Scarlet Woman

In the small hours of April 10, 1836, the madam of a house of ill repute on Thomas Street in lower Manhattan woke to a gruesome discovery: the bloody, half-burned body of Helen Jewett, one of the resident prostitutes. She'd been axed and set on fire as she slept. By the time the city watchmen arrived, the male clients had fled, "some in a state of partial undress," historian Patricia Cline Cohen reports in The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (Vintage, $14).

Suspicion fell at once on Richard P. Robinson, a young clerk who had visited Helen earlier that evening. Promptly arrested, he denied everything, cool as a cucumber through his eventual trial and acquittal, even though it came out that his relationship with Jewett went far beyond the usual client-prostitute assignations. Nor was the victim a regular "girl on the town," as New Yorkers of the 1830s sometimes referred to prostitutes. Her clients tended to be professional men, lawyers and merchants and their clerks. She owned a number of books (she had a weakness for Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer-Lytton) and was devoted to letter-writing. No wilting flower, she had a reputation for standing up to men.

The penny press couldn't get enough of the story, which had sex, gore and a beautiful victim (more thrilling because fallen). The New York Herald wrote that "she was famous for parading Wall Street in an elegant green dress, and generally with a letter in her hand. She used to look at the brokers with great boldness of demeanour." On April 13, the Sun decried "the cold-blooded, deliberate and savage manner in which the unfortunate was massacred" and lingered over "her well-known reputation for beauty, intelligence, accomplishments, and gentility of appearance."

Cohen delves into Jewett's fall from respectability and fingers Robinson as the likely killer while bringing alive New York of the 1830s, a place of economic and sexual license. Selling sex for money had not yet been made illegal, though moral reformers crusaded against it; a leading citizen might even live next door to a higher-class brothel like Jewett's. Though the weight of historical detail -- the particulars of newspaper editors' careers, for instance -- sometimes puts a drag on the story, it's a fine piece of detective work as well as a keen study of a prostitute, her killer and their city.

A Question of Honor

Helen Jewett's murderer may been inspired by "Norman Leslie," a popular play of the time based on "a notorious New York City murder nearly forty years earlier, in which a young man . . . killed his fiancee [and] won acquittal with the help of brilliant lawyers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr." I couldn't find a mention of it in Arnold A. Rogow's A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Hill and Wang, $14). The two rarely found themselves in agreement about anything: Never were people destined to be such thorns in each other's sides.

Their final encounter -- a duel "fought on a narrow ledge overlooking the Hudson River at Weehawken, New Jersey," early on the morning of July 11, 1804 -- remains one of the most notorious incidents in American history. Two shots were fired. One dealt a mortal wound to Hamilton, who died the next day, and gave Burr's career and reputation an injury from which they never recovered. (He was vice president at the time.)

What led to such a bloody confrontation? "Most Americans regard . . . Hamilton as a martyr, and Burr as an outright villain." Not so fast, Rogow says. True, Hamilton was the greater loss to the country; "intellectually brilliant, [he] contributed more than any other American of his era to the economic stability of the new Republic by restoring confidence at home and abroad in the nation's credit, and by founding the banking system." But his great work was behind him. For years he harassed Burr, driven (Rogow argues) as much by personal dislike and jealousy as by political differences. Grandson of Jonathan Edwards, a graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), Burr was American-born, a child of privilege; Hamilton, a bastard, entered the world on the island of Nevis, had little formal schooling and was rejected by Burr's alma mater. Burr got to lead troops in the Revolution, Hamilton didn't. And so it went, fueling Hamilton's resentment even while his career took off.

This account of their decades-long rivalry persuasively rehabilitates Burr while taking the shine off Hamilton's halo. Rogow sweetens his able research and analysis with scandal, intrigue and adultery (e.g., Hamilton sponsored attacks on Burr's character while passionately involved with his own sister-in-law, among other women). Among the many good anecdotes Rogow includes: Both Burr and Hamilton served on Gen. Washington's staff (not simultaneously). But Burr's 1776 stint with the general lasted about 10 days, "time enough for each to develop a lasting, and for Burr costly, dislike for the other." (Rumor held that the general disapproved of Burr's carrying on with women or caught the junior officer reading his mail.) Hamilton spent four years with Washington and "was to serve him as scribe, confidant, advisor and cabinet secretary for more than two decades" while regarding him with "an ambivalence bordering on hostility," as James Madison and others noted. The unwitting general, meanwhile, doted on his aide like a son. Martha Washington seems to have been a better judge of character than her husband was; she named her tomcat Hamilton. Burr, at least, would have been amused.

England Expects

A little more than a year after Burr's bullet felled Hamilton on the bluff at Weehawken, another fateful encounter took place off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coat. There, on Oct. 21, 1805, the British Navy under Admiral Lord Nelson met the Combined Fleet of France and Spain in one of the grandest naval battles ever fought. After a day of withering broadsides and ship-to-ship grappling, Napoleon's fleet fell to the British, ending his bid to control the Mediterranean. Victory did not come cheap: Many men had been sacrificed, including Nelson himself, caught by a French sharpshooter as he walked the deck of his flagship Victory -- though in his final minutes he learned that his men had carried the day.

Decision at Trafalgar by Dudley Pope (Henry Holt, $15), part of the "Heart of Oak Sea Classics Series," recreates the battle maneuver by maneuver, the action each ship saw and the particular exploits of captains and crewmen on both sides, down to how Nelson came to send his famous signal "England expects that every man will do his duty." The book, first published here in 1959, has the flavor of a Patrick O'Brian novel; Pope writes brisk and manly prose, peppered with maritime detail. (He was a sailor himself.) In explaining what was riding on Nelson's fleet that October day, Pope recreates the anxious mood in England: how "ordinary British folk," believing that Napoleon was about to invade, "drilled with pike and pitchfork on the village greens when the French Emperor's "Army of England" was poised on the cliffs above Boulogne and his harbours were full of landing craft." Trafalgar pointed the way to Waterloo and Napoleon's ultimate defeat and exile; it also established Britain as the 19th-century naval power to be reckoned with. Without Trafalgar, the world map of the 19th century might have looked very different.

Ringside Seats

One historical tale set solidly on land is Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser (Carroll & Graf, $12.95). Fraser authors the cult-favorite Flashman series, based on one of the more scurrilous characters in Tom Brown's Schooldays. He's no stranger to the historical mode, as he proves again in this novel based on the life of boxer Tom Molineaux, a Virginia-born slave who won his freedom with his fists and came to England in the early 1800s hoping to try his luck against Tom Cribb, the English champion of the time. Fraser tells the story through a sustained series of first-person narratives -- trainers, opponents, the love of Molineaux's life, even a decadent New Orleans aristo who plays a devious but key role -- assuming each voice with gusto. Sometimes Fraser's enthusiasm for period dialect and slang carries him away, but even a reader who's no fan of the sweet science will enjoy this winsome imagining of a fighter's rise and fall.

Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is jenhoward@compuserve.com.