FEATURES

THE MURDER OF HELEN JEWETT
Richard Parmelee Robinson 1817-1855
Cynthia, Hiel, Ezra, Nathaniel, Nathaniel, John, John


R
ichard Parmelee Robinson, son of Richard and Cynthia (Parmelee) Robinson, was born April 9, 1817, at Durham, Middlesex County, Conn. While in his late teens, he moved to New York City where he played a role in one of the most notorious murder trials of the time, extensively covered by the nation's newspapers. Six days after he was cleared of the 1836 murder of prostitute Helen/Ellen Jewett, the New York Herald reported that Robinson would change his name and leave for the West or Texas.

Richard Parmelee appeared in Texas before other Parmelee families. In 1836, he was a witness to the signing of a Nacogdoches County deed. His name also appears on Nacogdoches District and County tax lists for 1837, '39, '40 and '45 and the 1840 Republic of Texas census. And his birthplace is listed as Connecticut. He was married in 1845 to Attala A. Phillips, widow of Benjamin Phillips, mother of two young children, and owner of a score of slaves on a farm about three miles from the center of Nacogdoches. He was 28, she was 25.

In a 1875 affidavit filed in Nacogdoches County, prominent citizen Bennett Blake identified Richard Parmelee as Richard Robinson. And then there is this clipping from the May 22, 1852, edition of the Connecticut Courant, right.

For years genealogists -- including myself -- had him as ninth child of Samuel Parmelee. Samuel -- a second cousin of Cynthia (Parmelee) Robinson's -- was born in 1771 near Westfield, N.J., and lived in Essex County as late as 1793. He and his family appear in Livingston County, Ky., in 1806 and 1810, and then in Giles County, Tenn., also in 1810. The 1820, '30 and '40 censuses show them in Harden County, Tenn. In 1846, Samuel left Tennessee for Nacogdoches, Texas, with sons John, Edward, Samuel and their families. Subsequent census records show all three of Samuel's sons had children born in Tennessee up to that point -- none in Connecticut -- and all three had children born in Texas thereafter.

So, are Richard Robinson and Richard Parmelee one and the same? (Yes.) Did Samuel Parmele ever have a son named Richard? (It's looking doubtful.) Or was the Samuel Parmelee family in on Richard Robinson's ruse? (I've found no evidence to support this idea.) A settlement of Samuel Parmelee's estate might shed some light on the matter, but I have yet to locate it.

In the meantime, here is the story of Helen Jewett's murder:

New York -- Rosina Townsend liked to say she ran a "boarding house" for women at 41 Thomas St., at the corner of Church Street [at left is the site today, the west end of MW Design Inc.]. Just after 1 a.m. on Sunday, April 10, 1836, she went to bed, after hearing the last "visitor" come in for the night.

Upstairs, across the hall from the room occupied by Helen Jewett, 23, Marie (or Maria) Stevens was awakened by a thump and a moan. Stevens got up to listen at her door, in case someone needed help. She heard a door open and close across the hall and then footsteps. Peeking out her door, she saw a tall man in a cloak, lamp in hand, going down the steps. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Stevens returned to bed.

About two hours later, Townsend got up to make her rounds. On a hallway table, she found a small, burning lamp, which she recognized as being from Jewett's or Stevens' room. She was about to return it back upstairs when she noticed cold air coming in from the opened back door. It had snowed and was unseasonably cold. She closed and locked the door, and picked up the lamp. Once upstairs, Townsend discovered Jewett's door was ajar. She pushed it open and was greeted by black smoke. Flames were near the bed.

Townsend alerted the other women to get up, and threw open a window to yell "Fire!" to anyone who might hear. A night watchman on Thomas Street heard her and went into the house, followed by two other watchmen who also heard the commotion. Several male "guests" slipped out the house in various stages of undress.

Within minutes, the watchmen and Townsend extinguished the fire before it spread. But as the smoke cleared, they found a dead woman, her nightclothes mostly burned. One arm was raised over her head, the other lay over her chest, and the left side of her body was charred. Looking closer, they discovered from a bloody mess on her head that someone had hit her more than once with a sharp object.

The men asked Townsend if she had seen anyone else in the room that night. She had, she said. She had brought champagne to the room and had seen the back of the head of a male guest she had seen before: Frank Rivers. He'd come in that evening wearing a long dark cloak, she said.

An inspection of the fenced backyard and garden revealed that a bloodstained hatchet had been left on the ground. It had been tied with some sort of twine, which had broken. On the other side of the fence was a cloak similar to the one Townsend had described.

Another woman who overheard the Townsend's conversation with the watchmen said that Rivers worked as a clerk for a dry-goods merchant on Maiden Lane.

That night, citizen-officers Dennis Brink and George Noble went to the Maiden Lane address to inquire about Rivers. According to H. Paul Jeffers' book "With an Axe," they learned that the clerk was actually Richard P. Robinson, 19, who lived at a boarding house at 42 Dey St. [at right, about where the bank entrance is; construction on the World Trade Center museum is across Church Street to the right.] Robinson used Rivers as a pseudonym at Townsend's establishment.

There investigators woke a servant, who confirmed that Robinson boarded there and shared a room with James Tew, also a clerk. Tew responded to their knock. The room's other occupant awoke as well; Robinson, sources said, immediately said: "This is an odd business." Yet he showed no surprise or any other emotion when investigators identified themselves as officers. They ordered him to get dressed and accompany them to the Chambers Street station house.

As he dressed, they asked if he owned a cloak; he replied that he did own a silk-and-wool cloak. Although he said it was hanging there in the room, he grabbed a frock coat to wear to the police station. The officers noticed a white spot on Robinson's trousers; they recalled the white fence in Townsend's backyard. Before going to the station, they took Robinson to Townsend's house, telling him they believed that he'd killed a woman there that night. "I certainly did not," he told them.

Seven other night patrol officers were at Townsend's when they arrived, as well as the magistrate, Oliver Lowends, and the city coroner, William Schureman. They led Robinson up the steps and down the hall to Jewett's room. Robinson was forced to look at her body on the bed. He showed no signs of agitation or distress, they said. Robinson insisted that he had been home that night, asleep. Roommate Tew, who'd accompanied him, confirmed that Robinson had indeed come in to bed, but he waffled on the actual time.

Then Robinson announced to all that under no circumstances would he "blast" his "brilliant prospects" with such a ridiculous act. He repeated this statement but was arrested anyway.

As several officers took him away, others examined the evidence. Besides the cloak and hatchet from the yard, beneath the pillow on Jewett's charred bed was a man's handkerchief -- but its initials did not match those of Richard P. Robinson. According to Patricia Cline Cohen's "The Murder of Helen Jewett," Robinson knew about the handkerchief and said that because of it, he would never be convicted.

Yet Townsend insisted that only one man had been in Jewett's room that night: Rivers, a.k.a. Robinson. She had seen him there and no one else had come in; others confirmed her report.

Two doctors moved Jewett's body to the floor to perform an autopsy. They decided that each of the three blows to the head had been forceful enough to have instantly killed her. She had not struggled with her attacker, writes Jeffers, so they concluded that the attack had come as a surprise. Setting the bed on fire, they determined, seemed to be an attempt to conceal the murder.

- - -

Next, a 12-man coroner's jury was assembled from the crowd that had gathered to hear the news. With these men, officials conducted an inquiry aimed at getting citizens to agree that an initial indictment should be issued against Richard P. Robinson. [Sketch of him at left was drawn during his trial.] He claimed his innocence, but Townsend said he owned the cloak that had been left behind. A broken piece of twine attached to a buttonhole of his clothing appeared to coordinate with broken twine on the hatchet handle; it later would be proved to be consistent with the type of twine used where he was employed. Traces of whitewash, apparently from the backyard fence over which he presumably had climbed to make his escape, were found on his trousers. The jury agreed that Robinson should be arrested and tried.

"She came to her death," the New York Herald would report, "by blows upon her head inflicted with a hatchet, by Richard P. Robinson."

Robinson was then taken to Bridewell, a deteriorating debtors jail on Broadway that dated back to the Revolution, where he would wait until the grand jury hearing. A couple of reporters remarked that Robinson seemed altogether composed.

To this point, no one had written much about crime aside from basic facts, but things were about to change. "Deliberate murder was surprisingly infrequent in the 1830s," writes Cohen. The year before, New York City only had seven homicides. And such a brutal murder -- delivered by a hatchet -- was unheard of. That Sunday afternoon, men crowded around Townsend's house; even the mayor visited the crime scene.

In those days, most newspapers engaged in printing shipping schedules, information about commerce and political speeches. These papers served the interests of merchants and political parties. The New York Herald, edited by James Gordon Bennett, was one such paper. In a biography titled "The Man Who Made the News," Bennett was described as a forward-thinking and innovative newsman who made significant changes in the manner in which news was reported. In an attempt to increase circulation and readability, Bennett set about to deliver real news moments after it happened, and to make it exciting and appealing to the public. The Herald would become the nation's most widely read newspaper, due in large part to the reporting of stories like the murder of Helen Jewett. (She was called Ellen Jewett in his reports; she went by several aliases in her profession in New York and Boston.)

A month before her murder, and less than a year into the Herald's existence, Bennett had decided start reporting the details of crimes in the city. His competitors among the penny sheets, the New York Sun and New York Transcript, devoted no more than half a column to court and police reports, and for a while Bennett did the same. But he sensed that readers were hungry for the details of the tragedies, so he decided to describe at length the trial of Capt. Harvey for the murder of one of his men. The newspaper's circulation took a big jump, as did the number of its advertisers. When Jewett's murder came to Bennett's attention hours after it happened, he turned it into the most sensational pieces of journalism to be seen. The first direct interview in American journalism appeared April 16, 1836, in Bennett's paper, as part of this scandal. Circulation grew so dramatically that his presses broke down several times that first week after the murder, and before the trial commenced he moved to larger quarters. Because victim and suspect were from New England, the Northeastern press also ran with the story.

"Our city was disgraced on Sunday," announced The Herald on Monday, April 11, 1836, "by one of the most foul and premeditated murders that ever fell to our lot to record."

The Herald reported that Robinson had been in the habit of "keeping" Jewett.

"Having, as he suspected, some cause for jealousy, he went to the house [41 Thomas St.] on Saturday night as appears, with the intention of murdering her, for he carried a hatchet with him. On going up into her room, quite late at night, he mentioned his suspicions, and expressed a determination to quit her, and demanded his watch and miniature, together with some letters which were in her possession. She refused to give them up, and he then drew from beneath his cloak the hatchet and inflicted upon her head three blows, either of which may have proved fatal, as the bone was cleft to the extent of three inches in each place."

'Bennett noted that Robinson, a well-connected native of "one of the Eastern states" was "remarkably handsome." Yet the article indicated that his conduct stamped him as a villain "of too black a die for mortal." Within the account was expressed fear that if news of Robinson's deviance reached his parents, it could prove fatal.

The fact that Jewett was a "finely-formed" and beautiful girl was noted as well. [Sketch at left said to have been taken from her miniature portrait.] Apparently she had "talents and accomplishments," and Bennett went on to erase three years from her age, for now she a girl of 20. Her "situation" was "ignoble," but in her character she was above that. One had only to see what she read and how many letters she wrote.

Bennett visited the crime scene and wrote about it in the first person. As he approached Townsend's house, he spotted a large crowd of young men and he asked an officer to let him in. The officer did so, telling the other onlookers that Bennett was there for "public duty." In a parlor, he listened to Townsend repeat her tale to anyone who would listen. Another officer took Bennett to Jewett's room. There he saw an elegant, mahogany double bed covered with burnt blankets and pieces of linen.

Then his eyes fell to the floor. Jewett's body was still in the room, covered with a sheet. The officer uncovered her for Bennett to see. "I could scarcely look at it for a second or two," he later wrote. "Slowly I began to discover the lineaments of the corpse as one would the beauties of a statue of marble. It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld."

He went on to describe the sensual contours of her body, stiffened now with rigor mortis, comparing her to the Venus de Medici. He noticed how the fire had "bronzed" her skin along the left side, like "an antique statue." He also noted the bloody gashes that had brought about her "dissolution."

Then Bennett speculated about the murderer's motive: "It is said that she threatened to expose Robinson, when she lived, having discovered that he was paying attention to a respectable young lady. This threat drove him to madness."

Jewett was born Dorcas Doyen in Maine in 1813. Her mother died, her father remarried, and a crowded house and poverty were among the reasons she was sent to grow up as a servant in the home of a prominent judge. Yet, she'd become a prostitute by the age of 18, when she made her way to New York via Boston.

Robinson had celebrated his 19th birthday on April 9 and appeared to be a fine young man with intellectual gifts and a promising career. Born in Connecticut, he had come to New York to work in a dry goods store run by someone connected with his family. People viewed him as a dashing figure, with his curly hair and fine Spanish cloak. It was said that he had met Jewett at the theater, where he had rescued her from the advances of a drunk. She had given him her address (at the time, at another brothel), and "Rivers" was soon spending a great deal of time with her.

'Jewett seemed to genuinely like Robinson, though he was four years younger, and was soon writing him letters. It wasn't long that she was declaring her love for him. He too was romantic in his sentiments, referring to Jewett as "Nell."

Jewett eventually moved to Townsend's house and "Rivers" continued to visit. But then their feelings ran aground. She was finding him to be too aloof and he admitted to feelings that could drive him "crazy." He despised her career and could not bear the thought of other men purchasing her. He told her in one letter about a book he was reading about a man on trial for the murder of a young girl. He began to see other women, and she began to send him threatening letters. They reconciled, but Robinson continued to be unfaithful and Jewett again discovered it.

Robinson responded with a promise to marry her, yet Jewett had heard that he was planning to marry a "respectable" girl with money. She renewed her threat to publicly humiliate him.

Three days before her death, she begged Robinson to come and see her. "You drive me to madness," she wrote. She wanted to "renew the sweetness" of their relationship and ended this note by warning him not to provoke her. Robinson replied in a note that he would come to her but asked her not to tell anyone. He would be there Saturday night.

Bennett wanted to print these letters but was only allowed to publish one.

While several newspapers took a stand against Robinson, some reporters began to say that he was an unlikely candidate for this crime. It may have been a means of opposing Bennett's initial assumption of his guilt or it may have been sincere, but public sympathy for Robinson began to grow. A reporter for The Sun wrote that he seemed too gentle and "correct" to be a murderer.

It wasn't long before Bennett too began to rethink the circumstances and began to cast an eye for other possibilities. And that was when he invented the direct interview: He went to see Townsend for a scoop. After talking for a while, Bennett began to suspect the madam herself! "She is the author and finisher of this mystery," he wrote. He discovered that a married merchant had also visited Jewett that night and had begged the watchman to let him out of the house.

Bennett insisted in print that there was still "a mystery and a juggle about this whole affair," despite the overriding opinion of many citizens regarding Robinson's guilt. On April 16, he printed his lengthy interview with Townsend. However, The Sun then printed Townsend's claim that she had never given such an interview and that Bennett had made the whole thing up. Bennett returned this with a printed insult against the paper. For him, the story provided an arena to declare war on the other dailies and to show that he alone had the real story. The Sun and The Transcript sided against The Herald, which proposed that Robinson might not be guilty, so they put their effort into showing sympathy for Jewett.

The Sun printed a story saying that her "downfall" had been the result of being seduced by an unscrupulous bank cashier. The Transcript offered a different version, initially documented by their police reporter. Jewett, it seems had been orphaned and one day the son of a merchant had seduced her. Feeling shamed, she had come to New York on her own to support herself.

However, Bennett had a more accurate version, citing her birth name, and that she had been well-educated by her foster family at the Cony Female Academy. She did lose her virginity to a bank cashier, he reported, but willingly. As a courtesan in New York, she liked to dress in green and stroll along Broadway, seducing young men. Bennett claimed that her murder was the fault of a society that produced conditions for young women and men to be thus involved with each other. "We are guilty alike," he wrote.

Then The Transcript published an accusation against Bennett, suggesting that he had used bribery to support his idea that the murder was the result of a conspiracy among the women at the Thomas Street bordello. He denied it, but the accusation made some people wonder.

Soon after, Townsend began to receive death threats. She also noticed her clientele was disappearing, understandably uninterested in publicity. Most of her girls left and within two weeks she was forced to sell some of her furnishings at a gruesome auction where the morbidly inclined even bought the murder bed. Once sold, it was smashed into pieces, which were carried off by many as souvenirs. Artists and lithographers also found a new market, developing images of the principal parties and the murder scene. The Herald kept the case front-page news, and papers in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington were forced by reader demand into to reprinting Bennett's accounts.

A grand jury convened on the case, People v. Richard P. Robinson, and returned a true bill of indictment, despite Robinson's habit of throwing notes out a window to the public that repeatedly expressed his innocence. He was taken to a cell in Bellevue, left, at 28th Street and the East River.

Robinson's employer, Joseph Hoxie, hired three outstanding lawyers -- Ogden Hoffman, William Price and Hugh Maxwell -- who conferred with Robinson and discovered he was not the gentleman he claimed to be. In his room, a two-volume diary had been discovered which bore the warning: "Whoever shall pry unbidden into the secrets of this book will violate the whole of the Ten Commandments."

It wasn't long before reporters had their hands on some of the pages, and editors gleefully posted excerpts. Robinson acknowledged in the diary that while he looked innocent and naive, he was in fact quite the profligate. "It was first one girl and then another," he wrote, "till like the Grand Turk I had a harem, and only threw the handkerchief to the one I chose."

A few days before the trial, Stevens, who had seen a cloaked man in the bordello's hallway just before the discovery of the murder, died; the prosecution lost a key witness.

The trial commenced June 2 in a second-floor courtroom of City Hall. It was raining that Thursday morning, yet a crowd of more than 6,000 had assembled around and inside the building. For the first time in American history, representatives from out-of-town newspapers were present. The marshals guarding the building allowed 1,000 at a time into the chamber. More than once, the overcrowded conditions delayed the proceedings.

In the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Judge Ogden Edwards, 55, presided. Presenting the case against Robinson was District Attorney Thomas Phoenix, assisted by Robert H. Morris. Public opinion had it that they did not stand a chance against the team hired for the defense, the chief of which had been a district attorney. Jury selection from among the 29 men who showed up took five hours, and Robinson had to stand the entire time. He appeared composed as he was charged with one count of "willful and deliberate" murder. Behind him sat his employer, Joseph Hoxie, his father, and his uncle, Alson Parmelee.

Townsend, the principal witnesses for the prosecution, took the stand first. She recalled Robinson arrived at the house about 9:30 and went with Jewett to her room. She took champagne upstairs to the couple about 11, and she saw Robinson in bed with his head on his arm and his face to the wall. She also described how she had been awakened and had found doors open and a lamp from Jewett's room on the table downstairs. Then she found the burning bed and the body.

Investigators described the crime scene, the layout of the house and the items found in the backyard. A porter from the store where Robinson had worked identified the hatchet as the one he always used. It had turned up missing the Monday after the murder. He recognized the broken twine as well. Phoenix tried to admit the correspondence between Jewett and Robinson, but was allowed only one letter. Yet he got Robinson's roommate to admit that Robinson had not been in his bed by 11 that night.

Then a clerk at an apothecary in the general vicinity of the Thomas Street house offered a revelation: About a week before the murder, a man named "Douglas" had attempted to purchase arsenic to get rid of some rats but the clerk had refused the request. The clerk identified Robinson as Douglas. Hoffman said that such testimony was irrelevant, and the judge agreed; the clerk's testimony was thrown out. The judge also refused to allow Robinson's diaries to be admitted into evidence, because they were not certified as having been written by him.

Hoffman had his own dramatic moment as he presented the handkerchief taken from under Jewett's pillow to show that Robinson had not been the only person in her room that night. He also had a witness, Robert Furlong, provide an alibi -- that Robinson had been in his store that evening smoking "segars" and reading. The supposed whitewash stain on Robinson's trousers was identified as paint from the store where he worked, and a manufacturer of the hatchet testified that he had sold some 2,500 of them in New York City.

The testimony lasted for five days before closing summaries. Hoffman pointed the finger at Townsend, undermining her credibility and leaving the jury with the impression that such murderous conspiracies could be commonplace among corrupted women in houses of ill repute. Thomas spent two hours summarizing the considerable amount of circumstantial evidence against Robinson. He referred to the defendant as a monster and a vampire who had killed a woman to prevent her from exposing his shameful secrets. But he did not have the same flair that Hoffman possessed.

Near midnight, the judge gave his instructions to the jury. He strongly suggested with examples that the prosecution had failed to present its case beyond a reasonable doubt. He also said that prostitutes were not to be believed. The jury deliberated that same night, returning a verdict less than half an hour later, in the wee hours of June 8, of not guilty.

Robinson began to cry and many of the spectators burst into cheers; the Jewett sympathizers were shocked.

Could Furlong, the witness who had given Robinson his alibi, had been bribed to do so? In fact, it was apparently well known that corruption had filtered into the jury as well. Two weeks after the trial, Furlong inexplicably committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson River.

Robinson walked away a free man, but did not stay in the city. Instead, he went to Texas. Roth indicates that two years after arriving in Texas, which had recently declared its freedom from Mexico, Robinson died. However, Jeffers and Cohen both indicate that his death occurred in 1855 after he had contracted a fever at Louisville, Ky. At the time, he was taken off a steamboat and placed in a bed in a hotel, and in his delirium he reportedly repeated the name Helen Jewett.

- - -

Richard Parmelee led quite an exemplary life in Texas, as this premature obituary, left, in the March 30, 1848, the Concord New Hampshire Patriot attests. He became a member of the Milam Masonic Lodge No. 2 in 1839 and served as secretary from 1841 to 1845. He was deputy clerk of the county court in 1838-39 and clerk of the district court from 1839 to '50. In 1843, he was elected secretary of the Corporation of Nacogdoches. In 1845 he subscribed $10 for rent on a house to be used as Nacogdoches University; almost a year later he donated 640 acres to the school.

In 1851, he and his brother-in-law were operating a stagecoach line. At the time of his death, he owned passenger coaches and horse teams that were used on stage line to Sabine Town, San Augustine, Melrose and Nacogdoches. He also owned a town lot, stable and a blacksmith shop in Nacogdoches.

He died Aug. 8, 1855, in Louisville, Ky., while on a trip. On Dec. 10, Milam Masonic Lodge No. 2 of Nacogdoches met to plan his funeral; two days later the lodge formed a procession to Grace Church and from there proceeded to Oak Grove Cemetery where he was buried.