History of New York City
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It is not an understatement to say that New York City is the capital of the world. Financially, culturally, and politically the world gathers on the Island of Manhattan and sets the tone. While this is in many ways a 20th century phenomenon, New York City can be seen as preeminent among American cities since the Federal Era, when it became the new nation’s first political capital. New York is bigger, faster, and at the forefront of cities. This special character that gives New York its special qualities can be seen throughout its history. In The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York, the city itself plays an important role in shaping the crime detailed, the reasons for the murder, the thriving prostitution trade that permitted the subculture that Helen Jewett and Richard Robinson moved in, and the ways in which the story became sensationalized beyond New York. Through the story of one of America’s earliest tabloid murders, we see the blending of the following:
- Sexuality and how it plays into a metropolitan setting
- Gender roles in big cities
- Class distinction in the Big Apple
“The prime characteristic of New York City, from its origin as a small Dutch town to the dominant urban complex of modern times, has been continuous and rapid change”. By the early 19th century, New York had reinvented itself. During the American Revolution, the British occupied the city, longer than any other American city. When the British finally left in 1783, more than 500 Tory families departed for Canada, destroying the remaining pillars of the city’s commercial development. These people were “sailing away from a city whose population had been reduced to twelve thousand, whose elite corps of business owners had been shattered, whose municipal system was in ruins, and whose people were deeply scarred by memories of the occupation”. Within a generation, New York had completely transformed itself.
It is important to state that Helen Jewett was murdered in 1836. The 1830s were a decade of confusing change in America. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the face of the nation, drawing people into the cities and away from traditional, rural life. “The bewildering array of reforms that occurred during the 1830s is a measure of the breadth and depth of the disillusionment in America”. Helen Jewett was a prostitute, and prostitution was a hot-button issue of the day. “Just in the preceding six years, prostitution had become a matter of grave concern to a variety of local moral reform activist groups whose insistent message was that sexual licentiousness was surging out of control”. Helen Jewett’s murder opened the floodgates for debate and discussion over the problems faced in America.