The History of Theater - In One Amazing City

Wo Unto Sodom! - Blog and Bibliography for "The Quaker City: The Forbidden Play of 1844"

Wo Unto Sodom! - Blog and Bibliography for

Above, the title page for the 1845 of George Lippard's full novel The Quaker City.


The illustrator, Felix Octavius Carr Darley, depicts both The Devil Bug revealing a secret tunnel inside Monk Hall, and also a coffin floating in a river, and its occupant coming back to life. This image is taken from the online exhibition "Red White and Blue Brimstone: Babylon, Sin City USA" by the University of Virginia Library.

"Wo Unto Sodom" is a phrase taken from a chapter that occurs about two thirds of the way through the book. It is meant to be a warning to the 'whited sepulchre' of the city of Philadelphia. In the chapter titled "The Devil Bug's Dream", the evil doorkeeper of Monk's Hall is having a nightmare that resembles the Bible's Book of Revelations in style. (It's also extremely similar to the visit to Ebeneezer Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," frankly). A ghostly stranger is guiding Devil-Bug on a spiritual journey and suddenly he sees the dead of the city (including many of his victims) arising from their graves to warn everyone in it of their imminent doom. I'll quote the passage so you can get some sense of Lippard's prose, which surely would have been similar to that of the lost text of the play:

"Behold!" cried the stranger, pointing to the black cloud which arose from the blue of the western sky.

Devil-Bug looked and beheld written on the cloud, words in letters of fire, which he could not read.

"What does it mean?" he shrieked, turning to the figure at his side. . . . 

"This night is a festival with the lordlings of this city. Tomorrow they will hold a grand revel through the whole extent of the wide town, and to-morrow -"

The Ghost paused. It pointed to the lurid cloud over head with the letters of flame written on its darkness, and as it pointed, a sad smile stole over its lips, and it whispered,


"To-morrow" shrieked the spirit, "Tomorrow will be the last day of the Quaker City. The judgment comes, but they know it not."

But who were the "lordlings" of the City of Philadelphia? Those members of the mysterious Monk Hall in which so many innocent people met their doom, both in the novel and in the long-lost play?

Here is another passage from the book:

And the monks of Monk-Hall - Who are they?

Grim-face personages in long black robes and drooping cowls? Stern old men with beads around their necks and crucifix in hand? Blood-thirsty characters, perhaps, or wan-faced outcasts of society?

Ah, no, ah, no! From the eloquent, the learned, and  . . . the pious of the Quaker City, the old Skeleton-Monk had selected the members of his band. Here were lawyers from the court, doctors from the school, and judges from the bench. Here too . . . sat a demure parson, whose white hands and soft words had made him the idol of his wealthy congregation. Here was a puffy-faced Editor side by side with a Magazine Proprietor; here were sleek-visaged tradesmen with round faces and gouty hands . . .here, in fine, were men of all classes.

Here, for our purposes, are some of the cast of characters of real people in Philadelphia of the 1840s who appear in Part Three of our story - as well as being thinly parodied in Lippard's book.

First, Rufus Wilmot Griswold (left), and Judge Robert Conrad (right):

Griswold was a Philadelphia editor, poet and critic. He was a rival of Lippard's friend Edgar Allen Poe - both professionally and romantically. He is know to have written disparagingly of both Poe and Lippard, including the publication whose editorship he took from Poe, Graham's Magazine. Griswold considered himself an expert in American poetry and was an early proponent of its inclusion on the American school curriculum. He also supported the introduction of copyright legislation, speaking to Congress on behalf of the publishing industry, but he was not above plagiarizing other people's work. A fellow editor remarked "even while haranguing the loudest, [he] is purloining the fastest." (I have stolen most of the preceding text from someone else, in tribute to him!)

Judge Robert Conrad was one of the callers who nervously showed up at the Chestnut Street Theatre during rehearsals on November 11, 1844. A lawyer who also wrote for Graham's Magazine, for a while he was also the editor of The North American Review. We have come across him before! He was the author of the play Aylmere, which was purchased by Edwin Forrest and became the text of the play Jack Cade that the tragedian made part of his regular repertoire. In 1854 he became the first Mayor of the consolidated City of Philadelphia.

Also showing up at the dress rehearsal of The Quaker City at the Chestnut was another lawyer, George Cadwalader (below, left). As we mention in the podcast, he was the general of the militia who had suppressed the Nativist Riots earlier in the year 1844. To his right is our old friend Charles Durang, the theater historian and dancing master. Durang was in charge of staging the play The Quaker City, since his boss Francis Wemyss was acting in the show. Durang and Cadwalader, as it turned out, were both in complete agreement that the play should be canceled to avoid riots.

Finally, here is the official portrait of one of the principal characters the story of this episode, Mayor Peter McCall:

The top of the playbill for the Quaker City: Or the Monks of Monk Hall. I have reversed the image so that you can see the writing at the top - possibly by Charles Durang - which commemorates the fact that the play was canceled by the order of Philadelphia city officials.

We'll end this blog post by reminding ourselves that the threat of riots was a real thing in American cities of the 1840s. First, the famous Astor Place Riots, which we wrote about in our earlier blog post "The Riot Act." (You should imagine Francis Wemyss in his dressing room inside the theater building, wondering if he would get out alive.)

Finally, an illustration of a riot which broke out in 1849 in the streets of Philadelphia, during another election season. A confrontation between a white mob and Black Philadelphians over public amusement accommodations, It became known as the "California House Riots." You can see a carousel burning in the background.


George Lippard later used this incident for this book The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia. "The Killers" are Lippard's name for a street gang of the Quaker City who commit crimes and lead riots, rather similar to the "Bowery B'hoys" who famously participated in the Astor Place Riots in New York.

Selected Bibliography

Altschuler, Sari, and Aaron M. Tobiason, “Playbill for George Lippard's The Quaker City.” PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 129, no. 2, 2014, pp. 267–273., doi:10.1632/pmla.2014.129.2.267.

[Bouton, John Bell], The Life and Choice Writings of George Lippard, H.H. Randall, New York, 1855.

Buford, Bill, Among the Thugs, Vintage Departures, Vintage Books, New York, 1993.

Crowie, Alexander, "Monk Hall, Shame of Philadelphia," New York Times, October 22, 1944, Section B, p. 7.

Curtis, Julia, "Philadelphia in an Uproar: 'The Monks of Monk Hall', 1844" in Theatre History Studies, Vol. 5, (Jan 1, 1985), pp. 41-47.

Davis, Andrew, America's Longest Run: A History of the Walnut Street Theatre, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, pp. 72-97.

D'Allessandro, Michael, "George Lippard's 'Theatre of Hell': Apocalyptic Melodrama and Working-Class Spectatorship in the Quaker City," J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, (October 1, 2017), pp. 205-237.

Durang, Charles, History of the Philadelphia Stage, Between the Years 1749 and 1855, Volume 5,  pp. 246-247.  Arranged and illustrated by Thompson Westcott, 1868. (Available online courtesy Penn Libraries, Colenda Digital Repository, where Durang's version of the story is found on Images 191 and 196.)

Finkel, Ken, “Yes, Bad Things Did Happen on Election Day . . . in 1849,” in The Philly History Blog, October 27, 2020.

"Francis Courtney Wemyss" on

Geffen, Elizabeth M. "Industrial Development and Social Crisis 1841-1854", in Philadelphia, a 300-Year History (Russell F. Weigley, ed.), W.W. Norton, 1982, pp. 307-362.

“Great Excitement in Philadelphia - Speech of the Vice President-Elect”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 11, 1844, p. 2.

Keels, Thomas H., "The Victorians Called it 'Seduction'; The Heberton-Mercer Murder Case, 1843" in Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love, The History Press, Charleston, 2010, pp. 38-49.

Lippard, George, The Quaker City, or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime, edited and with an introduction and notes by David S. Reynolds, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

[Perry, John B.], A full and complete account of the Heberton tragedy ; Correct account of the murder of Mahlon Hutchinson Heberton by the hands of Singleton Mercer, New York, 1849.

“Singular Theatrical Event in Philadelphia” (Signed “Peter Peep & Co.”), New York Daily Herald, 13 November 1844, p. 3.

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

Wemyss, Francis Courtney, Twenty-six Years of the Life of an Actor and Manager, Burgess Stringer & Co., New York, 1846, pp. 394-402.