James Gordon Bennett (1795–1872)
From True Crime: An American Anthology
James Gordon Bennett was born 226 years ago, on September 1, 1795. In 1835 he founded the New York Herald, which by mid-century would become the newspaper with the highest circulation in the world—surpassing for several years even the circulation of the Times of London.
Bennett has been credited with many innovations: the first newspaper interview with a sitting President (Martin van Buren), the use of telegraph for reporting national news, the introduction of illustrations to accompany hard news stories. He assigned more reporters to frontline coverage of the Mexican American War and the Civil War than did any other publisher. But, perhaps most notably, Bennett is credited for the rise of sensationalism in journalism.
He was also infamous for his opinions, his bigotry, and his irascibility: he bragged about having no friends and became notorious for making enemies; he supported the secession of the South and opposed the abolition of slavery; an immigrant himself, he inveighed against immigration. An anonymous pamphleteer called him “a carrion bird.” Yet he knew what readers wanted; Henry Raymond, the future co-founder of The New York Times, was reported to have said, “It would be worth my while to give a million dollars if the Devil would come and tell me every evening, as he does Bennett, what the people of New York would like to read about next morning.”
The Herald first got readers’ attention with its coverage of the Great Fire in December 1835. But what made Bennett and his paper famous was its shameless reporting in April 1836 of the slaying of Helen Jewett, a prostitute, by nineteen-year-old Richard Robinson—an incident one recent writer referred to as the original Preppy Murder. “Everyone talking about the murder committed Saturday night,” George Templeton Strong wrote in his oft-quoted New York diary. “The Herald of this morning says that Miss Helen was possessed of first-rate talents and was seduced under promise of marriage by a rascal in Maine.”
While other newspapers—and there were fifteen in New York at the time—ignored the case in the weeks before the trial, Bennett published something about it nearly every day. The circulation of his newspaper quadrupled in just two weeks and the trial became a media circus.
We present as our Story of the Week selection the article by Bennett that first introduced to the public what became one of the most famous murder trials of the nineteenth century.