Ramblings & ephemera

When newspapers began to cover trials

From Caleb Crain’s “In Search Of Lost Crime” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2002):

In American cities in the 1830s, 1- and 2-cent newspapers for the working class abruptly challenged 6-cent newspapers published for merchants and political parties. As Patricia Cline Cohen explains in The Murder of Helen Jewett, an account of the 1836 killing of a New York City prostitute, the penny papers transformed the reporting of murder trials. To satisfy their unsqueamish readers, editors for the first time actively investigated crimes. James Gordon Bennett of The New York Herald pioneered by visiting Jewett’s brothel and tracking down witnesses who had not yet found their way to the police station or the courtroom. While the Herald was running the Jewett story on its front page, circulation tripled.

For a sensational trial, the penny papers sent reporters to the courtroom every day. During the trial they published daily installments, which they collected and issued as a pamphlet once it was over. The trial pamphlet blossomed. The most vivid and novelistic pamphlets are of trials that took place between 1830 and 1875: the trial of Richard P. Robinson for the murder of Helen Jewett, the court-martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie for his role in the so-called Somers mutiny (1843), the trial of the Harvard professor John Webster for the murder of a Harvard benefactor named George Parkman (1849), and the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators (1865), among others.

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