There Is a Head Rolling Over the Platform: The Strange Case of George Lippard’s The Quaker City

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On July 12, 1849, a man appeared at the offices, in Philadelphia, of the Quaker City, a newspaper. He was despondent and wearing only one shoe, and was seeking the editor and writer George Lippard. When he found him he said. “You are my last hope. If you fail me, I can do nothing but die.” Less than two months later he would, in fact, be dead. His name was Edgar Allan Poe.

George Lippard’s novel The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall—published in 1845 and selling over 60,000 copies in the first year alone—is a dark, phantasmagoric vortex of nightmares. (The best scholarship on Lippard remains that of David S. Reynolds, in his book Beneath the American Renaissance and in his introduction to the modern edition of The Quaker City.) Like other “reform” literature of its time, the novel’s claim to be a fictionalized exposé of corruption and villainy allows it to trade in the most sensationalized depictions of debauchery. The novel can literally have its cake and eat it too. In the name of denouncing, for instance, the sexual exploitation of women, The Quaker City depicts this exploitation in ways that are themselves titillating. Although it’s Poe’s name and works that we are more familiar with, Lippard’s best novels churn up something far weirder and super-black India inky than even Poe could conjure.

1. Devil-Bug

Devil-Bug, from Quaker City, is one of the most gleefully ferocious characters in American literature. He’s a “loathsome,” dwarfish, one-eyed pimp with talon-like fingers born in a brothel whose “Soul was like his body, a mass of hideous and distorted energy,” someone who “loved not so much to kill, as to observe the blood of his victim, fall drop by drop, as to note the convulsive look of death, as to hear the last throttling rattle in the throat of the dying.” He is the black, abject center in this vortex of a novel. Devil-Bug speaks in a weirdly tuned gutter slang, his voice a hodgepodge of the minstrel and the mad preacher, as Lippard experiments with literary dialect and pronunciation spelling. Here is the opening to chapter 11, as Devil-Bug describes the corpse he has kept by his side for six years:

“It don’t skeer me, I tell ye! For six long years, day and night, it has laid by my side, with its jaw broke and its tongue stickin’ out, and yet I ain’t a bit skeered! There it is now—on my left side, ye mind—in the light of the fire. Ain’t it an ugly corpse? Hey? A reel nasty Christian, I tell ye! Jist look at the knees, drawed up to the chin, jist look at the eyes, hanging out on the cheeks, jist look at the jaw all smashed and broke—look at the big, black tongue, stickin’ from between the teeth—say it ain’t an ugly corpse, will ye?”

2. A mysterious use of the word “cool”

Several times throughout Quaker City, the word “cool” is used either to refer to something like a cool drink, or a large sum of money, as when Fitz-Cowles says of Mabel, “I’d peril a cool thousand to win her. Let’s give chase” (342). But there are at least two uses of the word that seem strangely out of place in a mid-nineteenth-century novel. The first occurs as the villain Fitz-Cowles (most everyone, to some degree, is a villain in this novel) and Dr. Pyne plot to kidnap the young girl Mabel (who is the illegitimate child of Devil-Bug, and who was raised by Pyne, her “father,” who drugs her and tries to rape her, and whom [Mabel, that is] Fitz-Cowles has paid one-hundred dollars for to Pyne because he must “have” her). Fitz-Cowles and Pyne have just given unsuccessful chase to Mabel through the dark streets of Philadelphia:

Dr. Pyne raised his hand suddenly to his forehead. “I have it!” he muttered between his teeth. “I must get rid of this fellow [Devil-Bug, who protects Mabel] without delay. Look ye, Fitz-Cowles,” he exclaimed aloud. “We must part for the night. By to-morrow at noon, I will place this girl in your power. There is my hand on it! Good-night!”

And he strode hurriedly down the street.

“That’s what I call cool!” muttered Fitz-Cowles with a drunken leer, as he strode away from the lamp in an opposite direction.” (397)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cool” when used to describe “persons (or their actions) not heated by emotion” had its first usage in print around 1440, while cool as a general term of approval (“that’s cool!”) didn’t appear in print until around 1948, in direct relation to the popularity of jazz. It could be that Fitz-Cowles is referring to Pyne’s cool, collected nature, except that Pyne is anything but that throughout the scene. Perhaps then Fitz-Cowles is being sarcastic?

But a few pages later the word is used in a way that seems positively out of its time, and it’s at moments like this that Quaker City has that floor-falling-out-from-beneath-your-feet-feeling. The set-up is this. Two watchmen—Smeldyke and Worlyput—come across Byrnewood Arlington (whose sister Mary has been seduced by Gustavus Lorrimer, soon to be revenge-killed by Arlington)—lying prostrate in the middle of the street, passed out. They kick him awake:

“Mary there is death in my path, but I will save you!” he [Byrnewood] shouted, springing from the grasp of the watchmen. “I will save you yet!” And with a speed that defied pursuit, he darted down the street, dashing his arms wildly overhead, and shouting madly as he was lost to view in the shadows of the street.

“Mary!” the name was borne upon the winter wind.

“Well, if that ai’nt cool!” ejaculated Smeldyke.

Maybe the precise context for how “cool” is used here is lost to us, forever, and perhaps this is a good thing. What if Lippard was experimenting with language here in ways that can’t be properly captured by the likes of the Oxford English Dictionary, because, perhaps for some brief time, the word “cool” circulated in spoken-word on the streets of Philadelphia as a sort of secret slang, its usage predicting the “cool” jazz of the 1940s and 50s? Could “cool” have been used in the vernacular in 1845 in a way that wasn’t “supposed” to occur for another 100 years?

3. Quotes

Here are several quotes from Lippard’s Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of Wissahikon (1848) and The Empire City; or, New York by Night (1853):

“’I’se here, Massa, I is,’ and, starting from a nook of the arbor overshadowed by foliage, the blind Negro appeared in the light, his sightless eyeballs rolling in their sockets.” –Wissahikon

Philadelphia 1842, daguerreotype

“There is a low brooding murmur—the axe is glimmering there over the white neck of the lovely woman—it falls—there is a torrent of blood pouring upon the saw-dust from a headless trunk—there is a head rolling over the platform, the long hair cumbered with blood-stained dust!”  –Wissahikon

“Death to the Rich—Life to the Poor!” –Wissahikon

“He did not find the hand which he sought, for it was wound about the neck of the disguised daughter; and, as for the other hand, its fingers clutched her writhing lips, and closed her utterance.” –The Empire City

“But must this silence on the part of Northern men last forever? Dare we not speak a word on this dreaded subject without having the words—abolitionist, dog—thrown in our teeth? While we attack the despotism of the bank, the corruptions of the church, shall we not say a word—only a word—of the horrors that surround the slave-mart?” –The Empire City

4. Bosoms

Quaker City is cool, but it’s also hot. In the antebellum era, American-made erotica was only variously and locally regulated. The “flash” papers of the 1840s—chronicled wonderfully in The Flash Press (University of Chicago Press, 2008)—offered scandalous depictions of and debates about sexuality. With names like The New York Sporting Whip and The Libertine, these papers offered varied forms of urban sensationalism. And although fiction of the time was rife with oblique references to various forms of seduction and sexual violence, Quaker City—as an American, best-selling novel—pushed the boundaries. In this passage, Gustavus Lorrimer nearly seduces Mary Arlington:

“Mary, my love—no danger threatens you—“ he whispered playing with her glossy curls—“Look up, my love—I am with you, and will shield you from harm!”

Gathering her form in his left arm, secure of his victim, he raised her from his breast, and fixing his gaze upon her blue eyes, humid with moisture, he slowly flung back the night robe from her shoulders. Her bosom, in all its richness of outline, heaving and throbbing with that long pulsation, which urged it upward like a billow, lay open to his gaze.

"The Husband Discovering His Shame," from the New York Sporting Whip, 1843. Courtesy the American Antiquarian Society.

Literature has always allowed for and encouraged in readers the imaginary identification with characters, which was one reason, especially in early America, the novel as an emergent genre was so widely denounced from the pulpit and by educators. If readers identify with the “wrong” characters—say, the seducers, con men, and criminals rather than the enforcers of moral law, or with the rebellious coquettes rather than the so-called virtuous women—then might not the act of reading these novels be, potentially, a subversive act? (The scholar Cathy Davidson explores this in her seminal book Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America.) Even though the likes of Lorrimer are finally “punished” at the end, Quaker City gives readers ample opportunity to experience vicariously his point of view. Whether or not the novel finally endorses his lecherous behavior is, in the end, irrelevant: through the act of reading and entering imaginatively into his worldview, we are already complicit.

Monk-hall, with its three stories of subterranean chambers beneath the streets of Philadelphia, complete with multiple disguised trapdoors, is nothing less than a strobe-lit view of the subconscious, offering glimpses and fragments of the monsters that move around down there even when we can’t see them. If Lippard’s most grotesque characters, like Devil-Bug, are only partially formed, shape-changing, stunted, always-already just out of sight, maybe it’s because our nightmares are, as well.

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First image: George Lippard daguerreotype, ca. 1850-54


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →