There has been a boom in True Crime drama over the last decade and it shows no signs of abating. So, I’ve been investigating some unsolved murders from the 19th century. Jack the Ripper springs to mind immediately. But there are plenty of other fascinating mysteries. Many of them from the United States!
True Crime – Unsolved 19th Century Murders: HELEN JEWETT
Helen Jewett (1813-1836), born Dorcas Doyen, was murdered in a New York bedroom after three blows with an axe to the head – then her body set on fire while she was still lying in the bed. Normally described as a “prostitute”, she was a prolific writer receiving between three and eight letters a day, which was regarded as extraordinary at the time. One newspaper said her postage bill exceeded the earnings of several Wall Street brokers – though that might have been a bit of Victorian hyperbole – and her correspondence was “characterised by great talent, power, pathos, and brilliancy”.
She was brutally killed aged just 23.
An orphan, Helen had been adopted by a judge and was the “pride of her teachers”. However, she lost her virginity to a young man and was cast out by her foster father. Moving to New York, she became a regular sight on Broadway in an elegant green dress, always with a letter in her hand, and walking “in the style of an English woman”. While a great conversationalist, reports suggested she had developed a very contemptuous view of men.
“She seems to have declared war against the sex. ‘Oh!’ she would say, ‘how I despise you all – you are a heartless unprincipled set – you have ruined me – I’ll ruin you – I delight in your ruin.'”
A 19-year-old man, Richard Robinson, was put on trial for her murder but acquitted. The crime remains unsolved.
True Crime – Unsolved 19th Century Murders: MARY ROGERS
In 1842, the Gothic horror novelist Edgar Allen Poe published a murder mystery called: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. This was based on the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers (1820-1841) just a year before.
Mary had become something of a minor celebrity in New York on account of her stunning beauty. She worked in a cigar store and ‘gentlemen’ would stop by to chat and be seen in her company. When her body turned up in the Hudson River, the assumption – expressed in very coded language in the newspapers – was that she had been the victim of a sexual attack by possibly more than one man.
But then an alternative theory began circulating that she had tried to procure an illegal abortion from Madame Restell – an English-born abortionist who made so much money that she lived in a brownstone mansion on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. The procedure had gone wrong resulting in Mary’s death and her body being unceremoniously dumped. However, this was never conclusively proven.
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True Crime – Unsolved 19th Century Murders: HARVEY BURDELL
Why would somebody murder their dentist? On January 31, 1857, Harvey Burdell (1811-1857) was stabbed fifteen times in his office on Bond Street, off Broadway in New York. There were three suspects: his ex-lover Emma Cunningham, a border John Eckel, and the hilariously named George Snodgrass. At Burdell’s funeral, Cunningham threw herself very dramatically on the dead man’s coffin but this didn’t avert a murder trial, though she was acquitted.
Some newspapers gave Burdell a very rosy profile but others painted a darker picture. He was a cad with the ladies, hated children, and kept Guinea pigs. His brother Lewis went insane but Harvey wouldn’t pay to put him in a lunatic asylum so other dentists, out of sheer pity, did a whip round to have him committed.
Burdell undertook dental work at a very fast pace to make the maximum amount of money once filling twelve teeth in an hour, which was seen as unethical. Respectable clients melted away, replaced by disreputable types.
His use of amalgum – a mix of mercury and silver – for filling teeth was banned by the American Society of Dental Surgeons. So, Burdell and other dentists formed a rival body, the New York Society of Dental Surgeons, often referred to as the “Amalgum Society”. He was the President and there was some suggestion of impropriety as the society collapsed.
In short, quite a few people would have been tempted to murder Burdell but who actually did the deed remains a mystery.
True Crime – Unsolved 19th Century Murders: COLONEL WALTER BABCOCK
Colonel Walter Babcock was something of a rake. The Chicago based ageing Lothario and bachelor was having “intimate relations” with several wealthy widows and younger women including Sarah Dodge. She allegedly shot him with a revolver and it took him two days to die. During that time, he maintained a curious, stoic silence not letting on what had actually happened. Then very suddenly, he expired.
The bullet entered his abdomen and with today’s medical know-how, he might very likely have survived. Instead, as contemporary reports described, “the use of opiates brought relief from pain” while “the stimulants and medicines prescribed had little effect”. The angle of the bullet, doing downwards, led to one theory that the gun had been fired by a taller man.
However, Dodge was the prime suspect as Babcock was shot in her bedroom. She was bailed on ten thousand dollars – a huge sum at the time. Her friends let it be known that the colonel had entered her bedroom against Dodge’s will with the intent of assaulting her. She had shot him in self-defence. Another story put around was that they’d both had a furious row and she had grabbed the gun to shoot herself – accidentally putting a bullet in him instead. Then frantically tried to save him.
The Coroner’s court found that Dodge had shot Babcock but when it went to a Grand Jury, she adopted an approach of almost complete silence. One report said her conduct in court showed that “absolute silence is sometimes the best shield”. And Dodge went free.