: three-fourths of his followers consisted of working-class women, many of them recent rural migrants employed as domestics and seamstresses. (Frances Trollope wrote that evangelical congregations often consisted of “long rows of French bonnets and pretty faces,” resembling “beds of tulips, so gay, so bright, so beautiful.”) Most of the men Finney did manage to win over were affluent merchants, manufacturers, retailers, and professionals who, like the Associated Gentlemen, believed that an awakened Christian asceticism was the answer to urban poverty and vice. Many more were drawn from the city’s embryonic middle class—shopkeepers, small master craftsmen, clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, and bank tellers—who embraced evangelicalism as a way to dissociate themselves from both the dissolute poor and the idle rich.


The real measure of Finney’s impact on the city wasn’t the number of souls he saved but rather the boost his preaching gave to a wide range of evangelical efforts during the 1830s. Reform projects that had once absorbed a relative handful now enlisted the energies and emotions of much greater numbers of middle- and upper-class New Yorkers.

Evangelical fervor revitalized the old American Tract Society, which by 1835 had over a thousand men and women distributing its publications in the city’s stores, taverns, countinghouses, markets, asylums, and hospitals. The reinvigorated American Bible Society embarked on a “general supply” campaign to deliver a Bible to every family in the United States by the end of 1831 and actually managed to distribute 481,000 copies—well short of its goal but an impressive display of renewed organizational resolve and sophistication. Thanks largely to Finney, moreover, these groups, along with Sunday schools, home missions, and a steadily growing number of other such organizations, found it easier to raise money and develop a national outreach. Each May, generals and foot soldiers from moral uplift organizations throughout the country descended in great numbers on New York for conclaves at the Chatham Street Chapel or the Broadway Tabernacle, underscoring the city’s position as headquarters of the Benevolent Empire. By 1830 the thirteen leading societies had already received contributions of $2.8 million, compared to the $3.6 million Congress had spent on internal improvements since the founding of the republic. Soon their annual receipts would surpass the annual federal budget.

Mainstream Christian denominations struggled to keep up with the evangelical juggernaut. Anglicans, under the leadership of Benjamin Onderdonk (consecrated as bishop of New York in 1830), established a Protestant Episcopal City Missionary Society to open free churches in poor neighborhoods. That initiative was followed by the Bible and Common Prayer Book Society, the Protestant Episcopal Tract Society, and the New York Protestant Episcopal Sunday School Union, which by 1833 embraced twenty-four schools with some sixty-two hundred pupils. Finney-style exhortations had no part in the Anglican program, however. “The transformation of character we propose to effect,” said the Episcopalian New York Mission Council in 1832, would be achieved “by the simple agency of plain instruction and cheering counsel.”

In 1835, several years after the formation of the evangelical Third Presbytery, Finney’s adherents in the Presbyterian Church resolved to build a seminary to train a new generation of clergymen. Meeting at the home of Knowles Taylor—a prominent merchant, elder of the Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church, and treasurer of the American Home Missionary Society—they set in motion plans for the New York Theological Seminary. In 1839, a year after moving into its first building on University Place, it was renamed the Union Theological Seminary hi the City of New York.

Evangelical Presbyterians also figured prominently in forging an alternative to the Episcopalian stronghold of Columbia College. Despite its central location, Columbia in the 1820s drowsed on the margins of New York’s intellectual life, expounding the classics to upper-class boys destined for careers in the clergy. But its critics were growing more numerous and vocal. Mercantile and professional families wanted their sons trained for commerce, not the cloister. Workingmen and democrats sought equal educational opportunity for all residents. Old Jeffersonians like Albert Gallatin argued that no proper college could function under clerical control. Powerful evangelicals like Eleazar Lord and the Rev. Samuel H. Cox pressed for a Presbyterian version of Columbia.

In the autumn of 1830 a three-day “literary and scientific convention” convened in City Hall to discuss proposals for a municipal institution of higher learning comparable to the new University of London (1826). After some sharp debate, the hundred-odd delegates agreed on a plan for a University of the City of New York (now New York University). When both the state and city governments refused to provide financial support, the university’s trustees raised a hundred thousand dollars from private donors, hired faculty, and tapped Gallatin to serve as its first president. Less than a year later, however, Gallatin resigned in disgust. Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed ministers had succeeded in drawing up a curriculum for the university that neglected the “rational and practical” learning he considered essential. By 1832, as classes got underway in rented quarters in Clinton Hall (at Nassau and Beekman streets), it was no surprise that twice as many Presbyterian students registered as those of any other denomination. Three years later, the university moved into its first permanent home, a white marble Gothic Revival building on Washington Square designed by A. J. Davis.


By the mid-1820s the massive growth of western grain production, combined with improved technologies of distillation and ever more efficient means of transportation, left New York awash in cheap liquor. It also triggered a new eruption of concern over the scope and consequences of excessive drinking. John Pintard remarked as early as 1821 that “grovelling drunkenness increases among the lower vulgar owing to the reduced prices of ardent spirits.” Growing numbers of well-to-do residents—already in revolt against the swilling customary on New Year’s and other holidays—were alarmed that alcohol was taking a heavy toll among their own kind as well, eroding ambition, dissipating wealth, and spawning domestic violence. So, too, manufacturers challenged the customary drinking rights of their employees as a threat to higher profits, while journeyman unionists and freethinkers denounced drunkenness as an obstacle to effective organization in the trades.

It was evangelical merchants and industrialists, however, who would inspire and lead the city’s first temperance movement. Hat manufacturer Joseph Brewster, for one, was an idealistic and determined Finneyite who also calculated that banning alcohol from the workplace could boost profits by up to 25 percent. He moved his family from a 4th Street mansion (today’s Old Merchant’s House museum) to a shabby Bowery dwelling on Rivington Street, joined one of the free Presbyterian churches, and began to hand out abstinence tracts (he slipped one inside each hat he sold) and to lead raiding parties on nearby saloons. Lewis Tappan likewise organized a network of Christian spies to infiltrate taverns and report infractions of long-ignored ordinances to municipal authorities.

When grocers, publicans, distillers, and the landlords who rented them space started to fight back, evangelicals assembled at the Masonic Hall in 1829 to organize the New-York City Temperance Society. The society’s first president was banker Samuel Ward (of Prime, Ward, and King); its leadership included Tappan, engine maker J. P. Allaire, Eleazar Lord (president of the Manhattan Insurance Company), and other prominent businessmen and professionals. Over the next several years, the society launched its own newspaper, the Genius of Temperance, and began an aggressive recruitment campaign. By 1835 it had chapters in each ward, forty-five additional subsidiaries attached to individual churches, and societies for sailors, stonecutters, and silversmiths—better than fifty thousand members in all. (A parallel Brooklyn Temperance Society, headed by Adrian van Sinderen, first president of the Brooklyn Savings Bank, made equally rapid headway, as did the black-run Society for Temperance, which recruited through African-American churches.)

Members did more than pledge personal abstinence. They distributed tracts, addressed civic groups, launched boycotts, and pushed for legal restrictions. One measure of their effectiveness was a sharp drop in alcohol consumption (which fell, nationwide, from four gallons per capita in 1830 to less than two gallons a decade later); there was also a modest reduction in the number of liquor licenses, especially in working-class wards. The Brooklyn temperance movement won passage of an ordinance curbing the sale of liquor by the glass, after which the number of taverns fell from 178 to fifty, even as Brooklyn’s population rose from over twelve thousand to nearly thirty thousand.


In 1831 and 1832, at the invitation of New York’s temperance leadership, Philadelphia activist Sylvester Graham delivered lectures on the relationship between diet and disease. New Yorkers, Graham argued, had been fatally weakened in their ability to resist epidemics by the improper eating habits spawned by big-city life. Graham opposed the use of stimulants—not only liquor, wine, and cider but tea, coffee, and tobacco too. He advocated vegetarianism. He denounced urban bakers who used “refined” flour—stripped of husks and dark oleaginous germ and whitened with “chemical agents”—because it baked more quickly than traditional bread, even though the result was an almost crustless loaf without granular texture or nutritional value. He railed, too, against marketplace milk, much of which came from cows fed on leftover distillery mash (swill), with the anemic, liquor-inflected product made presentable by the addition of chalk, plaster of Paris, and molasses.

Graham’s proposed antidotes for such urban ills were—like most evangelical suggestions—personal, not social. Rather than calling for regulations on production, he advised New Yorkers to alter their consumption patterns. Ideally they should bake their own bread; he gave them directions for selecting, preserving, and grinding wheat, then fermenting it to produce the old-fashioned, whole-wheat bread that later bore his name. They should also consume more fresh fruits and leafy vegetables—perishables still in short supply in urban markets and considered unhealthy if not cooked.

In 1833 some of his followers opened a Graham Boardinghouse, a kind of temperance hotel where men (no women were allowed) could follow a Grahamite regimen. No alcohol, tea, or coffee was allowed, as the sign in front advised. Bells rang at five o’clock summoning residents to cold baths, followed by a breakfast of fruit, wheat pudding, tepid gruel, and cold water or milk, after which the lodgers—Arthur Tappan, Horace Greeley, and, when he was in town, William Lloyd Garrison were among the noted guests—went off to work in Pearl or Wall Street. They came back for a midday vegetarian meal accompanied by wheat-meal bread and cold filtered rainwater, then returned again in the evening for exercise and a cold-water wash before lights were doused, and clients locked in, at “precisely” ten o’clock.

Avoiding spirits and highly seasoned “flesh-meat” was an aid to sexual abstinence as well, as Graham told an enthusiastic audience at New York’s American Lyceum (in a talk later published as a Lecture to Young Men [1834]). Male orgasms, he warned, were inherently destructive; the loss of vital semen lowered men’s life force, making them easy prey to diabetes, jaundice, consumption, and premature death. Sex was as bad for business as it was for health. Reckless “spending” of sperm could lead to financial as well as moral and physiological bankruptcy. Properly subdued, however, sexuality, like nature, could be made useful—its energies harnessed, accumulated, put to productive purposes.

Unfortunately a saturnalia of carnality was underway in the city. The locus of the problem was the all-male boardinghouses where growing numbers of country boys and immigrant youths were lodged, unsupervised by family, church, or community. These single young men, freed from constraints, drank in saloons, visited brothels, and practiced self-abuse (a “loathsome and beastly habit” that produced debility, weakness, dyspepsia, impotency, and “masturbatory insanity”). Such practices, moreover, were being picked up by children of the higher classes, transmitted via the debasing influence of servants or through the schools, where youths learned filthy habits from their peers.

Continence was the only answer. Sex was to be avoided before one got married—in one’s late twenties or thirties; interim masturbatory relief was strictly enjoined. Even with the conjugal state safely attained, sexuality was best proscribed.

The pursuit of sexual self-discipline became the subject of a flood of self-help books, tracts, manuals, and magazine articles addressed to males (passionlessness was presumed to come naturally to women). Abstinence, like temperance, was presented as a prescription for personal, social, and financial well-being. Alas, the theory availed its progenitor little: for all his careful rationing of intake and outflow, Sylvester Graham suffered a nervous breakdown in 1837 and spent the rest of his life a semi-invalid.

Grahamites evoked ridicule, some hostile but most affable: vegetarianism and coldwater cures, after all, were voluntary affairs. But reformers did not settle for reining in their own bodies, and when they set out to discipline the sex lives of other New Yorkers, they provoked an uproar.

As Charles Finney was winding down his first New York City revival in the spring of 1830, John Robert McDowall arrived in town. A twenty-nine-year-old Amherst graduate and Princeton divinity student, McDowall spent the summer as an American Tract Society missionary, with Arthur Tappan covering his expenses. Dispatched to the Five Points, he visited slum cellars, distributed Scripture, taught Sunday school classes, and gave temperance lectures. McDowall also began visiting brothels, where he led prayer meetings and remonstrated with the women and their customers.

McDowall also started a Sunday school and Bible class in New York’s almshouse and prisons, with access arranged by Finneyite supporter Anson Phelps. Pious genteel women, many recently converted by Finney, taught in these classes, led prayer meetings, and, like McDowall, developed a particular interest in the problems of female convicts, most of whom were prostitutes.

In 1831 McDowall and his female adherents launched the New-York Magdalen Society with funding provided by Arthur Tappan and his male evangelical associates. The society opened a house of refuge for penitent prostitutes in the Five Points, modeled on the famous Magdalen Asylum in London, with McDowall as curate and on-site superintendent to “the daughters of guilt and sorrow.”

The Magdalens quickly ran into trouble. In the summer of 1831 McDowall issued a shocking pamphlet declaring that New York City had been overrun with harlots—ten thousand of them. Nor was their clientele limited to sailors and laborers, he charged; it included gentlemen from the most prominent and respectable families. Lewdness and impurity were tainting all sectors of civic society, and unless something was done, “multitudes will probably be immolated on the altar of the destroying demon of debauchery.”

McDowall’s statistics were wildly off, but he was responding to a real phenomenon. Commercial sex had become ever more ubiquitous. By the 1830s the Five Points was notorious, with twenty-seven of the forty-three blocks surrounding Paradise Square hosting brothels in whose windows girls in varying stages of undress paraded to lure street trade. In more genteel zones, the expensive carriages of judges, merchants, lawyers, and statesmen could routinely be seen lined up in front of their owners’ favorite parlor houses, and some clients went so far as to pay traditional New Year’s calls on madams. These gentlemen, some of them in flight from the new domesticity, could indulge their lustful pastimes reasonably sure that no one would trumpet their misdeeds.

This tacit approval of officially illicit sex extended to the vast numbers of visiting businessmen for whom parlor-house patronage was fast becoming a customary part of commercial transactions. During 1835 New York’s leading hotels housed nearly sixty thousand guests, many of them country merchants come to arrange credit and place orders. More than a few banks and businesses dispatched “drummers” to show them a good time. As one critic described the process in 1836, drummers invited potential clients “to champagne parties, to the theatre, and to houses of infamy, with the offer to bear all the expense.”

Into this civic conspiracy of masculine silence stepped John Robert McDowall, loudly blowing the whistle. Not surprisingly, his Magdalen Reports/as greeted with an avalanche of criticism, which the Evening Post summed up by saying: “The report should never have been printed, and being printed should be as speedily as possible suppressed.” Gentlemen of standing argued that McDowall’s lurid picture of urban vice was itself prurient and pornographic—“a disgraceful document,” said Philip Hone. Even more shocking, as William Cullen Bryant observed, its statistics of whoredom had been read out at a public meeting “composed three-fourths of respectable females.” City boosters protested its slandering of New York’s fair name and pronounced it bad for business. Workingmen and freethinkers denounced it as yet another theocratic initiative by church and state busybodies. Some suggested that McDowall’s zealotry stemmed from a morbid fascination with vice. This accusation was not entirely off base; as Lewis Tappan remarked of his brother, Arthur—McDowall’s patron and one who also liked to boldly “explore [the] recesses of Satan”—he “gloried in all the soiling that attaches to one in such efforts.”

Knickerbockers who resented the rising social influence of New Englanders in the city were much in evidence at an August 1831 meeting in Tammany Hall that called for and swiftly obtained a grand jury investigation of McDowall’s charges. This body could locate a mere 1,438 working girls—a deflated claim the press found risible—but it nevertheless flayed Tappan and the Magdalen trustees. Members of the society, even female ones, were verbally abused and threatened with ostracism. In short order, the campaign for public reticence triumphed. Tappan, taken aback by the rage and respectability of his opponents, quit the Magdalen Society, McDowall resigned his chaplaincy in September, and by November the group had suspended its activities and disposed of its asylum.

Utterly isolated, McDowall was about to give up and leave the city when two groups of genteel Presbyterian women—most of them wives of businessmen or of ministers—joined his purity crusade, thereby transforming the debate over sexuality in the city.

In December 1832 the New York Female Benevolent Society (FBS) was formed to help fallen females who “manifested] a desire to return to the paths of virtue from which they have swerved.” By May 1835 the FBS had opened the House of Reception, a refuge for prostitutes in Yorkville, four miles north of City Hall. Its bell-driven daily routine included scripture readings and sewing classes to train the magdalens for future jobs with Christian families. The FBS severely limited the appeal of their refuge, however, by refusing to accept any but “worthy” candidates, which required turning away “bigoted Papists” and impious Protestants. After two years they had gathered in only 145 penitents, and of these only four seemed “serious and industrious.” Worse, in the summer of 1836 inmates seized control of the institution, and the bitterly discouraged managers dismissed their charges, closed the building, and turned to dispensing tracts about the Seventh Commandment.


Prostitution Exposed, by “A Butt Ender.” A droll parody of the anti-prostitution campaign organized by McDowall and other reformers, the book conveniently supplies the names and addresses for more than a hundred local courtesans and brothels. (General Research Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

In May 1834, however, some of the FBS’s more militant members had split off to form a new citywide group, the New York Female Moral Reform Society (FMRS). This body quickly won powerful evangelical backing, with Lydia Andrews Finney, the revivalist’s wife, becoming its first directress and Arthur Tappan stepping in as its financial backer. The FMRS now appointed McDowall as missionary-general to New York’s prostitutes, and he began leading teams of men and women on “active visits” to brothels. Arriving early on Sunday morning, just as the ladies of the night and their customers were waking up, the reformers stationed themselves across the street, knelt in prayer, and began reading Bible passages and singing hymns. When they tried this at some of the rougher venues in the Points and the Hook, the crusaders were often met with curses and threats. At the westside parlor houses, however, they seemed to have something of a deterrent effect: closed coaches would circle for an hour or so, then clatter off. Encouraged, McDowall and company upped the ante by noting down names of the more determined patrons and printing them in McDowall’s Journal, alongside editorials excoriating brothels as “stagnant pools of moral filth” whose owners “ought to be executed.”

McDowall also lit into New York’s pornography trade. Charging that “obscene prints and licentious figures and paintings” were sold widely in the city, he collected a variety of “obscene books, prints, music-boxes, [and] snuff-boxes,” which he displayed at a meeting of three hundred clergymen hi May 1834. Out of probity or prurience, McDowall’s Journal did well. Circulation that year topped fourteen thousand a month, with half the issues handed out around town, the other half dispatched to rural subscribers.

Another grand jury, impaneled in 1834 to investigate McDowall’s Journal, declared it patently “offensive to taste, injurious to morals, and degrading to the character of [the] city.” Even the Third Presbytery, the body that licensed McDowall to preach and supported his campaign, advised him to discontinue the journal. Accordingly he offered his press to the FMRS, which purchased it, renamed it the Advocate of Moral Reform, and staffed it exclusively with women—editors, typesetters, even financial managers. The Advocate gathered 16,500 subscribers within three years, becoming one of the nation’s most widely read evangelical papers.

Under the women’s direction, the Advocate went beyond unmasking men who visited brothels to asking prostitutes who had “ruined” them—it being an article of faith with the ladies that many women “on the town” had been victimized by licentious males—and publishing the names of men whom its investigations showed to be guilty. It sued seducers for civil damages on occasion and launched a petition campaign to lobby public officials in Albany to make seduction a criminal offense.

The newspaper seethed with visceral antagonism to salacious males, and in its pages FMRS members raged against predators who “basely and treacherously” seduced and ruined trusting women. Behind the outrage at particular individuals lay a much deeper resentment of the “despotism” of “lordly man” in general. These pious wives and middle-class mothers insisted that men be held to the same requirement of sexual purity that women were. The double standard, said the Advocate in 1835, permitted a “state of licentiousness, systematized as it is in our cities,” that constituted “a regular crusade against the sex.”

Within a year of its formation, the New York Female Moral Reform Society had hired ministers, missionaries, and agents and had organized five auxiliaries in New York and another twenty-eight outside the city. By 1838 there were 361 auxiliaries and an estimated twenty thousand members, principally in New York State and greater New England. In 1839 the city group reorganized as a national operation, the American Female Moral Reform Society, and within two years it boasted 555 auxiliaries and a combined membership of approximately fifty thousand.

Male clergymen attacked this female initiative, as they had the work of the Female Missionary Society nearly two decades earlier, as being beyond women’s proper sphere. But the Female Moral Reform Society strenuously resisted clerical injunctions. As an early issue of the Advocateasserted, “This work must be begun with ladies. They are the injured, and they must rise and assert their rights.” Rather than meekly returning to the home, militant women elbowed male philanthropists aside and made a place for themselves in the quest for the Millennium.


At three A.M. on Sunday, April 10, 1836, brothel keeper Rosina Townsend was awakened by smoke billowing out of Helen Jewett’s room. She screamed for the watchmen, who discovered Jewett’s body—hacked up (“the bone was cleft to the extent of three inches”) and partly consumed by flames. The rear door was ajar. Just outside lay a hatchet and a blue cloth cloak belonging to one Richard P. Robinson. Townsend explained that Robinson had arrived the previous evening to spend the night with Jewett and had been there at eleven P.M., when she had served the couple champagne. The watch hastened to Robinson’s lodging house. There they found pantaloons smeared with what appeared to be lime from the whitewashed fence behind the brothel. Charged with murder, Robinson was imprisoned at Bellevue.

The slaying of Helen Jewett became an instant sensation. “For the last ten days,” James Gordon Bennett wrote in his Herald on April 20, “this tragedy and the accused have occupied every tongue—been the leading topic of every conversation—is discussed in every drawing room and gin shop throughout the extent of New York. . . . No point of interest—no event—no contingency ever took place in New York, which has so completely divided public opinion, and created a general debate.”

Premeditated murders were rare—only seven had been reported in all of 1835—but the uproar over the Robinson-Jewett affair stemmed from more than shock. The protagonists were perceived, correctly, as emblematic players on the city’s gender stage, whose relationship afforded the citizenry yet another opportunity to debate New York’s rapidly changing sexual and class dynamics.

Helen Jewett, daughter of a poor Maine shoemaker, was keenly intelligent, extremely beautiful, and the possessor of social graces acquired in service to a prominent Augusta family. Since 1830, then aged seventeen, she had been a girl “on the town,” first in Portland, then in Boston, finally in New York City. From 1833 on she lived in a series of elegant brothels in the lower Fifth Ward, ending up at 41 Thomas Street in 1835.

Rosina Townsend ran an elegant establishment. Her girls met potential clients in fashionable venues like the third tier at the Park Theater or were screened and deemed acceptable by Madame Townsend herself. Many of the visitors paid a kind of court to the courtesans, in earnest emulation of bourgeois mating rituals. Helen, glamorous and erudite (she read Byron), received from three to eight love letters a day, which she picked up at the post office or had delivered by public porters.

Robinson, a handsome, ruddy youth of nineteen who dressed in the height of fashion, was one of Jewett’s most ardent suitors. Scion of a fine old Connecticut family, Robinson worked for Joseph Hoxie, a Yankee cloth merchant. Hoxie was a charter member of the New-York City Temperance Society, and he supported a lecture series promoting industrious habits and moral deportment among young clerks. So far as his employer knew, Robinson was an unblemished exemplar of proper behavior.

In fact, Robinson was a habitué of whorehouses. Since meeting Jewett in June 1835, Robinson had been visiting her several times a week. He sent her romantic epistles, books, literary periodicals. He went with her to the Park and Bowery theaters. He boasted of his relations with her to his friends, many of whom also shared her favors.

Like their plebeian male counterparts, Robinson and his confraternity of “sporting men”—clerks, cashiers, and fledgling merchants—adopted promiscuous bachelorhood as a way of life, defying the culture of chastity demanded by the evangelicals, and even the conventional proprieties adhered to by Knickerbocker businessmen. Many of these macho clerks lived on their own, as did the single male laborers in working-class boardinghouses, and were equally beyond the moral surveillance of employer, family, or church. Robinsonian dandies, in satisfying their sexual needs through the marketplace, benefited as well from the differential standard of sexual propriety for men and women.

In 1831 McDowall and his Magdalen Society had forced issues of sexuality into the public forum; they had been ruthlessly suppressed and civic silence restored. In 1834 the New York Female Moral Reform Society had redeclared war against male promiscuity, but its crusade remained a marginal and minority preoccupation.

The Jewett murder injected the issue of class into the debate about sex in the city at just the moment when the penny press had arrived, with the result that the conversation was catapulted into the mainstream of popular discourse. Traditional sixpenny editors had preferred not to talk about such sordid issues. Bryant pronounced the case a “disagreeable subject.” But the Herald, Sun, and Transcript lavished oceans of lurid prose on the murder, making it the most intensely covered story of the decade. And, as they took violently opposing positions on the guilt or innocence of the parties, their pugnacious exchanges generated additional excitement, further boosting the circulation of all three.

Bennett led off with a melodramatic recounting of his visit to the scene of the crime. His alluring description of Jewett’s body—“the perfect figure, the exquisite limbs, the fine face, the full arms, the beautiful bust, all surpassed in every respect the Venus de Medici”—was a bit odd, to be sure, given that the corpse had been hacked and roasted. His report of an exchange with Madam Townsend, replete with verbatim dialogue and generally considered the first formal interview ever recorded in an American newspaper, was rendered similarly suspect by Townsend’s denial, related in the Sun, that she had ever talked with him.

But Bennett was after more than mere facts—or what he called “dull police reports.” He had a thesis to promote: that Robinson, despite appearances, was a “young, amiable, and innocent youth.” In the role of murderer, Bennett cast a series of candidates. First he said one of the other prostitutes had killed Jewett out of jealousy. After all, he asked, given the brutality, “is it not more likely the work of a woman?” Then he blamed Townsend, an “old miserable hag, who has spent her whole life in seducing and inveigling the young and old to their destruction.” He even implied that Jewett herself bore moral responsibility for her own death: in becoming one of the “licentious inmates of a fashionable brothel,” she had violated the canons of true womanhood and put herself beyond the protective pale of respectability.

Like McDowall, Bennett expressed indignation at vice while closely portraying its lineaments for the delectation of respectable readers. Yet Bennett avoided McDowall’s fate, partly by vigorously upholding the established class and gender order, which McDowall had challenged, and partly by fashioning a new journalistic persona. Bennett became the intrepid reporter, the public’s representative, duty bound to expose even the most sordid aspects of New York’s underworld. This proved a winning and lucrative formula: in one week, the Herald’s circulation shot up to fifteen thousand per day.

Benjamin Day’s Sun and the Transcript took the opposite tack. Robinson was no innocent boy but a villainous man about town. Jewett hadn’t seduced him; he had seduced Jewett, yet another instance of an upper-class dandy sexually exploiting a working-class woman. He had murdered poor Helen and now would now try to cheat the gallows with help from highly placed friends. This egalitarian analysis, worthy of the penny papers’ Workie roots, accorded with assumptions many working-class readers brought to the issue.

After more than a month of discussion in the court of public opinion, the courtroom trial commenced at City Hall on June 2, 1836. Each of its five days was a circus. Even on the second morning, when it rained fiercely, five to six thousand would-be spectators thronged the area. Crowds of clerks—a Robinsonian claque—jammed the courtroom almost daily. They were permitted to whoop and cheer testimony favorable to the prisoner and hiss and boo prosecution witnesses.

To defend Robinson, his employer hired three of New York’s most celebrated lawyers: William Price, Hugh Maxwell, and Ogden Hoffman. The evidence against their client was circumstantial but plentiful. Robinson’s roommate swore he had been out late the night of the murder. Townsend and a bevy of the prostitutes placed him at the crime scene. Townsend testified about motive as well, noting that Robinson, recently engaged to a young woman of good family, was anxious to retrieve letters he had sent Jewett, two score of which were found in her room.


Intense coverage of the Jewett murder in the penny press created a market for cheap pamphlets that provided graphic embellishments while drawing moral lessons from the event. (© Collection of The New York Historical Society)

In rebuttal, Robinson’s lawyers produced a witness—a respectable grocer named Furlong—who insisted the youth had been reading papers in his shop a mile and a half from Thomas Street that evening. Well aware that many believed Furlong’s testimony had been purchased with Hoxie’s cash, the lawyers also attacked the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses—on moral grounds. Women like Townsend, who had led an “infamous and abandoned” life, could not be trusted to tell the truth.

Here the lawyers were bucking convention. Legally, madams had been treated like small businesspersons and protected against threats to their person or property—threats that had increased dramatically in the 1830s. Brothel riots, expressions of community disapprobation of sin, were an old story, but recently small groups of workingclass toughs had been bursting into fancy brothels, physically assaulting and sometimes raping the women, breaking furniture and windows. Some of these incidents were drunken sprees. Some were fueled by misogyny: brothel bullies found the prosperous independence of prostitutes intolerable at a time when working-class males’ income and prerogatives were being undermined. Some were driven by class animosity: attackers were furious that upscale brothels barred their access to women who were readily available to clerks and merchants.

When ruffians went on rampages, prostitutes did not hesitate to initiate legal proceedings against them. In 1833, after three men had barged into Mrs. Townsend’s Thomas Street house shouting indecent language, she had them charged with assault and battery. The municipality was prepared to defend prostitutes from attacks by lower-class antagonists; would they do so when the accused, by birth and association, was one of the city’s elite?

The issue was decided by the presiding judge, Ogden Edwards. Judge Edwards was a distinguished member of the patriciate, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards and cousin of Aaron Burr. Originally a conservative Tammany man—at the constitutional convention of 1821 he had opposed universal suffrage—Edwards was active in the New-York City Temperance Society. He now decreed that the testimony of prostitutes was likely to be as corrupt as their way of life. The judge instructed the jury not to credit their testimony unless it was otherwise corroborated. Robinson was acquitted in less than ten minutes.

The Sun denounced the verdict as a miscarriage of justice and an affirmation of class privilege. It noted that “an opinion is prevalent and openly expressed that any man may commit murder, who has $1500 to give to Messers Hoffman, Price and Maxwell.” The Female Moral Reform Society’s Advocate of Moral Reform also bristled at the ruling, outraged that prostitutes’ testimony—and lives—were not deemed the moral equal of their clients’. Some elite males were outraged too—Philip Hone called the verdict the “foulest blot on the jurisprudence of our country”—but Robinson’s acquittal pleased privileged gentlemen determined to suppress challenges to their masculine prerogatives.

In the trial’s aftermath, antifeminists grew bolder. When Fanny Wright returned later in 1836 and attempted to renew her speaking campaign, she was met not simply with verbal brickbats—the Courier and Enquirer attacked her “disgusting exhibition of female impudence”—but with outright suppression. On September 23, maddened males at Masonic Hall drove Wright from the stage with hisses, pounding of canes, stink bombs, and a “volley of expressions of the most vulgar and indecent kind.” She soon found the doors of every major public hall in New York City shut against her.

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