Monday, May 4, 2015

A Dead Prostitute, a Male Impersonator, and a Medium: Three Sensational Pamphlets

Our Curator of Printed Books Rachel D’Agostino found these three sensational pamphlets at a recent book fair. Purchased with the Davida T. Deutsch Women’s History Fund, they are the sort of lowbrow items our 19th-century predecessors did not acquire for the Library Company. We now purchase them to be able to document the whole spectrum of 19th-century print culture, not just the material that measured up to their elevated standards.

The first one is about Helen Jewett, a beautiful prostitute who was killed in the New York City brothel where she worked. Her murder prompted a feeding frenzy among journalists. The newspapers featured extensive coverage of the subsequent trial. And many believed that the wealthy young man who was accused of the murder bought his acquittal. 

Satiric response to the not-guilty verdict in the 1836 trial of Richard Robinson for the murder of Helen Jewett.
By 1880, when our newly acquired pamphlet appeared, the 1836 case had passed into the annals of crime. Publishers such as Barclay & Co. profited from the public’s ongoing interest in getting all the details about the case.

The firm of Barclay & Co. also published Runaway Girls and Their Startling Adventures (Philadelphia, 1878). According to the rest of the title, these are “true narratives,” giving “real names” of “young women who imbibed romantic notions of life through reading sensational novels,” which seems odd coming from a publisher that specialized in the sensational! Our favorite section in this pamphlet is “Adventures of a Pennsylvania Girl, Who Disguised Herself As a Boy,” in which “Miss Schwartz” runs away to Philadelphia from a Bucks County farm. After a few preliminary events, she finds work as a “male impersonator” in a “theatre” at the corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets. She continues to cross-dress after the police raid the place, working variously as a clerk in a gentlemen’s furnishing store on Eighth Street, as a messenger-boy in the office of the American District Telegraph Company, as an itinerant street vendor, as a bootblack, as a newsboy, and finally as an errand boy in a grocery store on Girard Avenue. Her escapades come to an end after someone catches a glimpse of her bathing.

The third pamphlet from the Boston Book Fair is Albert Dorman’s The Life of Mary Whittey, the Catholic Medium (Willimantic, 1874). While the Library Company did not acquire a copy in the 19th century, we know from a scholarly study on what William James (1842-1910) read that he probably did. In adulthood, the eminent philosopher became an adherent of Theosophy, a movement that emerged in part from Spiritualism, so it may have interested him to read about Mary Whittey, the “model servant” who first learns of Spiritualism when bells ring, irons and dishes are thrown to the floor, and windows are broken. Since she’s Catholic, her powers as a medium come as a shock both to her and to her employer. After Mary Whittey changes households, her talents as a medium are encouraged, and the spirit she contacts brings amusement and solace to her new employer’s family. Contemporary estimates suggest that as many as twenty million people embraced Spiritualism in mid-19th century America. That number is probably on the high side, but it’s hard to know with any real certainty how many people believed in Spiritualism. Largely discredited today, it’s useful to know that many well-educated people were not total skeptics.

Most likely, the people who read these three sensational pamphlets in the 19th century–including the eminent William James–were simply looking for good escapist reading for an evening’s amusement.

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