Babylon: Sin City, U.S.A. I

I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.

Revelation 17:3-5

The Quaker City. Or, The Monks of Monk Hall

George Lippard. The Quaker City. Or, The Monks of Monk Hall. A romance of Philadelphia life, mystery and crime. With illustrations, and the author's portrait and autograph. Philadelphia: Leary, Stuart & Company, 1876.

Many American preachers have been willing to single out the damned, and they usually turned to the Book of Revelation for support when they wanted to do so. In the Book of Revelation, sinners are inhabitants of Babylon, the city in which the chosen people of Israel were held captive in ancient times. Led by an infamous prostitute, the city of Babylon was a potent symbol of moral decay in the grisly reform literature and tabloid journalism that arose in America in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. These tabloids and pamphlets, however diverse they might appear at first glance, shared sensational apocalyptic imagery and rhetoric. Apocalyptic imagery oozes out of popular novels like George Lippard's best-seller The Quaker City and Harrison Buchanan's Asmodeus. Originally published in 1845, Lippard's novel uses apocalyptic imagery with a vengeance: although America has been destroyed by "Priest-craft, Slave-craft, and Traitor-craft," the dead arise from their graves and sail in their coffins to wreak havoc on their oppressors. The novel sold 60,000 copies in its first year of publication and about 30,000 annually for the next five, making it one of the most widely read works of fiction in the first half of the nineteenth century, and giving rise to a flood of other urban expose╠ü novels. Although the "mysteries and miseries" of New York made it the number one candidate for Babylon, U.S.A., cities as diverse as Philadelphia, New Orleans, Salem, and San Francisco also vied for the honor.

The works of George Foster, a one-man army in the tabloid documentation of "every-day life" in New York City, certainly made New York the most likely candidate in Americans' minds.

At right: George Foster. New York by gas-light, with here and there a streak of sunshine. New York: Dewitt & Davenport, 1850. From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Harrison Gray Buchanan. Asmodeus. Or, The iniquities of New-York. A complete expose of the crimes, doings and vices, both in high and low life, including the life of a model artist. New York: Howland & Co., [1848]. From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Like Lippard's novel, Buchanan's Asmodeus unveiled the hidden lives of politicians and preachers, showing that immoral Christians might find themselves among the damned at the end of time. As damnation was a favorite theme in the tabloid literature of the day, so too were grisly accounts of crime and executions. Although these topics had been commonly combined with moralizing sermons in much of American literature of the previous century, in the mid-nineteenth century many publishers simply omitted the sermons altogether so that Americans could get right down to the gory details.

Of these tabloids, the Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon supplied the lurid plot for dozens of imitators. The Life and Sufferings of Cecelia Mayo, in which a degenerate heroine is raised a prostitute, poisons her husband, burns her child alive, and then rushes headlong into a brutal life of murder and sadomasochism, was only one of several works that followed its path. 

At right: The Life and Sufferings of Cecelia Mayo, founded on incidents in real life. Boston: Published by M. Aurelius, 1843. From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

At right: Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hung at Georgetown, Delaware, with two of her accomplices. Containing an account of some of the most horrible and shocking murders and daring robberies ever committed by one of the female sex. New York: Printed for the publishers, 1841. From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

At right: George Foster. New York in slices, by an experienced carver, being the original slices published in the N.Y. Tribune. New York: W.H. Graham, 1849. From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.