Vice and the City: Mary Bean and Helen Jewett

The city, as a place of moral corruption, temptation, and sin was a theme in many cautionary accounts of fallen women. The phrase “girl of the town,” often used as a term for a prostitute, indicates the association of growing industrial cities with immorality. Cautionary tales such as Helen Jewett’s and Mary Bean’s reflect this theme: innocent rural girls are seduced, then coerced into moving to a city, where they quickly descend into lives of shame and dishonor. Cities offered a glamorous lifestyle, where women tested the limits of propriety by appearing in public at the theater and promenading on boulevards. However, for unskilled women of low birth, opportunities for employment were scarce, and many women turned to prostitution to support themselves.

Mary Bean

This fictionalized narrative of the life of Berengera Dalton, popularly known as Mary Bean, imagines Mary’s demise: a pure-hearted girl from a small rural town, wooed by the promises of a villainous suitor and the unsavory influences of city life. The real-life Berengera, a young factory worker, was found dead in 1850 after suffering a botched abortion, her body dumped in a stream. The pamphlet’s full title, Mary Bean: The Factory Girl. A Domestic Story, Illustrative of the Trials and Temptations of Factory Life, Founded on Recent Events, reveals the author’s opinion that the industrialized city was a dangerous and immoral place, particularly for women. The following excerpt exemplifies the didactic elements of the sensational pamphlet:

Not unfrequently impatient of restraint, and indisposed to listen to the voice of counsel, the unthinking female is ensnared in the toils of the destroyer, and being insidiously led onward, step by step, she awakes from her dream of fancied happiness, but to mourn over her dishonor, and the destruction of her cherished hopes. Such was the case with Mary Bean. Her life, her sufferings, and her death, are but a picture of the life, the sufferings, and the death of many others. Let those of her sex, then, who may chance to read these pages, be admonished in season, and not turn a deaf ear to those counsels, which, if regarded, would save them from misery and dishonor. (Mary Bean, p. 40)

Helen Jewett

Helen Jewett, a prostitute, was murdered with an ax, presumably by her jealous lover, Richard Robinson. Her death caused a media sensation, as newspapers followed Robinson’s trial and created speculative fictional accounts of Jewett’s life before her brutal death. The trial sparked debate about who was responsible for society’s ills in a time of industrial change and class tension. By sympathizing with Jewett, a prostitute of low social standing, these publications contested the idea that the affluent, like Robinson, necessarily represented moral authority and propriety. The writers refer to her variously “Helen” or “Ellen.”

The trial’s coverage also reinforced the idea of New York City as a place full of lawlessness and loose morals. Like the press coverage of the Dalton and Forrest divorce trials and the mystery of Mary Bean’s death, the pamphlets justified their voyeuristic interest in the sordid details of Jewett’s life and death with cautionary warnings about breaching morality. The following excerpt is an example from a pamphlet entitled Frank Rivers, or, The Dangers of the Town (Boston, 1845):

In this story we have endeavored to show the progressive steps, by which the youth of both sexes once fallen, descend through the lowest depths of vice, to infamy and death. To warn all young persons, who have followed the erring Ellen in her weaknesses and guilt, and the pliant Rivers in his temptation and fall, to beware of the Dangers of the Town, and, under every temptation to stand firm in their integrity: has been the object of the writer. (Frank Rivers, p. 47)

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“The Transformation,” in The Lives of Helen Jewett, and Richard P. Robinson (New York, 1849).

Mary Bean, or, The Mysterious Murder (Boston, 1850).

The Lives of Helen Jewett, and Richard P. Robinson (New York, 1849).