Depravity in the Quaker City: George Lippard’s Monks of Monk Hall

George Lippard’s The Quaker City; Of The Monks of Monk-Hall is a strange and lurid entry into the subgenre of Philadelphia Gothic.  It is, in part, an homage to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 Gothic novel The Monk: A Romance.  Lippard does his damnedest to out-shock readers of it and other controversial, graphic, and even offensive novels of the time.

Its sprawling, sensationalistic plot hinges on the evil denizens of a secret club, The Monks of Monk Hall, who gather every night in a decrepit-looking mansion in Southwark. But inside the walls of this house lurk all the horrors of the modern age: vice and crime, rape and murder, perpetrated on a nightly basis. Within Monk Hall is a tower with three levels below its ground floor, including a crypt formerly used by a real monastic community that occupied the house in the 18th century, and, deepest of all, a dark pit, into which bodies fall through trap doors, never to be seen again. Lippard takes all of the conventions of the gothic novel — a decaying castle/mansion chock full of secret, labyrinthine passages, trap doors and underground pits for prisoners, cackling torturers, sorcerers, innocent damsels about to be ravished, evil “monks”— but doesn’t give them the usual medieval setting of a gothic novel. Instead, he drops them right down in the midst of an urban Philadelphia in 1842. — Edward Pettit for Citypaper

The novel, published in 1845, is based a murder trial and considered the first muckraking novel:

The Quaker City is partly based on the March 1843 New Jersey trial of Singleton Mercer. Mercer was accused of the murder of Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton aboard the Philadelphia-Camden ferry vessel Dido on February 10, 1843. Heberton had seduced (or raped – sources differ upon this point), Mercer’s sixteen-year old sister. Mercer entered a plea of insanity and was found not guilty. The trial took place only two months after Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story based on other murder trials employing the insanity defense; Mercer’s defense attorney openly acknowledged the “object of ridicule” which an insanity defense had become. Nonetheless, a verdict of not-guilty was rendered after less than an hour of jury deliberation, and the family and the lawyer of young Mercer were greeted by a cheering crowd while disembarking from the same Philadelphia-Camden ferry line on which the killing took place. — Wikipedia

Lippard knew his lineage well; he dedicated the novel to the memory of Charles Brockden Brown, the author who arguably originated Philadelphia Gothic.  But Lippard’s depraved monks outpace anything Brown’s wandering young protagonists ever dreamed of.

Archive.org has a fascinating version of The Quaker City, with illustrations and extensive marginalia, available to read for free online.  There are also partial annotations available, with lots of interesting Philly details.

Lippard also wrote Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of Wissahickon, which injects his luridly Gothic style into a local legend about a brotherhood of cave-dwelling monks in the woods outside Philly.

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