The early 1840s saw the rise of new underground newspapers, known collectively as the “flash press,” dedicated to the licentious appetites of the American urban male. Their readers saw these publications as satirical, irreverent and ribald; but to their opponents, they were obscene, vulgar and immoral. At first glance, they looked no different from the dozens of daily and weekly newspapers available in New York and Boston at the time, but the illustrations on the front page of nearly every copy were a tipoff that their content would not be ordinary. The pictures were often double entendre—sometimes less than double—and even when not blatantly sexual, they were always lively and eye-catching.
To one who chronicles American vice and crime, these rare nineteenth-century papers provide a missing link—a sympathetic view of the demimonde to balance the moralistic tone taken by mainstream publications of the time. These bawdy newspapers also offer a unique perspective for researchers in other scholarly areas such as urban life, political history and gender and women’s studies. Readex’s American Underworld: The Flash Press—the new digital collection created from the holdings of the American Antiquarian Society—contains a wide variety of titles with a surprising number of surviving issues. To find so many of these seamy urban newspapers available in one place, carefully digitized and easily searchable, is invaluable. The illustrations in these publications were often as important as the text and are as provocative to contemporary readers as they were to rakes and sporting men.
Some of these newspapers had regular features such as “Gallery of Rascalities and Notorieties” in the Flash, “A Street View” in the Weekly Rake, and “Sketches of Characters” in the Whip and Satirist which included a salacious engraving with accompanying commentary. No. 16 in the “Sketches of Characters” series, “The Chambermaid” appeared in the Whip and Satirist on April 9, 1842. It depicts a chambermaid gripping the handle of a warming pan positioned suggestively between the legs of an advancing gentleman. The accompanying article extols the sexual availability of chambermaids in private homes and public inns saying, “A virtuous chambermaid is as hard to find as a pulse in a potato or blood in a turnip.”
The flash papers were first and foremost satirical. Sometimes when their content fell outside the bounds of respectability they would try to hide their intent by feigning a tone of moral outrage. Regular readers accepted this attitude with a wink, and detractors were not fooled.
“A Street View,” from the Weekly Rake, July 9, 1842, shows a woman knocked off her feet by a hog and a gentleman taking advantage of her misfortune by looking up her skirts. The accompanying article titled “Nuisances” changes the focus by bemoaning the nuisance of hogs running loose in the street. Regarding the woman, “Years will not efface the remembrance of the occurrence from her mind, or soothe the pangs inflicted by that hog….They ought not to be allowed to run open in the streets—so said the lady—so said the gallant who officiated—so say we.”
Another picture from the Weekly Rake, August 20, 1842, purported to be a copy of a print confiscated by the police, is included “to show how seductive are the forms of vice.” It appears to be an image of a woman wearing a peculiar arrangement of clothing, but, the article explains, “when the white spaces are cut away and two of the fingers passed through, and into the piece below, the combination forms a sort of panoramic view of exceedingly improper character and one which modesty will not permit us to describe….As the picture stands, there is nothing indecent about it but if our readers choose to make it so, after this warning, with them be the sin and the shame. We hope no one will be so wicked.”
The most controversial feature of the flash press was its celebration of prostitutes—not just the practice of prostitution, but individual prostitutes in New York and Boston, identified by name, along with the address of their brothel. The accompanying illustrations were always engaging.
Under the heading “Lives of the Nymphs,” the True Flash, a New York paper, on December 4, 1841, published a glowing profile of Amanda B. Thompson, along with an engraving of the lady and her attaché. Amanda Thompson kept a house at 174 Broome Street, and “Scarcely any of the palaces of beauty set out in magnificence as the temples of licentiousness can bear a comparison with hers.” Of Thompson herself, the True Flash said, “A figure magnificent beyond description, a bust that defies imitation of the sculptor and a smile sweet beyond express; are but a few of the many charms she possesses.”
The Libertine, published in Boston, printed a lively illustration to accompany a story on June 15, 1842, of a dance competition between Nance Holmes and Suse Bryant, two Boston prostitutes. Held on Long Wharf, the event was “…an affair intended to add the grace of ease and sprightly elegance to the many charms that adorn the brothel keepers of Boston.” The competitors walked arm-in-arm to the wharf, followed by seven other brothel women (each explicitly named by the Libertine) carrying brooms to sweep out a dancefloor. A fiddler played while Nance and Suse danced jigs and hornpipes to song after song, matching each other step for step, until one could dance no more. To no one’s surprise, the winner was the “sylph-like” Suse Bryant.
Occasionally the flash papers would illustrate political issues, and although the character of politicians has not changed much through the years, the metaphors used then to describe them were more colorful then. Where we might criticize a politician for flip-flopping on an issue, in earlier days he was accused of performing a political summerset. In the illustration above, from the Pictorial Pick, July 3, 1852, “Prince” John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren and Attorney General of New York, performs an “extraordinary summerset” on the issue of abolition.
Sometimes metaphor was not needed at all as in the depiction in the Pictorial Pick, February 21, 1852, of Senator Borland of Arkansas ending a heated discussion with Mr. Kennedy of the Census Bureau, by punching him in the nose. The event had literally occurred on the Senate floor a few days earlier.
Stories on crime and criminals, accompanied by graphic illustrations, were added to the mix by the National Police Gazette which began publication in 1844. “Tragedy at one of the Broadway Concert Saloons” from April 12, 1862, is the story of a man who was duped into giving money to Kate White, a pretty waitress who said she was supporting her deaf sister Josephine. When the man learned that Kate had left town with his money and that her sister was not deaf, he shot and killed Josephine.
Before long, mainstream publications like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly also learned that illustrated murder stories sold papers and by the turn of the century, murder with pictures became a staple of city newspapers. The National Police Gazette itself continued the practice into the 1970s.
But the Police Gazette was an exception. Beset with legal problems, very few of the flash press newspapers lasted more than a year or two, and by the end of the nineteenth century, stringent obscenity laws made publications with such salacious content impossible. Though irreverent and satirical illustrations continued to appear in the popular press, they seldom rose to the sensational level of those in the flash papers. More than a century and a half later, flash press illustrations can still raise a smile and make a gentleperson blush.