History of American Crime: Murder and the Public in the 19th Century

cain_abelFrom the truly heinous to the seriously ridiculous, antisocial human activity has been codified in the New World since colonial times. And as human nature has not changed all that much since Cain murdered his brother Abel, the need to punish the guilty and protect the innocent has existed as well. In 19th century America, criminal activity expanded in scope and definition with the growth in area and population of the new nation. All of the historic prohibitions against antisocial behaviors were present as well as some that were specific to the period. The Fugitive Slave Laws passed by Congress in 1793 and 1850 branded as criminal slaves seeking freedom, as it did the abolitionists who helped them. Homosexuality, interracial marriage, exposing too much skin in public, adultery, cursing in public forums, birth control, spitting on the sidewalk, and keeping livestock within city limits have at one time all been part of the criminal code. The methods for detecting, apprehending and prosecuting criminals advanced with the growth of the nation, as well.

Of all the awful things that human beings can do to one another, murder seems to hold the greatest fascination for many of us. Books depicting murder mysteries are popular in both fiction and nonfiction. Movies with a good murder plot usually do well at the box office.  Historical suspense often appears on best seller lists. Perhaps it is the finality of the deed and the fear of what lies beyond that keeps us riveted. Maybe solving the puzzle holds us breathless. The desire to understand why and how someone swirls downward into depravity certainly motivates many of us. Whatever our reasons, we are enthralled by the taking of human life. It has always been thus and the citizens of 19th century America were no different. What set them (and us) apart from previous generations when it comes to the details of crimes was the growing speed with which information was disseminated to the public. The advent of modern methods of detection and investigation combined with the rise in literacy rates and the increasingly sensational nature of newspaper reporting gave ordinary citizens a front row seat to the horror. One only needs read the Fleet Street accounts of London’s  Jack the Ripper to see how much the general public knew about his crimes.

Helen-Jewett-1836-7In the United States, newspaper accounts of one murder in particular essentially changed crime reportage forever. The effects are still with us today. In April 1836, Helen Jewett, a beautiful young prostitute, was murdered in her room in a fashionable brothel on Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan. Her accused killer was her long time lover, Richard Robinson. It is believed that the pair may have broken up and that Robinson was on the verge of marrying another woman when Jewett became jealous and made threats to expose their relationship. Another theory of the crime has Robison embezzling large sums in order to buy Jewett expensive gifts and for some reason becoming afraid she would reveal his secret. Whatever the real circumstance of the relationship, it was reported by the brothel madame, Rosina Townsend, that Robinson visited Jewett in her room late on the night of April 9. In the early hours of April 10, loud sounds of a disturbance followed by moaning brought another woman to Jewett’s room where she was found on the floor with a large wound in her head. The witness reported a tall figure, presumed to be Robinson, fleeing the scene.

New-York-Herald-NewspapIn earlier times, a crime of this nature would have received scant notice, but just the year before, James Gordon Bennett had started the New York Herald, the latest member of the penny press. Papers such as the Herald were the National Enquirers of their day and sold for a penny. Following the modern media dictum of “if it bleeds, it leads,” the Herald grabbed onto the Jewett murder and played it for all it was worth. The more lurid and sensational the details could be made out to be, the better. Exaggeration and hyperbole sold papers. No one really seemed to care if everything printed was true or not. Circulation numbers were what mattered. Although Robinson was ultimately acquitted, the story stayed in the memories of New Yorkers for years afterward. Whenever anyone associated with it died or came to public notice for some reason, the story was resurrected in all its gory detail. The lesson of the Jewett murder and the New York Herald was not lost on later newspaper titans, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer whose rival papers competed in circulation wars and ushered in the era of yellow journalism.

Another 19th century case that took away the breath of ordinary citizens was the revelation that America had her own acknowledged serial killer, one in the vein of Jack the Ripper who seemingly killed for pleasure. The American version, however, also apparently killed for profit as well. Serial murder was not a new phenomenon. From the Poison Ring of Ancient Rome (circa 331 BC) to India’s 18th century Thuggee Cult to the enslavement and annihilation of indigenous groups in the Americas, mass killing and multiple murders committed by the same person or group of persons was not unknown. With the advent of sensationalized journalism, the public became more aware than ever of the most heinous of criminal activities.

devil-in-the-white-cityShortly after Jack’s reign of terror in London’s Whitechapel district ended, the American serial killer, H. H. Holmes began his lethal career in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition. While he may have killed far more people than Jack is credited with, Holmes was not nearly as well known in our own era until the 2003 publication of Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Holmes was born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861 in New Hampshire. After graduating high school ay age 16, he took up teaching which he gave up after only one year. Abandoning chosen pursuits became a pattern in his life. He married his first wife, Clara, in 1878. He matriculated with the University of Vermont in 1879, but again left after only one year. For a brief time while in New Hampshire, he apprenticed under Dr. Nahum Wight, an advocate of human dissection. In 1882, he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery where he worked as assistant in the anatomy lab. This time, he managed to stay the course and graduated in 1884, but his wife left him because of his violent treatment of her. Later in his life, he claimed to have used cadavers to defraud insurance companies while a college student. Apparently, his career as a criminal began early. He changed his name to H.H. Holmes shortly before arriving in Chicago.

hh-holmes-murder-castleBetween college graduation and his settling in Chicago, he moved often amid rumors of insurance fraud and disappearances. He married twice more without ever divorcing Clara. He arrived in Chicago in August 1886 and almost immediately went to work in a drug store. The next year, he purchased a lot and had a mixed use building built. As the time of the Columbian Exposition approached, he had a third floor added saying that he planned to rent rooms during the event. Following his pattern of lies and fraud, he refused to pay the architect, builder, and suppliers. Suppliers found their unpaid goods stored in hidden passages and rooms throughout the building. The scandal was reported in the newspapers and his investors refused continued participation in the plan. Without funding, it is thought that he may have set fire to the building in order to collect on the four insurance policies he had taken out of the property. The insurance companies refused to pay and sued him instead. The building would become the scene of the lurid tales of murder and dismemberment credited to him.

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It is not known how many people Holmes actually killed. The estimates range from 20 to 200. He admitted to 27, but he lied so often about who he killed, that it is difficult to know his total count. Upon investigation, some of his claimed victims turned up very much alive. What is known for certain is that for people who became closely involved with Holmes things did not end well. It is a certainty that two mistresses, a criminal partner, and the three of the partner’s children all fell victim to Holmes’s depravity and greed. When something unfortunate happened, the odds were that there was an insurance claim to be made. When the bodies of the murdered children were discovered buried in the cellar of a house Holmes had rented, it led to his arrest not only for their murders, but also for the murder of their father who had agreed to fake his death so he and Holmes could collect on a life insurance policy. Holmes killed the partner instead and presented the body as proof of death. Holmes changed his story so often that it will probably never be known just how many people he murdered. One must wonder if he enjoyed his infamy in some macabre way.

Newspaper-article-about-HH-Holmes-330785The Hearst newspapers paid him $7,500 for his story, most of which turned out to be fake. Of himself, Holmes said, “I was born with the devil in me.” This is probably the most truthful thing he ever uttered. He was  hanged for the murder of his partner in crime on May 7, 1896.

As we move into the 20th century in future posts, we will see how crime evolved into something far more organized and purposeful than even H.H. Holmes could have envisioned.

Recommended for Further Reading


These novels by Caleb Carr feature a serial killer in late 19th century New York City being tracked by an early psychologist, known as an alienist at the time. They have been adapted for television by the TNT network.














Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.

Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.

Click here to connect with Linda and find out more about her writing.