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Essay on “The Murder of Helen Jewett” by Patricia Cline Cohen

Dorcas Doyen, more popularly known as Helen Jewett, is at the centre of the book “The Murder of Helen Jewett” written by Patricia Cline Cohen in 1999. Doyen or Jewett as she is popularly known was born in Temple, Maine on October 18 1883 to a working class family. Her mother died while she was still a child and her father, who was an alcoholic, followed soon. Orphaned at an early age, she was adopted by a local judge, Chief Justice Nathan Weston and his family who provided her with a good education (Cohen, 23). She additionally worked as a servant in the judge’s home and it is here that she grew into a young woman renowned for her beauty. She is said to have developed sexual assertiveness at this point and was rumoured to be involved with a Banker in an affair that became scandalous. Upon attaining 18 years of age, the girl moved out of the judge’s home and began working as a prostitute in Portland, Maine, under an assumed name, as was the practice at the time. Her trade took her to Boston, and then finally to New York where she met her death (Cohen, 37). Her murder brought to the fore various aspects of people’s lifestyles that may have contribute to the nature of life that Jewett led besides other women and men. Upon the discovery of her murder and the attempted arson on her body, investigators focused on her long time client and close associate, Richard P. Robinson who used the name Frank Rivers when visiting prostitutes such as Jewett.

During the times when Jewett lived, the 19th century, women were expected to practice a lot of restraint during their lives yet their living conditions and the opportunities that were available to them were very limited compared to their men folk. Women were expected to be pious, which meant that were expected to be deeply spiritual and those women that actually managed were regarded well and accorded the honour of having a position in a church or in a charitable organization (Cohen, 78). It was believed that the nature of women placed them in a better position to handle both Christian leadership as well as domestic duties. The number of women that were church ministers at that time was great. Piety and observance of religious activities was supposed to keep women from conducting themselves “badly” and was supposed to encourage them to bring pleasure to their minds. Piety was also recommended for men but not as strongly (Cohen, 79). As a result of this preoccupation with religion, “mental derangement as a result of religious excitement” was blamed for suicide among women. This thinking on the part of society restricted women to lives that were devoid of challenges and excitement as a way of wielding control over them. However, men were not severely subjected to these terms of piety as the women folk were (Cohen, 79).

Women were expected to get married and once married; they were considered the property of their husbands. Women were additionally expected to be “pure”. This purity referred to sexual matters and it is therefore hardly surprising that prostitutes such as Jewett were looked down on at this time after losing their “purity” (Cohen, 56). it is important to note that even though women were encouraged to be pure all their lives and given recommendations on how to go about this, men on the other hand were only advised on how to recover once they had participated in impure acts (Cohen, 59). Those who engaged in these “impure acts” knew of the implications as well as the perceptions of the society and it is therefore the reason both men and women who met for prostitution purposes used names other than their own. Prostitutes at this time were confined to parlour houses and brothels for those that attracted upper class clientele and bawdy houses that catered to clients of lower classes (Cohen, 63). Once a woman had engaged in prostitution, it was very hard for her to e integrate with society again and be accorded the same opportunities. Adulterous women were regarded with the same kind of contempt while adulterous men were not treated so harshly. Moreover, if a woman engaged in premarital sex and bore a baby out of it, she was disowned by her family. The woman may have been forced to leave the family home and in addition, the father of the child was not held responsible for child support (Cohen, 65).

The opportunities that were available to women during the 19th century depended on the social economic status of the women. Lower class women, who were mostly daughters of poor farmers, had to work in order to support their poor families (Cohen, 68). The kind of employment that these girls got included household chores for richer families, laundry, tailoring, nursing or midwifery. The highest paying of these were midwifery, nursing and dressmaking as they involved skills. Upper class white women of the nineteenth century were generally pampered as they grew up with nothing to do and with servants to mind them (Cohen, 71). However, upon marriage, they were expected to oversee the welfare of their households and that of their slaves including but not limited to making clothes for them and nursing them. These women had very few opportunities for education with only three colleges admitting women; their opportunities for formal jobs were even less. However, there are omen that managed to get very high levels of education in those times and become experts in fields such as engineering, and physics among others. This ensured that women were not adequately equipped to live independent lives and they had to rely on somebody; most preferably a man (Cohen, 73). In the case of Jewett, she is reputed to have been a highly educated lady and very intelligent on the basis of the letters that she wrote and the books that she read. Unlike other women, she was better placed to benefit from opportunities that other women could not benefit from such as entry to one of the few colleges (Cohen, 77). She was possibly bound by the expectations that society had of her and by engaging in an affair with a banker to begin with, may have felt that she had no more options in life except for a life of prostitution (Cohen, 80). This career, which she chose, was

The legal system of the day was no better for the women that lived in that period. Like everything else, when dealing with women, their marital status was a factor that determined the outcome of the legal situation (Cohen, 25). Women were expected to be married and have children; once married, all her assets, liabilities, and everything they owed was transferred to their husbands. Consequently, if somebody wronged a woman, it is her husband that could institute charges and prosecute (Cohen, 33). Because of this, married women relied on the possibility that their husbands were kind and good people that had their best interests at heart. This meant that it was highly unlikely for single women to get a fair hearing or even any hint of attention from the law enforcement and legal authorities (Cohen, 54). This is especially visible in the trial of Richard P Robinson in the murder of Helen Jewett. The judge that presided over the particular case particularly told the jury to not consider the evidence that was presented by the prosecution’s witnesses for the reason that most of the witnesses worked as prostitutes.

In conclusion, the lives which women lived in the 19th century were markedly different from the lives that men lived in the same period. Women were subjected to a vast number of rules and so much was expected from them in comparison to their male counterparts. Men were exposed to so many opportunities as far as education, place in society, and job opportunities are concerned (Cohen, 52). They were placed at a higher place than women were and in addition, hardly suffered the same consequences that women suffered for the same offences. Moreover, men were in a position to make rules, which would ensure women continued to be repressed in society (Cohen, 64). On the hand, women were mostly expected to marry and have children. After marriage, the woman and everything she owned or owed belonged to the husband. This placed her in a precarious position as even her wellbeing depended on the whims of her husband. Due to this kind of thinking, the learning opportunities for women were very few and even fewer were their job prospects even after finishing college if they ever managed to enter in one in the first place. Society expected women to be pious, pure and chaste and failure of a woman to achieve these standards meant that she was considered an outcast like Jewett was (Cohen, 69). It s this kind of situation that may have put Jewett in the situation that led to her murder as prostitution as a career even today has been proved to expose women to the dangers of death more than any other career. More than anything, it is her career and the career of the prosecution’s witnesses that caused her case to not be taken seriously by the legal system. This was done in total ignorance of the lives that women were forced to live at the time (Cohen, 74).

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