Death of a Sailor: Chapter 2: The Hoaxers
Published April 29, 2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: While unrequired, chapter 1 of this narrative may be read here.
It is the evening of June 2, 1836, and Richard Adams Locke, editor of the New York newspaper The Sun, listens as a surgeon tells the court how Helen Jewett was murdered.
Locke is the surgeon’s friend, and has likely heard it already. How on a cold Sunday morning in April, the coroner called Dr. David L. Rogers to Jewett’s bedroom in a brothel in downtown Manhattan. How Dr. Rogers and a fellow doctor moved Jewett’s body from her half-burnt bed to the floor. How they probed the wounds on her forehead. How Rogers, a thirty-six year-old “operator of rare dexterity, and consummate skill,” sliced Jewett’s corpse from neck to pelvis and examined her insides.
Does the prosecution ask whether Dr. Rogers knew Jewett, a prostitute, before she died?
They do not. The historian Patricia Cline Cohen, who read Dr. Roger’s report, considers it possible that Dr. Rogers had visited Jewett, a well-read and charming twenty-two-year-old who began life as Dorcas Doyen, a servant girl in Maine. Jewett had one unknown doctor friend, and Dr. Rogers ministered to prostitutes, living not far from Jewett’s brothel.
Was she unfamiliar to his friend, Richard Adams Locke?
She was not. Locke wrote in The Sun of “her well-known reputation for beauty, intelligence, accomplishments, and gentility of appearance.”
The prosecution presents Dr. Rogers with a hatchet found behind the brothel where Jewett lived and died. Does he recognize it?
He does not, but Dr. Rogers, who has testified in murder cases since he was nineteen, says that Jewett’s wounds are consistent with the blade.
Also found was a cloak. Both cloak and hatchet are linked to the young clerk on trial today, Richard P. Robinson, a nineteen-year-old in a new blue suit twirling his cap in the front row.
Does Locke, the journalist for The Sun, think that Robinson did it?
Jewett’s fellow prostitutes at the brothel, along with their guests, placed Robinson, Jewett’s on-again-off-again lover, in her room in the hours before her body was discovered. A source at the Police Office let Locke read and publish excerpts from Robinson’s journal, which revealed a two-faced, amoral braggart “engaged in fantasies of power and contagion.” Alternate explanations beggar belief. The Sun, the city’s pioneering penny paper, ridiculed The Herald—run by Locke’s nemesis, James Gordon Bennett—when it ran a confessional letter from the “real killer,” who claimed to have hid under the bed while Jewett and Robinson slept, and to have killed the prostitute without waking the clerk, to frame him.
Locke doesn’t think that Robinson did it; he knows he did.
—the trial goes poorly. Over the next four days, Locke watches as Robinson’s defense team outclasses the prosecution time and again. Robinson’s journal is ruled inadmissible. Jewett’s ghostly voice is forbidden: letters between Jewett and Robinson—which devolve from passionate love to Robinson’s thinly veiled threats, to Jewett’s knowledge of some undefined wrong-doing by Robinson—are ruled inadmissible. The defense produces a shop owner who “remembers” that Robinson spent the evening smoking in his store. The killing stroke comes late the last day when the judge tells the jury to give more weight to that shop owner than to Jewett’s friends, who admitted Robinson to Jewett’s room, and saw him there shortly before her body was discovered.
Because they are women, and they are prostitutes, and this is New York in 1836. The jury returns: not-guilty. Robinson heads to Texas, to make a new life.
Is Locke surprised?
He and The Sun spend the next several weeks working leads that the prosecution had fumbled. Locke breaks Robinson’s alibi and finds a second false alibi waiting in the wings. The Sun concludes that Robinson had been embezzling from his employer, had killed another young woman, and had killed Jewett to keep those secrets.
But is Locke surprised?
He is not. Locke knows a lie’s anatomy, inside and out. He is notorious for it.
It is two months earlier, February 25, 1836, and Richard Adams Locke watches as his friend Dr. Rogers slices open the 161-year-old African-American Joice Heth.
Who, while living, had been exhibited by Phineas T. Barnum as the “oldest specimen” living of our human species.
Who was a “living automaton,” said skeptics.
Who sang, performed, and talked of her time as George Washington’s nursemaid.
Who was still a slave when she died, having made ten to twelve thousand dollars for Barnum while living.
Who, now dead, is making seven hundred dollars more for Barnum in ticket sales.
How did she end up beneath Dr. Roger’s knife?
Dr. Rogers, the resident surgeon at New York Hospital, asked Barnum for the opportunity to perform Heth’s autopsy if she died in America. Once, New Yorkers rioted when they discovered medical students ‘resurrecting’ the recently dead for dissection. Now, Dr. Rogers—himself trained by one famed bodysnatcher—has easy access to the dead marginalized by the law: murder victims, blacks, the poor, and criminals. Dr. Rogers often dissects them in public. His friend Locke had hoped that “poor old Joice Heth should have been sacred from [such] exposure and mutilation,” but acknowledged the autopsy’s value for “anatomical science.”
And perhaps his friend’s career?
There are fifteen hundred paying New Yorkers in the audience today, likely Dr. Roger’s largest audience yet.
Dr. Rogers makes the incision. What does he find?
With his hands inside the frail frame that many claimed was a puppet, Dr. Rogers finds little of the ossification expected of a person of such great age. Heth’s viscera are healthy. Heth’s heart is healthy. Heth’s skull resists unfolding, but her brain is healthy. Dr. Rogers finds that Heth died not of old age, but tuberculosis. He sets down his knife and gives his opinion: “Joice Heth could not have been more than seventy-five, or, at the utmost, eighty years of age!” The amphitheater rented by Barnum erupts, and Richard Adams Locke runs the news the next morning in The Sun.
Barnum claims innocence. Does anyone believe him?
Not when he and his accomplices are still fanning the flames. His assistant convinces The Herald that Barnum has just hoaxed Dr. Rogers; that Joice Heth is in fact alive and well in Connecticut. James Gordon Bennett, The Herald’s dirt-seeking editor, takes the bait. He even accuses Dr. Rogers of being in on the trick—and of being involved in an even more famous hoax, from six months before.
Truly, she is dead, but her captive performance is never ending. Barnum later claims to have buried her “respectably” in Bethel, Connecticut, where Barnum was born, though records of her burial do not exist. Shortly after the autopsy, though, someone, perhaps Barnum, jokes to Locke, of The Sun, that Heth would be embalmed like a mummy and shipped overseas with the body of a “180-year-old” black man, to ‘humbug’ the English.
Again, is Locke, an Englishman himself, surprised?
Still, he is not. He knows this fraudulent play upon race and control, intimately. He has even performed in it. It was his humbug that The Herald said Dr. Rogers had co-authored.
Six months before, Locke convinced almost all of New York that the moon was a paradise inhabited by unicorns and man-bats, and then tried to argue that that belief in a lunar paradise, real or not, cooled tempers over the most divisive issue in American history: the abolition of slavery.
It is a morning in the last week in August 1835, and a crowd gathers outside the office of The Sun, despite the New York summer’s heat. Richard Adams Locke, Dr. David L. Rogers, and a few other friends watch from the doorway. There have been many crowds already this summer.
Mobs. Against the release of over two million black slaves owned in a country of thirteen million. Against the right of free, laboring, middle class blacks to form abolition groups with whites—and possibly marry them. Against abolitionism reaching the South. A looming reprise of the year before, when mobs in New York—a city swelling with cotton’s profits, home to an estimated seven thousand Southerners—looted black homes and churches, rioted against English actors, broke up abolitionist meetings, and ransacked the homes of its wealthy leaders.
It was also about nationalism, then? And class?
The still-nascent American Anti-Slavery Society is not dissuaded. In 1835, the Society decides that to “sow the good seed of abolition thoroughly over the whole country”—and drum up funds—it would flood the South with 170,000 copies of antislavery literature.
How mad did the South get?
This was the summer that ‘Lynch’s law’ entered the national vocabulary; by the following year, ‘to lynch,’ the verb, was widespread.
Anti-abolitionist rallies intercept and burn the mail, along with effigies of white abolitionists Arthur Tappan and William Lloyd Garrison. Southerners call for Tappan’s extradition and hunt for antislavery material in cities’ black quarters. In Madison County, Mississippi, in July, a rumored slave insurrection is magnified and shredded through the deployment of lynch law, the torture of blacks and sympathetic whites, and the hanging of seven whites and many, many, many more blacks.
And in New York?
Silk merchant Tappan receives threatening letters daily, rumors swirling that New Orleans assassins lurked at street corners to perforate his lungs. The six-penny Morning Courier and Enquirer, read by the city’s wealthy, calls for New Yorkers “to crush the reptilian egg of abolition underfoot” before it brings on civil war.
And the city’s black abolitionists? What of them?
Tappan remains unhurt. National antislavery societies leap from 200 to 527. Record numbers of tracts and society handkerchiefs are sold.
Where is Locke and The Sun in all of this?
The New York Sun defends the abolitionists. Locke runs news of violence against Southern abolitionists and blacks, and gleefully cancels the subscription of a reader offended by The Sun’s pro-Abolition sentiment, adding a full-throated condemnation of slavery.
[I]f there are any more of our subscribers who think that to tell the truth is to be an abolitionist, we shall be happy to stop theirs also.
Was that why a crowd has gathered outside of The Sun’s offices this hot morning in late August? To cancel their subscriptions?
No. They were there for something more … celestial.
On August 21, one day after Locke made his stand for ‘truth’ and abolition, The Sun ran a very small notice promising a major astronomical discovery.
On Wednesday, August 26, the city’s mayor and worthies announce a mass meeting for those “opposed to the incendiary proceedings of the abolitionists.”
On Wednesday, August 26, The Sun starts reprinting what it claims is a firsthand account from the “Edinburgh Journal of Science”: new findings from the improbably massive new telescope of the famed astronomer Sir John Herschel. In January, Herschel had trained that new telescope on the moon and found—
Paradise. A field of poppies—
—a lunar forest—
—an inland sea—
—bison-like animals, eyes protected from sunlight by a “fleshy appendage”—
—a goat-sized unicorn.
Here the narrative breaks off, to be resumed on Thursday.
On Thursday, ten thousand New Yorkers meet in a park to reassure the South that the city won’t tolerate abolitionists’ interference with the peace, rights and the (north-flowing) trade of slaveholding states.
On Thursday, the moon narrative resumes, briefly. And on Friday, the telescope revealed the Moon’s most surprising inhabitant: four-foot tall copper-haired, translucent man-bats.
Did they have a scientific name?
Vespertilio-homo. They conversed, flew and expressed affection in ways that required The Sun to censor the Edinburgh Journal’s text. Two more varieties of man-bats will be found, each more beautiful than the last.
According to Edgar Allen Poe, who takes a competitive interest because he believes someone at The Sun has plagiarized his own moon fantasy: almost everyone. “[N]ot one person in ten discredited” the story, “and (strangest point of all!) the doubters were chiefly those who doubted without being able to say why—the ignorant—those uninformed in astronomy—people who would not believe, because the thing was so novel, so ‘entirely out of the usual way.’”
Strangest point of all! Faith in science?
Or faith’s place in science. Paradise on the moon is a comforting thought.
The Sun’s hollering newsboys sell out their stacks, over and over. On Friday, the day that man-bats take Manhattan, The Sun’s publisher reveals the moon story’s effect on sales. The Sun’s circulation has hit 19,360—five times what other New York newspapers have ever sold daily. The Sun will sell as many as sixty thousand copies of the series’ reprint—“equivalent, in today’s population, to over one million copies,” one historian estimates.
What does that mean?
That The Sun’s publisher is now a very, very rich man.
And that while the mayor exhorts New York to stand against the abolitionists, one of the city’s most radical papers is “besieged by thousands of applicants, from dawn to midnight,” demanding fresh accounts of man-bats and moondust.
But is none of it true?
The Sun’s editor, Richard Adams Locke, and his friends Dr. David L. Rogers and William N. Griggs, watch the crowd clamor. On that particular morning, Griggs later remembers: “a highly respectable-looking elderly gentleman, in a fine broadcloth Quaker suit,” convinces the crowd that the moon story was true because he had seen the astronomer Herschel’s seven-ton telescope leaving England’s docks for South Africa.
Locke regards the man with a “look of mingled astonishment and contempt.”
How long does the enchantment last?
The series ends on Monday, August 31. That same morning, dirt-hunting editor James Gordon Bennett’s Herald “praises” Locke for such a marvelously constructed fraud—and accuses him of getting an English chambermaid pregnant, for good measure.
James Gordon Bennett, ever charming.
Locke responds with an open letter to the editor of the Evening Star. He fends off the ad hominem accusation handily, but is cleverly cagey when it comes to the moon story. He hadn’t made the discoveries, Locke writes, with lawyerly honesty.
Does Locke admit that the “Edinburgh Journal” does not exist?
Bennett’s editorials continue, and Locke offers this instead:
We go from the genuineness of the discoveries because we like a sprinkle of the marvellous [sic] and because we hope that, by directing all eyes to the ladies and gentleman of the moon, there will be less devilment practiced on earth. We are curious to know whether Lynch Law exists amongst our Lunar neighbors, or whether they have not yet arrived at that degree of refinement!
It is Friday, September 4, 1835. On the corner of Broadway and Lispenard, someone sets fire to the bookstore of a black abolitionist and printer named David Ruggles.
For three nights in the week following, a white mob will gather before his store. He will relocate to Chapel Street, continue to sell The Liberator, educate blacks free and enslaved, and mentor Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
But today is not a good day.
It is Friday, September 4, 1835.
A pistol fires.
A woman screams.
And shortly after midnight, a night watchman rouses Dr. David L. Rogers from his sleep. One sailor has murdered another over the love of a woman, it seems. The murderer was apprehended at the scene, but there’s an autopsy to be done.
Dr. Rogers walks from his home and office on Chambers St. to a boarding house on Monroe St. belonging to Mrs. Harriet A. Shoults.
He finds a sailor named John “Little Jack” Roberts, shot through the eye.
Does Dr. Rogers move Roberts’ from the bed to the floor? Does he make an incision?
Roberts’s dead body has been moved already, to a passageway. Rogers rolls Little Jack’s body over to inspect the wound. The brain is “much torn.” Dr. Rogers finds the ball on Mrs. Shoults’s pillow. It “must have rolled out when the scull was taken off [sic].”
Is Locke at the coroner’s inquest the next morning to see the murderer?
He is not. His fellow journalists say that Locke, who may have been fired from his last newspaper job for drinking, has been at the bar more often these days. Whether to celebrate, or from the pressure, is unclear.
Edgar Allen Poe later credits Locke’s “genius” for the hoax’s success, but Locke has perhaps realized that he has sold himself too cheap. The Sun’s circulation remains unimaginably high, the reprints are selling out, and The Sun’s publisher is making much more than the $300 to $500 that he paid Locke for the moon series, let alone the $12 Locke gets per week.
Sometime over the next several weeks, over a drink with a fellow reporter, whose newspaper was about to reprint the Moon story, Locke comes clean. “Don’t print it right away,” he says. “I wrote it myself.” The reporter runs that story instead.
Was it only for the money? And who killed “Little Jack”?
It is Monday, September 14, and a play about lunar man-bats opens at the fashionable Bowery Theater to sold-out audiences. A character blows up a flock of man-bats “with a highly combustible bundle of abolitionist tracts.”
The Sun approves. That Friday, without claiming authorship for what he only knows was a satire, not a hoax, Locke writes that the moon series had usefully “[diverted] the public mind, for a while, from that bitter apple of discord, the abolition of slavery.” By giving the other newspapers something else to get angry about, Locke claimed, The Sun had prevented escalation of New York’s rancorous war on abolition.
Does he truly believe that? Why would anyone trust anything else he writes?
It is Tuesday, September 22, and Richard Adams Locke is in City Hall, in New York’s Court of Oyer and Terminer. The court brings in the man accused of murdering John “Little Jack” Roberts, the sailor shot through the eye.
The accused is named Richard Jackson, and he is also a sailor.
He is a sailor. His name is not ‘Richard Jackson.’
As Locke transcribes the proceedings in shorthand, he realizes that the case against Jackson is strong. His friend, Dr. David L. Rogers, is a witness for the prosecution.
What does Dr. Rogers say?
That he inspected Roberts’ wound and matched the bullet he found to the gun taken off Jackson. That he cannot say whether the old three-inch scar on Jackson’s head gradually made him insane. He sees no such symptoms. He “cannot say that dark swarthy complexioned men are more subject to insanity than persons of a light complexion; although those persons who are insane are generally dark complexioned men.”
The District Attorney asks: why are the dark complexioned more insane?
“Because insanity usually effects [sic] the liver, and the disease of the liver is thrown back upon the skin,” says Dr. Rogers, “and this is apt to produce a dark swarthy complexion.”
Does Jackson, the “dark complexioned” man in question, defend himself?
He has said enough already. Other witnesses testify that he threatened to “blow out the brains of Roberts” over Harriet Shoults, with whom Jackson lives when he isn’t at sea. Shoults herself testifies that she saw Jackson shoot Roberts. Eliza Seymour, who was also in the room that night, confirms the story.
Locke is nevertheless impressed by the “eloquent, pathetic” closing speech made by Jackson’s lawyer, arguing that his client is insane; that in madness he attempted to hang himself after his arrest.
Does it work?
The jury comes back with a verdict of Guilty.
Richard Jackson is to be hanged by the State instead.
Does Jackson show remorse? Does he weep? Does Jackson know that Dr. David L. Rogers—
—who finds him dark-complexioned, but not insane—
—will be offered his body for dissection after the execution?
“The prisoner remained during the whole trial, which lasted till ten at night, in a reclining posture, and heard the verdict of the jury with dogged indifference, bordering on insensibility,” claims the New York Commercial Adviser.
Jackson is led out of the courtroom. He will go to a small cell in Bellevue.
Locke walks out of the courtroom. It is the moon-hoaxer’s thirty-fifth birthday.
Does he walk home to celebrate with his wife and daughter in their modest apartment on Franklin Street?
More likely that he walks to The Sun to write up the trial for the next day’s paper. He is curious. There are two stray threads hanging from Jackson’s story. He will pull them.
Goes in his trial account for The Sun: that Jackson, in an earlier examination, had revealed that had been born in Portugal. It follows that his name likely isn’t ‘Richard Jackson’.
This on its own isn’t notable—
—it’s simply New York. Many sailors, who come and go with the tides, are born far from the Isle of Mannahatta, and adopt Anglo names at their convenience.
But the second fact?
Changes the first. Locke keeps this one to himself. Jackson is a more interesting sailor than most, it seems. He had been tried in Boston, a few years before, for Piracy.
From man-bats to pirates!
A wonderful birthday present to open, and write about, provided that Locke gets to it before his friend Dr. Rogers opens Jackson’s ribs.
But after everything that’s happened, who will trust a hoaxing journalist with the story of a murderer waiting to die? Who will believe it?
It is after midnight, September 23, 1835, and a sailor whose name is not Richard Jackson, who could not afford good lawyers, who likely does not know his birthday, whose body is no longer his, faces one of his last nights on earth.
Does he weep?
Will we believe it?