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Summary & Analysis

The Commercialization of Vice and Scandal

Not everyone in the antebellum period internalized the values of middle-class reform, such as sobriety, chastity, thrift, and hard work. Even many of those who claimed to be upstanding citizens, shocked by reports of crime, sex, and sinful activity, implicitly supported a new culture of sensation, scandal, and vice by their fascination with and purchase of printed media that addressed the taboo stories of the day. Murder mysteries were sparked by the violent deaths of young urban women such as prostitute Helen Jewett (in 1836) and cigar sales girl Mary Rogers (1841). Jewett was hit in the head with an axe three times; her body was half-burned when she was found seven hours after the attack.

The press created a nationwide sensation out of the story, and it was re-told many times with several degrees of distortion, in one case as a murder mystery involving an elegant courtesan. The metropolitan penny press first discovered the popular appeal that such sensational stories possessed, and their persistent front-page coverage in turn brought about a public fascination with scandalous news and inspired the first "detective novels," one of which was written by Edgar Allan Poe. Although New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett headed a citizens' Committee of Safety after the public demanded action from the police to solve the murder of Mary Rogers, such editors also profited from reporting on these violent crimes. Bennett became the first editor in the history of American journalism to tour the scene of the crime when he reported on Jewett's dead body, one of many descriptions that took on a quasi-erotic undertone. In fact, men and boys lined up to view her mutilated and charred corpse. Newspaper reports played on public anxieties about the city and its growing reputation as a hotbed for unrestrained sexual and criminal impulses. Yet the murder rate in New York remained fairly low; only 110 people were reported killed during the 1830s, as the city's population hit the quarter-million mark.

Although prostitution is commonly known as "the oldest profession," dating back to antiquity in Greece and Rome, it became highly visible in America during the antebellum period. Prostitutes could openly attend the theater; the new medium of photography expanded the business by making pornography more widespread and explicit; and the new industrialized culture of consumption was in no small part modeled upon the sex trade. Industrial development facilitated a more efficient production process for alcohol, which in turn fueled the vice industry.

The advent of the gaslight in 1820s New York allowed for the expansion of a nightlife culture, creating an urban world that was illuminated, but only partially so. Commercialized forms of entertainment and pleasure expanded apace with such technological developments in the metropolis, and catered to a fairly new and quickly growing demographic of urban denizens who sought companionship or merriment at night. Tales of this new world were printed in books like George G. Foster's New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches, published in 1850, which took presumably unfamiliar Victorian readers through a scintillating tour of the city and its seediest oyster bars, brothels, and neighborhoods, such as the notorious Five Points district.

Popular anxieties over sex were created and compounded by the print media, the sensationalist journalism of the age, new forms of literature, and the rapidly expanding urban world, whose scandals and crimes were disseminated throughout the countryside in the letters, newspapers, magazines, and books conveyed by postal system. Before the television, the radio, the motion picture, or widespread urbanization, newspapers and books were the primary sites for depiction and discussion of sex and violence in America.

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