Quaker City (The); Or, the Monks of Monk Hall


A printed illustration of George Lippard in profile, leaning his left elbow on a desk
George Lippard was known as a founder of the Philadelphia-rooted American Gothic movement for his dark themes of greed, debauchery, and injustice. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

George Lippard (1822-54) published The Quaker City; Or, the Monks of Monk Hall in 1844-45 in serial installments, which were then collated as a novel. A gothic tale, set in Philadelphia and inspired by a linked pair of real-life urban crimes, the novel juxtaposes a plot centered on greed, amorality, and debauchery against the then-popular stereotype of an idealized Quaker of exemplary morals. As the “City of Brotherly Love” vision of Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) was widely known, Lippard counted on the irony that the novel’s characters and plot were neither brotherly nor loving.

In Lippard’s time, Philadelphia experienced a decade of rioting and destruction reflecting racial and class tensions, exacerbated by an ineffectual police force and a fractured urban region of more than two dozen municipalities within Philadelphia County. Lippard, who died when he was just 31 years old, made a successful decade-long career in journalism, playwriting, and historical fiction that promoted his commitment to social reform. Believing that society’s poor were overworked, underpaid, and powerless against exploitation by rich, powerful, immoral individuals and organizations, Lippard advocated a socialist system to improve their lot. Although Lippard was not himself Quaker, his frequent experiences with Quakers led him to identify them with his own politics. These experiences also informed his decision to present a Quaker character who is seemingly immune to the temptations of ordinary mortals.

A photograph of the cover of Lippard's
George Lippard’s The Quaker City; Or, The Monks of Monk Hall functioned as an exposé of crime, social class disparity, and criminal injustice in the city of Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

The Quaker City is built upon the highly publicized trial of a wealthy man who could afford an unethical lawyer to get him acquitted of murder. The novel’s lurid themes include a convoluted intertwining of plot lines, with multiple incidents of seduction, rape, drunkenness, and greed on the part of a club of privileged decadents—the Monks of Monk Hall—who flaunt their wealth and power. These plot lines are complicated by multiple murders: one man is prosecuted for killing in revenge for the rape of his sister, while another wealthier murderer is acquitted of poisoning his wife when he discovers that she is having an affair. Despite the title, Quaker characters are absent from the story until the final scene, when a nameless and ineffectual “Quaker” makes his appearance on a boat that is leaving Philadelphia, a scene that suggests that the moral influence of Quakerism was exiting what was once a “Quaker” city.

The term “Quaker” had been coined by detractors of the seventeenth-century Christian sect that labeled itself “the Religious Society of Friends.” “Quaker” was used to mock the sect’s impassioned—often trance-like—worship and social behaviors. By the mid-nineteenth century, when Lippard published The Quaker City, Quakers had acquired a reputation for behaviors that seemed to reflect a number of contradictory qualities: high-minded integrity as well as self-righteous rigidity; visionary nonconformity as well as antagonistic eccentricity; unwavering morality as well as wild-eyed fanaticism; nonviolence as well as emotional aloofness; and social-justice conviction as well as compassionless judgment. Lippard’s nameless Quaker character, making only a cameo appearance, seems to throw a spotlight on these tensions and ambiguities.

A photograph of the cover of Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin also portrayed Quakers as standard-bearers of morality. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Until 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96) published Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which also portrays Quaker characters as standard-bearers of morality—The Quaker City was America’s best-selling novel. With some 60,000 copies sold in its first year, the novel helped to solidify notions of urban life and capitalism as cauldrons of sin, greed, and debauchery, and to promote upstanding Quakers as the antithesis of urban low-life. In 1848, capitalizing on the novel’s popularity, and reflecting his admiration for Quaker ideals, Lippard began a newspaper called The Quaker City, which also promoted his progressive social justice ideology. Following the novel’s publication, at the nadir of Philadelphia’s administrative chaos, city and state officials took heed of the city’s lawlessness. In 1854, the disparate neighborhoods of Philadelphia city and county were consolidated under one unified police jurisdiction, a first for American cities.

Unlike Stowe’s novel, The Quaker City largely disappeared from popular consciousness. Still, Lippard’s portrayal of the romanticized “Quaker” remained an important part of a literary genre that left an indelible mark on American popular culture about what it means to be “Quaker” and the tension between urban realities and Quakers principles.

Emma J. Lapsansky Werner is Professor of History Emeritus at Haverford College, where she was Curator of the Quaker Collection. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


George Lippard Profile Illustration, Autographed

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

George Lippard, a romantic journalist of the mid-nineteenth century, was inspired by the social injustice he perceived in Philadelphia. Lippard’s passion and personal eccentricities made him seem like a character out of one of his very own books. For example, he often carrying a sword-cane and, at times, more than one loaded pistol beneath his cloak. Because of his interest in the fair treatment of all people, especially laborers, he even formed a secret society of working men that reportedly drew in tens of thousands of members from across the nation. Lippard contributed to the American gothic literature movement in Philadelphia, along with fellow writers Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe. Though the remanticized tale of crime and murder made The Quaker City a riveting narrative, his central theme of social injustice in Philadelphia is what truly made his writing shocking and spectacular to readers. Lippard used this narrative and its debauched characters to focus on issues of class disparity and on the often morally ambiguous actions of Philadelphia’s Quaker population.

Quakeresses Outside Orange Street Meeting House

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Quakeress women meet outside the Orange Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia (1906). Their clothing is known as “plain dress” and is typical for Quaker women, including a dress, a kerchief or cloak, and a bonnet. The prim and proper way Quakers typically dressed set them apart from other groups of people.

Road to Philadelphy (E.W. Clay)

Library Company of Philadelphia

This political cartoon by E.W. Clay (ca. 1830) emphasizes the social class disparity between upper class Philadelphia Quakers and other citizens—especially minorities and immigrants. While Quakers (whose origins were predominantly British) swore by living moral, humble, hard-working lives, they often succumbed to self-righteousness and pretentiousness, adopting a posture of superiority to those of other religious, ethnic, or racial backgrounds. Cartoonist Clay was known for producing satirical cartoons documenting racism and classism in Philadelphia, often focusing on African Americans. The man asking the Quaker and his daughter about “the road to Philadelphy” (left) is thought to be either an African American or an Irish immigrant.

The Quaker City; Or, The Monks of Monk Hall Front Cover

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

George Lippard’s The Quaker City; Or, The Monks of Monk Hall functioned as an exposé of crime, social class disparity, and criminal injustice in the city of Philadelphia. After being published in 1844, The Quaker City sold about 60,000 copies and became the best-selling novel of its time in the United States. The novel focused on the money-motivated sin, greed, and debauchery of members of the upper class.

The Quaker City, Frst Page

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The narrative of The Quaker City riveted readers with content based on real crime cases that reflected Lippard's perception of the wealthy as corrupt, greedy, and amoral.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, Vol. I

Library Company of Philadelphia

In 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, it replaced The Quaker City as the best-selling book, second only to the Bible. Stowe's novel, documenting the horrors of American slavery, was similar to Lippard’s work in its themes highlighting social injustice and amorality. Originally published as a series in The National Era newspaper from June 1851 to April 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published as a complete novel in 1852. Published less than a decade before the Civil War, its content stirred heightened national awareness of slavery and brought mass attention and sympathy to the abolitionist movement.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (ca. 1880)

Library of Congress

Harriet Beecher Stowe was known best for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that detailed the horrors of living in slavery as an African American in the nineteenth century. Her father, a Congregationalist minister who often preached about social justice, likely inspired Stowe and her siblings, who also became active social reformers.

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Related Reading

Lippard, George. The Quaker City; Or, The Monks of Monks Hall. David S. Reynolds, ed. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Otter, Samuel. Philadelphia Stories: America’s Literature of Race and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Reynolds, David S., ed. George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical, 1822-54. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1986.

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