Murders foul and fascinating "In Cold Blood": Exhibit opens in Manhattan on sensational cases.

February 04, 1996|By William Grimes | William Grimes,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It could have been called the Preppy Murder, but in 1836 the word "preppy" did not exist. Nevertheless, New York fed on the Jewett case with a carnal appetite. The scandal was just too, too delicious.

The evidence was circumstantial but damning. In the early hours of April 10, Rosina Townsend, the owner of a brothel at 41 Thomas St. in Manhattan, discovered the body of Sarah Jewett in one of the bedrooms. Jewett, a prostitute, had been struck on the head, which was badly gashed and bleeding.

Townsend told police she had last seen the woman alive at 11 p.m. when she took a bottle of champagne to her and her customer, Richard P. Robinson, a 19-year-old from a good Connecticut family.

A search of the brothel turned up a cloak belonging to Robinson. A hatchet turned up in his backyard. By day's end, he was in jail, and the new penny press had one of its first great stories.

Present-day New Yorkers can relive the case and four others, in "In Cold Blood: Five Murders That Shocked New York," at the New-York Historical Society through April 7.

The crime spree begins with the Jewett case in 1836 and, moving forward, features four other murders that gripped the city.

Some still do. Who can get enough of the high-society murder of Stanford White, shot by Harry K. Thaw in 1906? The 1912 murder of the gambling-house operator Herman Rosenthal has gangland sizzle, as well as being one of New York's first drive-by shootings. The utterly average Ruth Snyder, a Queens Village resident, appalled New Yorkers in 1927 when she arranged the murder of her husband after taking out a double-indemnity insurance policy on his life. And the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 still has the power to chill the blood.

In newspaper clippings, pamphlets, popular prints and diaries, the exhibition recaptures the passions surrounding the Jewett case, inflamed by a new kind of journalism.

The respectable papers of the day, which sold for 6 cents, did not cover murders. But the penny press -- a mere 3 years old -- came into existence to tell readers about the day-to-day life in their city.

"The Jewett murder dealt with the things that always grip the popular imagination: sex and money and power and position and class," said Andie Tucher, author of "Froth and Scum" (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), a book that looks closely at the case. "It involved an exotic world that most people were not a part of and were curious about. It was a great opportunity for the penny press to show what it could do."

James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, took the unusual step of putting the murder on the front page, under the headline "Most Atrocious Murder." Just as unusual, he also gave a first-person account of visiting the crime scene and viewing the body.

On the day the trial started, more than 5,000 New Yorkers showed up, hoping to get a seat. The penny press ran full transcripts, and the Herald would eventually devote three months of coverage to the case.

Bennett tirelessly promoted the theory that Robinson was a tender innocent framed by a corrupt police force and a lying madam. The jury bought it, probably because it had been bought. After 10 minutes of deliberation, it returned a verdict of not guilty.

In the meantime, thrilled readers had had a glimpse into the world of illicit sex and the dissolute life of men like Robinson, one of the thousands of single clerks who came to New York for employment, lived in boarding houses and pursued a life of pleasure in their spare time.

Death and champagne

For murder at the top of the social scale, New York would have to wait for the day when, after a performance of "Mam'zelle Champagne" on the roof of Madison Square Garden, Harry Thaw walked over to Stanford White, pulled out a revolver and shot him at point-blank range.

Thaw was rich, but not as socially in demand as White. This rankled. Worse, White had enjoyed the favors of Thaw's wife, the former Floradora Girl, Evelyn Nesbit, since she was 16.

As the details of White's love life emerged, scandalized readers would discover that the 47-year-old architect had forced himself on Nesbit while she was unconscious after drinking too much champagne.

During the affair that followed, Nesbit and White would frolic in the most shocking way. Nesbit, who had the looks that cause men to write large checks, would amuse White by swinging naked on a red velvet seat suspended from the ceiling of their love nest on West 24th Street.

By the time the press got through with White (and this time, even the "responsible" papers had to cover the event), it had run through every synonym for "scum" that the language could provide. He preyed on young flesh. He was present at the infamous "pie-girl dinner," in which a barely clothed teen-age girl jumped out of a giant pie.

Vanity Fair noted his death with an article headlined "Stanford White, Voluptuary and Pervert, Dies the Death of a Dog."

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