American Underworld: The Flash Press
Crime, Scandal, and Blackmail Papers of the 19th Century

Quick Facts

  • A unique, rare, short-lived and often bawdy form of journalism
  • Exposes the seamier aspects of urban life including scandal, brothels, blackmail, wagering and more
  • Rare insights into urban life, criminal activity, and the underground economy and literature of the 19th century

Overview

The appearance of the terms “licentious” and “licentiousness” in American periodicals rose dramatically in the early 1840s, in tandem with the origins of these unruly urban newspapers collectively called the Flash Press. One of the earliest titles in this unique, rare, and short-lived form of journalism was William J. Snelling’s New York City newspaper, The Flash, which inspired scores of copycat papers.

The newspapers in American Underworld: The Flash Press covered the seamier aspects of urban life: crime, scandal, brothels and blackmail, combined with reviews of the bawdiest theatrical performances on offer and reports on sporting events such as cock-fighting, boxing and horse racing. Stopping well short of pornography, they played a delicate game with the police. With tongue-in-cheek humor, their editors often moralized against the very topics they covered, but did not shy away from including thinly-cloaked advertisements alongside. To many of their readers, the Flash Press also conveyed an implicit threat of blackmail, which often led to very ephemeral print runs.

The Flash Press arose and crested between the 1830s and the 1850s. Many of its papers had suggestive titles such as Venus’s Miscellany, the Boston Blade, the Libertine, and the Broadway Belle, with content to match. Others, such as the New England Police Gazette, Life in Boston and New York, Broadway Omnibus: A Panorama of Metropolitan Life, and Theatrical World had a wider range. Many also included original stories, poems, and songs.

The more than sixty papers in American Underworld: The Flash Press were collected by the American Antiquarian Society, whose curators report that they are heavily researched there. They are among the rarest of all American newspapers, and are of particular interest to scholars in the fields of women’s studies, ethnic studies, urban life, criminal activity, and the underground economy and literature of the 19th century. With the publication of American Underworld: The Flash Press, this unique collection will be available for the first time to scholars worldwide.

Sample titles include Boston Satirist; Broadway Belle, and Mirror of the Times; Flash; Life in Boston and New York; Monthly Cosmopolite; New York Sporting Whip; Stephen H. Branch’s Alligator; Weekly Rake; Whip; Whip, and Satirist of New-York and Brooklyn; and many others.

Accolades

American Underworld: The Flash Press, the new collection of bawdy newspapers from Readex, is a fantastic resource. As one who chronicles American vice and crime, these 19th-century papers provide a missing link—a sympathetic view of the demimonde, appealing to a literate, urban and mostly male audience to balance the moralistic tone taken by mainstream publications of the time. While I was aware these papers existed, I had no idea how many different titles had been published and how many issues have survived. To have them all available in one place, carefully digitized and easily searchable, is invaluable. I was especially impressed by the quality of the illustrations which were often as important as the text in these publications and are as pleasing to contemporary readers as they were to rakes and sporting men. American Underworld: The Flash Press offers a unique perspective for scholars of American vice and crime as well as researchers in other scholarly areas such as urban life and women’s studies.”
—Robert Wilhelm, author of Wicked Victorian Boston and The Bloody Century: True Tales of Murder in 19th Century America

Reviews

“…a treasure trove of early American metropolitan journalism, providing a rare glimpse into unique, short-lived, and often bawdy newspaper titles which found their glory days between the 1830s and 1850s. Akin to the tabloid presses of today, these publications often presented the seamier aspects of everyday urban society, often preaching against the very topics on which they reported. In the more than sixty papers available through the American Antiquarian Society, this collection represents some of the rarest of all American newspapers and contains unique research material for those in urban studies, women’s studies, criminal justice, Victorian society, and the literature of the nineteenth century. The latest Readex interface provides a variety of user options to view, search, and explore this array of visual ephemera and includes new and enhanced user features for scholarly research….

“The visibility and clarity of each article is truly stunning, since the database allows for significant detail and zooming options….The Flash Press Collection is made up entirely of primary source material, making it ideal for courses rooted in this type of historical examination and exploration….From the standpoint of accessibility and significance to scholarship and research, the value of this rare and unique primary source content cannot be overstated.”

The Charleston Advisor (January 2020)

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