If there was any shady business happening inside City Hall in the 1830s, what was happening down the street at Rosina Townsend’s boardinghouse was probably a lot worse. What appeared to be a pleasant little hostel was actually a raving brothel, one of the city’s hottest spots for some of the city’s hottest prostitutes (see Listings: Ye Olde L Magazine, Volume the Second, Issue the Third).
The boardinghouse retained a sort of underground popularity until 1836, when the brutal murder of Helen Jewett became national news. Jewett’s death was your basic, run-of-the-mill axe murder: boy meets girl, boy offers to pay girl for sex, boy bludgeons girl three times with a hatchet, boy sets girl’s room on fire. The scene that followed roughly approximated a cartoon gag with people running in and out of doors down a long hallway: half-naked men racing out of the house, busy prostitutes trying to put out a fire, guy in a ghost suit chasing a team of kid detectives, etc.
The aftermath of the murder and subsequent investigation actually caused the prostitution business in New York to prosper. Despite the fact that the trial was decided partially on the grounds that prostitutes and their testimonies weren’t to be trusted, the “not guilty” verdict made it clear that prostitution was fun for everyone: young or old, rich or poor, man or…well, it was pretty much just for men. But nonetheless, the city was reported to have over five hundred brothels by the 1860s. Jewett’s murder became one of the nation’s first truly overblown news stories, and presumably to honor her memory, the media carries on in such a tradition to this day.