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."
Thaw was acquitted, for reasons that make the White case a true Gilded Age murder, said Larry Fleischer, a New York lawyer who has made a study of murder cases in late 19th-century and early 20th-century New York.
"Hovering over the case is something called the unwritten rule," he said. "It's a quasi-legal concept that took hold, especially in New York state, and said that husbands could bump off their wives' lovers, plead temporary insanity and get off." Thaw, as it happened, probably was insane, which did not hurt.
The exhibition includes a striking series of candid photographs taken at a wild party at the studio of artist William Merritt Chase that captures White as he plants a major-league kiss on an unidentified woman. It also has a facsimile of the red swing.
Inspiration for movie
It was a different sort of seat that awaited Ruth Snyder, whose involvement in the murder of her husband, the mild-mannered editor of Motor Boating magazine, sent her straight to the chair.
Thomas Howard, a photographer for the Daily News, was present for the execution at Sing Sing, equipped with a secret camera strapped to his ankle. He snapped the picture the moment the switch was thrown. The shaky image that resulted, included in the exhibition, remains one of the most powerful images in photojournalism. The headline was a masterpiece of concision: "Dead!"
New Yorkers shed no tears. Gov. Al Smith, who almost routinely commuted the death sentence for female prisoners, bowed to public sentiment in the case of Snyder, whose story inspired the film "Double Indemnity."
Her lover, a married corset salesman from New Jersey named Judd Gray, committed the actual murder, with stunning ineptitude: He bludgeoned the victim with the weight from a window sash, applied a rag soaked in chloroform, and then strangled him with picture-hanging wire.
Damon Runyon, who covered the trial, called it the Dumbbell Murder, "because it was that dumb."
But it was Snyder who emerged as the brains and the will behind the operation. Gray called her Momsie. Runyon described her as "a chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those bet-you-will chins." She was not a popular figure.
By current standards, the murder was ordinary. So why did it appeal to New Yorkers? In large part, because the Snyders, living in what was then a far-flung suburb, were so ordinary.
"Back then, murders took place in big cities, or among the lower orders," said Mary Betts, the curator of the exhibition. "Your next-door neighbor in suburbia didn't kill her husband."
Those who are curious about the hot seat will not be disappointed. Betsy Gotbaum, the executive director of the historical society, managed to secure a vintage chair from the state Department of Corrections that was used for 26 prisoners at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., from 1892 to 1913.
The crime rate may be down elsewhere in New York, but it's way up at the historical society.
Exhibition: "In Cold Blood: Murders That Shocked New York," an exhibition on five sensational murders that occurred in New York City from 1836 to 1964, is on view through April 7 at the New-York Historical Society, 2 W. 77th St., Manhattan.
Admission: $3; $1 for children and the elderly. Special events are to be held in conjunction with the show and are included in admission.
Viewing hours: Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Information: For a complete schedule of events, call (212) 873-3400.