Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Sensational Murder of Helen Jewett

Scene of the Crime

Rosina Townsend thought she heard the last visitor come in for the night, so at 1 that Sunday morning, April 10, she went to bed in her room at 41 Thomas Street.   While she liked to say that she ran a boardinghouse for women, the place was actually a flourishing pleasure palace, a house of prostitution, located not far from New Yorks City Hall.  Nine beautiful young women referred to in newspapers as inmates-- lived there.  In 1836, politicians, lawyers, journalists, and wealthy merchants were counted among Rosinas many clients.  Some were there that night.

Across from the upstairs room occupied by 23-year-old Helen Jewett, another young woman, Marie (or Maria) Stevens, was awakened by the sound of a thump. From the same general direction she believed she heard a woman moan, so Marie got up to listen at her door, in case someone needed help.   That could happen in places like this when customers had too much to drink.

She heard the door open and close across the hall.   Directly afterward, she heard someone walk down the hall.  She assumed Helens visitor had left.  Peeking out just to be sure, she saw a tall man wearing a cloak and carrying a lamp go down the steps.  Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Marie returned to bed.

About two hours later, Mrs. Townsend arose to make her rounds.   She found a small lamp burning on a table in the hallway, which she recognized as being from the room of either Marie or Helen.  She was about to pick it up and return it to its owner when she noticed that the homes back door stood ajar and the cool night air was coming in.  It had snowed and was unseasonably cold.  Closing the door, she locked it and picked up the lamp.

A sketch of Helen Jewett
A sketch of Helen Jewett

Once upstairs, Mrs. Townsend again realized that something was amiss.   Helens door, too, stood partly open.  She pushed the door open and saw billowing black smoke.  Then she spotted flames near the bed. 

Thinking fast to save her establishment, Mrs. Townsend rushed away to alert the other girls to get up. She threw open a window and yelled, Fire! Although there would not be an organized fire department in the city for another decade, or even a full-time police department, a night watchman on Thomas Street heard the woman yelling.   He went into the house, followed by two other watchmen from nearby areas who had also heard the cries of distress.  Several male clients slipped out in various stages of undress before anyone thought to prevent people in the home from leaving. 

Together, the watchmen worked in the upstairs room alongside Mrs. Townsend to distinguish the blaze.   It took a few minutes, but they managed to put the fire out before it spread to any other rooms.

But as the smoke cleared from the room, they saw that a nightgown-clad woman lay there with her nightclothes mostly burned.   They had no doubt that she was dead.  One arm was raised over her head, the other lay over her chest, and the left side of her body was charred from the fire.  Upon closer inspection, it appeared from a bloody mess on her head that someone had hit her more than once with a sharp implement

The men asked Mrs. Townsend if she had seen anyone else in the room that night.   She had, she said.  Shed brought champagne to the room earlier that evening and had seen the back of the head of a young man shed seen before.  His name was Frank Rivers.  She remembered he had come in wearing a long dark cloak.

An inspection of the backyard and garden, surrounded by a fence, revealed a bloodstained hatchet 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 mans cloaksomething like the one the madam had described.

Mrs. Townsend did not know where the suspect lived, but another woman who overheard the conversation indicated that Frank Rivers worked as a clerk for a merchant on Maiden Lane, in a dry goods shop.   She knew the address.

The investigation began at once.

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