When I was writing up the citations for the previous blog, one of the sources was a secondary source that I have been using for years. The book hits a sentimental nerve that I felt urged to write about.
Whenever I give talks or discuss my research, I am always questioned with how I became interested in 19th-century prostitution. It all started in a class during my first undergrad semester at Rutgers. But first, I started college at what was Cumberland County College where I was a religion major. By my second semester I was a history major and never changed again. I knew I loved history but I was in search for my specific historical interest. After receiving my associate’s, I transferred to Rutgers University – Camden to work towards completing my BA. One of the first required classes was Perspectives of History. Each professor that teaches the course chooses the theme –a certain event or topic in history that the class is centered around. Students learn how to research and read primary and secondary sources using the chosen historical event and then do a research paper using the skills they acquired throughout the semester.
The event that my perspectives class focused on was the murder of Helen Jewett. Jewett was a prostitute who was gruesomely killed in 1836. One of her customers, Richard P. Robinson, was tried for her death. The crime was highly sensationalized in the press and prints and books regarding Jewett’s death were published and sold. Robinson was found innocent after the court disregarded any testimony given by prostitutes. Cohen reconstructed the crime, investigated the back history of both Jewett and Robinson and the reaction of the press, in addition to what Robinson did after the trial up to his death.
I bought my copy of The Murder of Helen Jewett used at the campus’s bookstore, right before my first semester as an undergrad at Rutgers. It still has the used book sticker on it and the receipt from when I purchased it in January 2014. The receipt for the book was left inside it and the ink is almost completely worn off. The book is underlined and has notes in the margins in purple ink from when I initially read it for class. Looking at my notes and markings – it feels as though that time was a lifetime ago. Going through the book, I get flashbacks of that semester and remember the excitement I had, as well as the nostalgia and sentimentality I have for my college career.
Perspectives was on my schedule on my first day at Rutgers. I only got through my first two classes, neither were perspectives, because of a huge snow storm. At that time, I only lived about 60 minutes away, yet due to the snow my commute home that day was 4 hours. I got home and was incredibly excited to dive into my readings – begin reading The Murder of Helen Jewett, was part of the work.
Other than reading the book for the course, it has been essential for other courses and for independent research done outside of college, and still one of the first books I go to today when researching. While I knew I was going to enjoy my perspectives course, I had no idea the book and course would shape my historical interest beyond the class and throughout my career.