These days, most Americans live in cities, those humming beehives of culture and filth, where each person straddles a changing role between anonymity and responsibility as he goes about his day. In the 19th century, however, cities were new in the United States and peoples’ place in them was in flux. Anonymity was everything in these early cities—poor girls flocked to them to be sought-after courtesans, men cultivated fake names, people of modest means courted like they lived in a Bronte novel.
But sometimes all of the changing roles and huge amounts of freedom could turn more dangerous. The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen tells the story of what happens when freedom and anonymity combine to more sinister ends.