Sensational Fiction

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Sensational fiction of the 1820–1870 period consisted largely of inexpensive, mass-produced pamphlet novels, many of them in yellow paper jackets embla-zoned with racy titles in lurid dark lettering and melodramatic lithographs that ranged from the titillating to the horrific. Designed as ephemeral entertainment for a mobile readership, this fiction was an important barometer of popular taste and a revelation of such issues as class relations, gender, ethnicity, and the contexts of major American literature.

The heyday of yellow-covered sensational novels was the two decades from 1840 to 1860. Before then, sensational stories appeared mainly in newspapers. Although all societies since ancient times have hungered for sensationalism, antebellum America developed unique ways of satisfying this hunger. The 1830s witnessed a newspaper revolution. Improvements in technology and transportation facilitated the rapid dissemination of newspapers designed for the masses. Richard M. Hoe's cylinder press, introduced in 1832, greatly increased the speed of newspaper production. Previously, newspapers had been primarily political sheets that went for the relatively high price of six cents. The printing innovations of the 1830s brought about a drastic price reduction and wide distribution among a mass readership. The penny paper—the oneor two-cent sheet that appealed to the masses with its unabashedly sensational contents—began in 1833 with Benjamin H. Day's New York Sun and Horatio David Sheppard's New York Morning Post, followed shortly thereafter by the Boston Daily Times, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, the Baltimore Sun, and, most notoriously, James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald.

Bennett spoke for all the penny-press editors when he declared that American readers "were more ready to seek six columns of the details of a brutal murder, or the testimony of a divorce case, or the trial of a divine for improprieties of conduct, than the same amount of words poured forth by the genius of the noblest author of our times" (Pray, p. 255). A "Secret Tryst," a "Horrible Accident," a "Bloody Murder," a "Lamentable Business Failure"—anything lively was fodder for the penny newspaper, which was hawked on the sidewalks of America's fast-growing cities by shouting newsboys. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his journal that his countrymen spent their time "reading all day murders & railroad accidents" in newspapers (p. 433). Henry David Thoreau, likewise, spoke of "startling and monstrous events as fill the daily papers" (p. 267).

America was hardly alone among nations whose popular press was rapidly changing, but it was known for the excessiveness of its newspaper sensationalism. In 1847, Walt Whitman (1819–1892), as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, noted "the superiority of tone of the London and Paris press over our cheaper and more diffused press," emphasizing: "Scurrility—the truth may as well be told—is a sin of the American newspaper press." Foreign commentators made a similar point. In 1842 the London Foreign Quarterly Review generalized: "The more respectable the city in America, the more infamous, the more degrading and disgusting, we have found to be its Newspaper Press." By the 1850s, a writer for the Westminster Review could declare: "Our press is bad enough. . . . But its violence is meekness and even its atrocities are virtues compared with that system of brutal and ferocious outrage which distinguished the press of America" (Wilmer, p. 398).

Also fanning the public's interest in sensationalism were nonfictional trial pamphlets and criminal biographies. This period saw the rapid publication of pamphlets about notorious American murderers, robbers, pirates, swindlers, and sex fiends. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), an avid reader of crime narratives, in his 1844 allegorical tale "Earth's Holocaust," described such literature as an irresistible swarm that had suddenly appeared "in the shape of a cloud of pamphlets from the press of the New World" (p. 398). Herman Melville (1819–1891) in his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man (his own version of the swindler genre) described someone aboard a riverboat peddling "the lives of Meason, the bandit of Ohio, Murrel, the pirate of the Mississippi, the brothers Harpe, the Thugs of the Green River country, in Kentucky" (p. 841).

It was a short step from such nonfiction narratives to the sensational fiction that surged to the fore of American publishing in the 1840s and 1850s. Such fiction, churned out by mass publishers such as Gleason of Boston and T. B. Peterson of Philadelphia, often took the form of cheap pamphlet novels about pirates, corsairs, freebooters, mythic monsters, and so forth, answering a growing demand for what Whitman called "blood and thunder romances with alliterative titles and plots of startling interest" (Uncollected Poetry and Prose, pp. 20–21). Typical titles (with the inevitable descriptive subtitles) included Maturin Murray Ballou's Fanny Campbell; or, The Female Pirate Captain (1845); Frank Forrester's Pierre, the Partisan: A Tale of the Mexican Marches (1847); Harry Halyard's Wharton, the Whale-Killer!; or, The Pride of the Pacific (1848); and Johannes Adrianus Block's Mary Bean, the Factory Girl; A Domestic Story, Illustrative of the Trials and Temptations of Factory Life (1850).


The most important sensational novel of the period—and one of the landmarks of American popular culture—was George Lippard's (1822–1854) The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime, which detailed secret sexual depravity and drunken excess among Philadelphia's ruling class. Nightmarish, erotic, and fiercely egalitarian, The Quaker City had instant appeal for the masses. It first appeared in ten paper-covered installments published between fall 1844 and spring 1845. By the time a few sections of it had appeared, it had divided Philadelphia along class lines: many workers became fans of Lippard, whereas their wealthier fellow citizens objected to his thinly veiled portrayal of local celebrities and denounced his depictions of sex and violence. In November 1844 a performance of a play based on the novel had to be canceled owing to fears of violence between admirers and opponents of the work. Lippard received death threats. A thin man with long black curls, he cut a Byronic figure as he walked black-caped around Philadelphia carrying a sword-cane for protection.

The furor over the novel provided wonderful publicity, and when the expanded edition appeared in May 1845 as a single volume, the publishers claimed that more than sixty thousand copies had been sold within a year. For a decade thereafter the novel's annual sale averaged ten thousand. The best-selling American novel before Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), The Quaker City passed through twenty-seven American "editions" by 1849 and became, as Lippard boasted, "more attacked, and more read, than any other work of American fiction ever published" (p. 2). Lippard went on to produce several more urban-exposé novels, including The Empire City (1849), Memoirs of a Preacher (1849), and New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million (1853), all of which dramatized social injustices and upper-class corruption in American cities.

The main plot of The Quaker City was based on a famous seduction case of 1843 in which a Philadelphian named Singleton Mercer was acquitted after killing Mahlon Heberton, who had enticed Mercer's sister into a house of assignation and allegedly seduced her on a promise of marriage. In his novel, Lippard enriched this real-life tale through multiple ironies. Irony controls the story of Byrnewood Arlington, who, despite the eventual disgust over the seduction of his sister, had actually facilitated the seduction by encouraging and laying a bet on Gustavus Lorrimer's plans for a sexual escapade. Also ironic is that Byrnewood is a seducer in his own right: Annie, the young servant he has impregnated, haunts his mind even as he tracks down and kills his sister's seducer. This sister, Mary Arlington, seems like a conventional heroine but comes close to being the obverse of one: she lies to her parents, gullibly swallows Lorrimer's talk about a pastoral Wyoming home, and at the end croons longingly for her lost "Lorraine," even after he has been exposed as a fraud.

Into this main plot Lippard weaves two others. In one, the beautiful Dora Livingstone, reared in poverty and now married to the wealthy merchant Albert Livingstone, tries to rise even higher socially by taking up with Algernon Fitz-Cowles, who pretends he is an English lord who will give her royal rank. Dora's husband, alerted to her infidelity by Dora's former lover, Luke Harvey, vows revenge, finally poisoning her in his country estate and dying there in a fire. The third plot revolves around a young woman, Mabel, who was the illegitimate daughter of the monstrous pimp Devil-Bug but was raised by the Reverend F. A. T. Pyne (originally Dick Baltzar). The lecherous, hypocritical Pyne drugs Mabel in an effort to rape her, but she is rescued by Devil-Bug, who wants to portray her to the world as the daughter of the rich Livingstone so that she will gain wealth and status. Mabel is temporarily inveigled into becoming the main "priestess" of a cult led by a mad sorcerer, Ravoni, but Devil-Bug frees her; she becomes known to the world as the rich Izole Livingstone, and she marries Luke Harvey.

The central action takes place in the labyrinthine den of iniquity known as Monk Hall, where Philadelphia's elite gather nightly to indulge in drunken revelry, illicit sex, and financial double-dealing. Supervising this depravity with demonic glee is the keeper of Monk Hall, Devil-Bug. No mere criminal, Devil-Bug is an "Outlaw of hell," a "deplorable moral monstrosity," "a wild beast, a snake, a reptile, or a devil incarnate—anything but a man" (pp. 106–107).

The novel runs with blood and reeks of murder and madness. It is filled with freakish characters who swing between cold sarcasm and crazed terror and who are described in a wryly imaginative style that often becomes almost surrealistic in its zany distortions and weird juxtapositions. Even as the novel parodies penny papers through its portrait of the editor Buzby Poodle (known as Count Common Sewer because of the opportunistic sensationalism of his paper, the Daily Black Mail), it is itself a kind of massive penny paper, piling hair-raising events on top of each other with dizzying speed. It is of a piece with the commercialized freaks and overall violence that characterized antebellum life in the United States.

If The Quaker City has the atmosphere of nightmare, it is because Lippard, a labor reformer with views akin to those of his German contemporary Karl Marx, regarded American society as a dark realm of class divisions, economic uncertainty, and widespread corruption. America's rapidly growing cities were suddenly strange, overwhelming places. Without effective sanitation, they were squalid and disease prone. Garbage was heaped on unpaved streets that quickly turned to mud or dust. The tenement areas where the poor lived were filled with overcrowded, ramshackle houses. Huge hotels, department stores, and mansions stood in stark contrast to the humble homes of the poor. Lippard's novel describes "a mass of miserable frame houses [that] seemed about to commit suicide and throw themselves into the gutter, and in the distance a long lines of dwellings, offices, and factories, looming in broken perspective, looked as if they wanted to shake hands across the narrow street" (p. 42).

The success of Lippard's novel gave impetus to a whole school of popular fiction about the "mysteries and miseries" of American cities. Some fifty American novels of city life, most of which exaggerated Lippard's sensationalism while deemphasizing his reformist purpose, appeared between 1845 and 1870: Ned Buntline, Henri Foster, and George Thompson established themselves as the most prolific authors in the field. The corrupt aristocracy and squalid poverty of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were the most popular topics, though the city novelists probed the "mysteries" of a remarkable range of other cities, including Rochester (New York), Lowell (Massachusetts), and Nashua (New Hampshire), as well as St. Louis, San Francisco, and New Orleans.


By 1855 an entire book, anonymously published as Confessions and Experience of a Novel Reader, was devoted to excoriating sensational "Yellow-Jacket Literature." The author estimated that in the United States, with its population of 24 million, there was "an enormous circulation of over 2.5 million volumes, extending their deleterious influence, and diffusing their pernicious principles throughout society" (p. 39). The author wrote, "If any one has any doubts as to the fearfully rapid increase of this public poison—a demoralizing literature, the real 'Pandora's box of evil passions'—the flood-gate, from beneath whose slimy jaws runs a stream of pollution, sending forth its pestilential branches to one great ocean of immorality, let such a one take a walk with me through the length and breadth of our land" (p. 27).

The most productive writer of such fiction was George Thompson (b. 1823), a paunchy, peripatetic man who divided his time between editing racy newspapers in eastern cities and writing pamphlet novels, including Venus in Boston; City Crimes; New York Life; The Gay Girls of New York; and The Mysteries of Bond-Street. Thompson boasted in his autobiography that he had written "a sufficient quantity of tales, sketches, poetry, essays, and other literary stock of every description, to constitute half a dozen cartloads" (Venus in Boston, p. xi). Evidence of sixty different titles survives.

In Thompson's hands, the city mysteries genre became an expansive medium. From penny newspapers and true-crime pamphlets, Thompson derived images of crime and violence with proven appeal for the American masses. From the exhibitions of P. T. Barnum he inherited an interest in the freakish and bizarre. From British and French pornography, he gleaned erotic themes, such as the sexually voracious woman and the reverend rake.

Thompson was the most sexually explicit author of the day. His work contains scene after scene in which taboo or outré sex is suggested, if not described in detail. Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, and gay sex. In City Crimes he described the below-ground Dark Vaults, where "the crime of incest is as common . . . as dirt! I have known a mother and a son—a father and a daughter—a brother and a sister—to be guilty of criminal intimacy" (p. 131). In the same novel Lucretia Franklin becomes so bored and sexually frustrated by her proper husband that she murders him; she and her daughter Josephine then lead lives of unrestrained nymphomania, using men (and boys) solely for sexual gratification and disposing of them. In another plot in City Crimes, the aristocratic, outwardly prudish Julia Fairfield coyly resists the advances of her fiancé, Frank Sydney, while she secretly carries on a torrid affair with her black servant Nero, by whom she is pregnant. Frank discovers the affair and spurns her, but, with the prospect of complete sexual freedom before her, she tells him, "I tell you that I consume with desire—but not for enjoyment with such as you, but for amours which are recherché and unique," such as that "with my superb African" (p. 152).


Sensational fiction deepens our understanding of the major American literature. For example, the reverend rake, a standard figure in sensational writing, provides a backdrop to Hawthorne's Arthur Dimmesdale, the hypocritical clergyman of The Scarlet Letter (1850). Lecherous clergymen were often featured in newspaper stories with racy titles such as "The Reverend Seducer," "More Religious Hypocrites," "The Reverend Rascal," and so forth. Thompson, who coined the phrase "reverend rake" to describe the modern preacher, generalized in The Countess (1849): "Within the pale of every church, hypocrisy, secret and damning hypocrisy, is a predominating quality" (p. 19). In Thompson's novels clergymen and moral reformers are singled out as being especially libidinous. Thompson was equaled in this regard only by Lippard, whose Reverend F. A. T. Pyne of The Quaker City is a debauchee who nightly applies his ministerial earnings to the purchase of wine, women, and opium at Monk Hall. The reverend rake was so common a figure in sensational writing that Hawthorne could hardly overlook it in his search for a main male character for The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne notably enriched this standard character by placing him in a bygone Puritan setting described with sympathy and seriousness. Were Dimmesdale merely a reverend rake, he would be like any coarse, lip-smacking clergyman in sensational fiction. Were he solely a virtuous Puritan preacher, he would be a dreary anachronism for many of Hawthorne's readers. Because he is both a devout Puritan and a reverend rake, he is at once sincerely tormented and explosively ironic. Since he is a believing clergyman, he is honestly tortured and humane in a way that F. A. T. Pyne and the other reverend rakes cannot be.

Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–1849) fiction, too, is illuminated by consideration of the sensational writings of the day. Poe was a close friend of Lippard, with whom he shared an interest in horror and diseased psychology along with a rationalist regard for puns, careful plot construction, and the minutiae of mechanical contrivances. There appear to be particular connections between The Quaker City and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), the horror tale Poe wrote shortly after Lippard's novel appeared. The Dead Vault below Monk Hall, dripping with moisture and filled with skeletons, wine casks, and hidden niches, is much like the skeleton-filled, dripping wine cellar into which Montresor lures Fortunato. The portrait of Devil-Bug, spade in hand, preparing to bury alive Byrnewood Arlington and taunting him with black jokes and screeching laughter looks forward to that of Montresor, spade in hand, burying alive Fortunato while torturing him psychologically with jokes and screams.

A number of other major authors were also influenced by sensational literature. The fleeting, deceptive appearances Melville conjures up in The ConfidenceMan had precedent in popular novels like Ned Buntline's (c. 1823–1886) The G'hals of New York (1850), which contains a character called "the Confidence Man" and which portrays a world in which, as Buntline writes, one "must make up his mind whether he will cheat or be cheated, whether he will dupe or be duped, whether he will pluck or be plucked" (p. 25). Whitman noted the great popularity of sensational literature, in which he saw "various forms and preparations of only one plot, namely, a sickly, scrofulous, crude, amorousness" (Notebooks, 4:1604). He asked in a newspaper article, "Who will underrate the influence of a loose popular literature in debauching the popular mind?" (I Sit and Look Out, p. 113). Alarmed by the bald prurience of much popular writing, Whitman in his poetry tried to restore sex to the level of naturalness, honesty, and genuine emotion. Mark Twain (1835–1910), who is known to have read Lippard in the early 1850s, showed Lippard's influence in Innocents Abroad (1869), where he names his ship of fools The Quaker City, and in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), in which his depiction of human savagery in Pap (who recalls Devil-Bug), his cynical vision of conventional society, and his parody of sentimental literature through his portrait of the lachrymose poetess Emmeline Grangerford all have Lippardian overtones.

Bold, zestful, and, at its best, stylistically experimental, sensational fiction was a significant presence on the nineteenth-century scene, one that richly merits the increasing attention it is receiving among literary and cultural historians.

See alsoBook Publishing; Gothic Fiction; Pornography; Reform; Urbanization


Primary Works

Buntline, Ned. The G'hals of New York. New York: Robert M. DeWitt, 1850.

Confessions and Experience of a Novel Reader. Chicago: William Stacy, 1855.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson in His Journals. Edited by Joel Porte. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Foster, George G. New York by Gas-Light. 1850. Reprint. New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches. Edited by Stuart M. Blumin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Mosses from an Old Manse. 1846. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974.

Lippard, George. George Lippard, Prophet of Protest:Writings of an American Radical, 1822–1854. Edited by David S. Reynolds. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Lippard, George. The Quaker City; or, The Monks of MonkHall. 1845. Edited by David S. Reynolds. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Melville, Herman. Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, TheConfidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Pray, Isaac Clark. Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and His Times. New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1855.

Thompson, George. The Countess; or, Memoirs of Women of Leisure. Boston: Berry and Wright, 1849.

Thompson, George. The Gay Girls of New York; or, Life on Broadway. New York, 1853.

Thompson, George. Venus in Boston and Other Tales ofNineteenth-Century City Life. Edited by David S. Reynolds and Kimberly R. Gladman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. Contains Venus in Boston (1849), City Crimes (1849), and Thompson's autobiography, My Life (1854).

Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. New York: Dover, 1965.

Whitman, Walt. I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. Edited by Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwartz. New York: AMS Press, 1966.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Edited by Edward H. Grier. New York: New York University Press, 1984.

Whitman, Walt. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of WaltWhitman. Edited by Emory Holloway. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.

Wilmer, Lambert A. Our Press Gang: or, A CompleteExposition of the Corruptions and Crimes of American Newspapers. Philadelphia: J. T. Lloyd, 1859.

Secondary Sources

Cohen, Daniel A. Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: NewEngland Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Davis, David Brion. Homicide in American Fiction, 1798–1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1957.

Denning, Michael. Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working-Class Culture in America. London: Verso, 1987.

Looby, Christopher. "George Thompson's 'Romance of the Real': Transgression and Taboo in American Sensation Fiction." American Literature 65, no. 4 (1993): 651–672.

Noel, Mary. Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: TheSubversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Reynolds, David S. George Lippard. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Siegel, Adrienne. The Image of the American City in PopularLiterature, 1820–1870. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1981.

Streeby, Shelley. American Sensations: Class, Empire, and theProduction of Popular Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Streeby, Shelley. "Opening Up the Story-Paper: George Lippard and the Construction of Class." boundary 2 24, no. 1 (1997): 177–203.

David S. Reynolds