The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Quaker City; or, the Monks of Monk Hall (1844-1845) 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Quaker City; or, the Monks of Monk Hall was written by George Lippard. Lippard (1822-1854) was an American journalist, writer, and political activist. He was successful as a writer, not just with The Quaker City but also with Legends of the Revolution (1847), a short work about the American Revolution. In 1850 Lippard founded the Brotherhood of the Union, a reactionary political organization that was a forerunner to the Ku Klux Klan.

The Quaker City is about Monk’s Hall, a men’s club in Philadelphia. Monk’s Hall is a combination brothel, gambling den, underground torture hall, and hang-out for criminals, rakes, politicians, and pillars of society wishing to maintain love nests. In Monk’s Hall men can do whatever they want with no fear of the law, so that, among other things, they bring beautiful young women to Monk Hall to be seduced or raped. Quaker City has a rotating cast of characters, both men and women. The most important characters are Ravoni and the Devil-Bug. Ravoni is a two-hundred-year-old alchemist who sets up a cult in Monk Hall, with himself as the cult’s god. He can raise the dead and paralyze the living with a look. Abijah K. Jones, a.k.a. “the Devil Bug,” is the doorman of Monk Hall and is responsible for admitting or denying entrance to its members and visitors. He is at first enslaved by Ravoni, but eventually the Devil Bug breaks free of Ravoni’s control and stabs him in the back. More murders follow, and eventually a fire breaks out and Monk Hall burns to the ground, taking the Devil Bug with it.

The Devil Bug is a physically ugly, maimed man of great strength. He unofficially rules Monk Hall, and he glories in and encourages its depravity. He is licentious and cruel, and his appearance shows it:

It was a strange thickset specimen of flesh and blood, with a short body, marked by immensely broad shoulders, long arms and thin distorted legs. The head of the creature was ludicrously large in proportion to the body. Long masses of stiff black hair fell tangled and matted over a forehead, protuberant to deformity. A flat nose with wide nostrils shooting out into each cheek like the smaller wings of an insect, an immense mouth whose heavy lips disclosed two long rows of bristling teeth, a pointed chin, blackened by a heavy beard, and massive eye brows meeting over the nose, all furnished the details of a countenance, not exactly calculated to inspire the most pleasant feelings in the world. One eye, small black and shapen [sic] like a bead, stared steadily in Byrnewood’s face, while the other socket was empty, shriveled and orbless. The eyelids of the vacant socket were joined together like the opposing edges of a curtain, while the other eye gained additional brilliancy and effect from the loss of its fellow member.

The shoulders of the Devil Bug, protruding in unsightly knobs, the wide chest, and the long arms with talon like fingers, so vividly contrasted with the thin and distorted legs, all attested that the remarkable strength of the man was located in the upper part of his body.1 

The Devil Bug isn’t a good man: “the same instinctive pleasure that other men, may feel in acts of benevolence, of compassion or love, warmed the breast of Devil Bug, when enjoyed in any deed, marked by especial cruelty.”2 But he is not completely without a conscience, and he is haunted by his first murder, which only happened six years ago:

He riz on his feet. Just as he lays on the floor in his shirt sleeves, with his jaw broke and his tongue out--he riz on his feet. Didn't he groan? I put him down, I tell ye! Down--down! Ha! What was a sledgehammer to this fist, in that pertikler minnit? Crack, crack went the spring of the last trap door and the body fell--the devil knows where–I don't, I put it out of my sight, and yet it came back to me, and crouched down at my side, the next minnit. It's been there ever since.3 

The corpse continues to dog the Devil-Bug, and eventually the Devil Bug begins to long to

lay another corpse beside his solitary victim. Were there, he thought, two corses [sic], ever at his side, the terrible details of the mangled form and crushed countenance of the first would loose [sic] half their horror, all their distinctness. He longed to surround himself with the Phantoms of new victims. In the number of his crimes, he even anticipated pleasure.4 

The Devil Bug is a combination of wretched guilt and sneaking, covert bloodthirstiness. He is also a voyeur, enjoying watching the sins of Vice Hall:

“The trap--the bottle--the fire, for the brother--” he muttered as his solitary eye, glanced upon the Libertine and his struggling victim, neither of whom had marked his entrance “For the Sister--ha! ha! ha! The ‘handsome’ Devil Bug--Monk--Gusty ‘tends to her! ‘Bijah did’nt [sic] listen for nothin’ ha, ha! this beats the charcoal, quite hollow!”5 

The Devil Bug's background is as base as that of the other characters in Quaker City:

Born in a brothel, the offspring of foulest sin and pollution, he had grown from very childhood, in full and continual sight of scenes of vice, wretchedness and squalor. 

From his very birth, he had breathed an atmosphere of infamy.

To him, there was no such thing as good in the world.6

The Devil Bug once loved a woman, and she might have saved him, but she was seduced and ruined. The Devil Bug does change, to a small degree, as the novel progresses. After he murders an old woman in Monk Hall the Devil Bug begins to believe in and fear God and to dread the punishment waiting for him after he dies. He learns that he has a daughter, Mabel, who was separated from him at her birth. He loves his daughter, and rescues her from a would-be seducer. But the Devil Bug is haunted ever more by the corpse of his first victim, and eventually he begins to long for a cleansing apocalypse. It comes in the form of the fiery destruction of Monk Hall.

The Quaker City was based on the contemporary practice, sadly widespread, in Lippard’s Philadelphia of luring women to secluded areas or bachelor hotels with false promises of marriage and then seducing, abducting, raping, and/or murdering them. Lippard used this as the basis for Quaker City, but added to it his own social and political concerns to create an intense, peculiarly memorable work. It is hard to call The Quaker City a good novel. Lippard was no expert storyteller, and the novel is crudely told, both in terms of subject matter and style. The novel has both racist and antisemitic stereotypes, but Lippard does not reserve his contempt solely for blacks and Jews. Lippard finds all of humanity distasteful, not just particular groups. The Quaker City does not set up binary oppositions of blacks as bad and whites as good, or Jews as bad and Christians as good. The novel’s viewpoint is that all of humanity is bad, and Jews and blacks are that much worse than other humans, although Lippard is hardly friendly toward Catholics or Protestants. It deserves mention that in other novels, like his Adonai (1848-1849), Lippard was markedly non-racist and inclusive. In Adonai he includes “Negroes, Caffirs, Hindoos, Indians,” various Asian peoples, and “the islands of the sea” in the Arisen People, the armies of the poor who rise up and apocalyptically destroy the oppressive rich.

But though flawed The Quaker City is vigorous. Its pages are full of energy, and for all its other sins it is never boring. The Devil Bug has a monstrous vitality, both within the context of the novel and as a character. The Quaker City also has the courage of its convictions. Lippard’s intention is to show Philadelphia as an urban Hell, and Lippard does not shy away from the worst that he can show us. Lippard’s beliefs about the corruption of the upper classes and the clergy, and the awful conditions of the city and the working classes are consistent throughout the novel. The seduction men practice upon women and their subsequent ruination are matched by the seduction the upper classes practice upon the poor. Lippard obsessively focuses on the effects of seduction, which he portrays as nearly the equal of murder. In the world of Quaker City carnality is evil, and women who are seduced are polluted and forever ruined from their native state of purity.

The topicality of The Quaker City extended beyond the real-world practice of raping and murdering women in secluded locations and bachelor hotels. Lippard modeled his novel on Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris, and like Sue took as his themes what he saw as pressing social concerns. Lippard saw the city as an unrelievedly negative space, a Bad Place similar to the haunted castles of numerous Gothics, and so Philadelphia, Lippard’s home, becomes a place where nothing good can happen. Lippard’s politics, though generally racist and reactionary, were socialist with regard to economics, and so the upper classes of The Quaker City are not merely exploitive but actively predatory, both economically and sexually, toward the working classes. Lippard’s intent was to write the American version of the “condition of England” novel (see: The Invisible Man). The Quaker City is, in its way, a social critique, albeit one that is ultimately more concerned with wallowing in the gutter than at throwing barbs at the passers-by.

The Quaker City is the quintessential porno-Gothic novel. The novel has the traditional Gothic motifs: family secrets, living portraits, false identities, disputed inheritances, dubious manuscripts, subterranean passages, and pursuits. It also has incestuous rapes, sexual assaults on hypnotized victims, bleeding breasts, and prurient descriptions of quivering nakedness. The Quaker City is a trip into the Gothic urban Inferno. No depths are too far to sink, and no evil too vile for Lippard to rub the readers’ faces in it. It decries the awfulness it describes as it wallows in it.

The Quaker City was modeled, as mentioned, on Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris:

It is both the first response to Sue’s initiative outside France and also the first American fiction to deal in detail with the complexity and corruptions of the modern city. Though there had been a certain amount of American urban fiction...its modes were basically romantic, either stories of love and marriage or the adventures of a troubled hero, as in the Philadelphia-set Arthur Mervyn (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown, whom Lippard admired. The Quaker City story absorbs the marital romance — with its opposite in betrayal and seduction — and the troubled hero story also weaves through the pages, but Lippard is clearly also responding to his own radical, anti-corruption instincts, and generally to the model that Sue had provided of a massive interwoven set of narratives capturing the dangers and anxieties of life in the contemporary great city.7 

The Quaker City proved to be even more popular in America than The Mysteries of Paris and “was chiefly responsible for a fifteen-year city-mysteries craze in America.”8 But what set Lippard’s work apart from Sue’s, and what made Quaker City such a bestseller, was its radical democratic impulse, what Reynolds calls Lippard’s “ferocious anti-elitism.”9 Written and published during the economic depression of 1837-1844–a depression which put “nearly one-third of Americans out of work at a time when hundreds of banks were failing and when some leading bankers were being tried for criminal activity”10The Quaker City is a full-throated roar in support of Andrew Jacksonian democracy at its most populist and anti-capitalist. “Lippard uses images of European class distinctions to vilify such ruling-class types, whom he sees as a threat to America’s democratic system. He suggests that American capitalism is an altered version of long-entrenched European oligarchy and murder.”11 

The Quaker City is a prolonged, over-the-top meditation on the depravity and awfulness men are capable of, but it has an excess of dark energy and is compelling reading despite, or perhaps because of, the vileness it depicts.

Recommended Edition 

Print: George Lippard, Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime. London: Forgotten Books, 2017.



1 George Lippard, Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (Philadelphia: Self-Published, 1847), 44-45.

2 Lippard, Quaker City, 91.

3 Lippard, Quaker City, 90.

4 Lippard, Quaker City, 92.

5 Lippard, Quaker City, 115.

6 Lippard, Quaker City, 91.

7 Knight, Mysteries of the Cities, 132.

8 Reynolds, “Radical Sensationalism,” 77.

9 Reynolds, “Radical Sensationalism,” 82.

10 Reynolds, “Radical Sensationalism,” 82.

11 Reynolds, “Radical Sensationalism,” 84.