February 10, 2010

A romance of Philadelphia life, mystery, and crime

George Lippard, who died yesterday, caused quite a sensation with his novel The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall, when it was published in 1845. The book has been identified as the highest-selling American novel before Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). It sold 60,000 copies in its first year and at least 10,000 more each year for the next decade. Lippard was well-compensated as well, earning a lucrative $3,000 to $4,000 a year. He was 23 years old when it was first published.

And what were his readers buying?

The novel occasionally carries the subtitle "A romance of Philadelphia life, mystery, and crime." It depicts the seedy underbelly of urban Philadelphia, a world teeming with adultery, murder, social corruption, sexual exploitation, and downright evil — all perpetuated by Philadelphia's elite who use code names as members of a secret society. There is no hero in The Quaker City and the book comes across as a series of progressively more vile acts.

The character which gets the most ink, however, is the hideous Devil-Bug, the gatekeeper of the secret Monk Hall. The one-eyed creature attempts murder just for the fun of it, despite being literally haunted by the mangled corpses of previous enemies. His catch phrase — "Wonder how that'll work?" — refers to each of the sadistic methods of torture or murder he comes up with, including his own. Arguably, the most climactic scene is the apocalyptic vision, which warns of succumbing to greed and capitalism and losing sight of the idealism of Democracy. The dead rise and float down the river in their coffins, as Independence Hall crumbles to the ground and an empirical palace is built in its place. But, perhaps in Lippard's own ironic sensibility, this message of warning appears to Devil-Bug, who happily watches and laughs.

Perhaps what makes all this worse is that Lippard's book is inspired in part by a true story.

On February 10, 1843, Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton was murdered while traveling aboard the Philadelphia-Camden ferry vessel Dido. A man named Singleton Mercer was put on trial for the murder. Mercer testified that Heberton only five days earlier had lured Mercer's sister into a brothel and raped her at gunpoint. She was 16. Mercer pleaded insanity and was found not guilty of murder.

A similar scenario is the driving point for much of The Quaker City and how one willing partner in the elaborate plot to defile a teenage girl is suddenly shocked to find that his sister is the intended target. The book was dedicated to Charles Brockden Brown, whose early Gothic works were an inspiration to Lippard.

*The image from the title page of The Quaker City included engravings by Felix (F. O. C.) Darley, considered the father of American illustration. At the top is Devil-Bug, the evil gate-keeper, and at the bottom is the climactic scene of the dead rising in an apocalyptic vision. The angels in the scene chant their warning, "Wo unto Sodom," while Devil-Bug laughs.

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