17 Legal Stud. F. 133 (1993-1994)

handle is hein.journals/lstf17 and id is 151 raw text is: The Mystery of Helen Jewett:
Romantic Fiction and the Eroticization of Violence
Patricia Cline Cohen
University of California, Santa Barbara
A New York City prostitute named Helen Jewett died in 1836 when
an ax crashed down on her head three times and cracked her skull; her bed was
then set on fire by the killer. Seven hours later her half-burned body was
subjected to a full autopsy directed by the city coroner, right in the room
where her murder took place. It must have been a fairly gruesome scene.
Yet something about this particular murder captured the fancy of New
York newsmen, and their insistent coverage of the crime produced a public
sensation that quickly spread the length and breadth of the nation. The grisly
murder was repackaged and sold as a mystery who-done-it about a beautiful and
elegant courtesan. Within days of the crime, fictionalized accounts of Jewett's
life and imagined accounts of her moments of death began to appear, and they
have continued to appear into the twentieth century. This essay starts with the
proposition that it is an altogether curious thing to sensationalize, glorify,
romanticize, sanitize, and commodify a horrific and brutal murder.
Yet such cultural productions are commonplace today. The media
industry of the modern era so easily reconstructs homicides into fascinating
amusements, that it takes a stretch of the imagination to recall that this particu-
lar form of entertainment has not always been around. In fact, the genre dates
precisely from the antebellum years of the Jewett murder, and the sensation and
publicity surrounding her death did much to set the stage for the rise and
popularity of murder mystery and detective fiction, whose literary conventions
were pioneered by Edgar Allan Poe, a resident of New York City in the year
1837. One of Poe's earliest forays into murder was the story of Marie Roget,
closely based on the New York murder of Mary Rogers of 1841, a case much
compared with the Jewett murder at the time.'
The appeal of fictionalized homicide is actually not hard to fathom. In
the world of fiction, homicides are rendered safe. They become the centerpiece
of gripping and suspenseful narratives that in cinematic or novel presentations
are actually meant to be enjoyed. Murder mysteries allow their readers the
opportunity to become detectives, to be ever alert to the non-barking dogs, to
gain the satisfaction of having clues fall in place. They are brain teasers, mental
puzzles. Fictional murders can have a visceral as well as intellectual appeal.
The suspenseful apprehension of a movie murder about to happen produces a

Legal Studies Forum, Volume XVII, Number 2 (1993)

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