J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

“An Alchemist Who Consecrates George Washington…”

From the Library Company of Philadelphia’s website on the “Philadelphia Gothic” school of early American popular fiction:

George Lippard. Paul Ardenheim, the Monk of the Wissahikon. (Philadelphia, 1848). Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

A would-be recruit to the mystics haunting Philadelphia’s most romantic stream comes upon an alchemist who consecrates George Washington as the Deliverer prophesied in the Bible; but the hero is diverted from patriotic duty by a voluptuous demon-woman who lures him into her bedroom.

In what might still be an understatement, Lippard stated proudly in his preface that he had written “the most improbable book in the world.” It may also be spiritually autobiographical: Lippard may have considered joining a Rosicrucian order before he invented a secret brotherhood of his own with many of the same rituals.
Can’t wait to read that novel? No need! It’s available through Google Books. All 536 pages.

Here’s a taste of Lippard’s preface:
The author was aided in the preparation of this work, by a series of papers, letters, and other MSS. relating to the events and men of our Revolution, and especially to certain incidents, connected with the Wissahikon, near Philadelphia. The incidents detailed in the MSS. were of a remarkable and various character; presenting at one view, a picture of the home-life, the battles, and superstitions of olden time.

Some portions of the MSS. were written in a cipher, not only difficult, but utterly untranslatable, at least, without a key. As the pages in cipher occurred in the most interesting points of the narrative, and seemed from the context to picture not only events which took place in ’75, ’77 and ’78 on the Wissahikon, but also events of other lands, and of distant centuries, the author was exceedingly anxious to discover the key to this secret writing.

The reader will appreciate the difficulty when he beholds a specimen of the untranslatable Cipher: or, perhaps, Cryptograph would be a better word.
At first sight, this of course, looked like nothing but a scrawl, without object or meaning, but as entire pages were written in the same manner—as there seemed to be something like system, in the very irregularity of the lines and their angles,—curiosity was excited, and the most strenuous exertions made to discover the meaning of some particular part, and thus construct a key for the whole. After much effort, the characters given above were discovered to represent the word—“MOUNT SEPULCHRE.”
Of course, once you know the answer, it seems obvious.

Some of Lippard’s Revolutionary stories actually made their way into the history books, such as the legend that a mysterious stranger harangued the Continental Congress about independence, and that the Liberty Bell was rung on 4 July 1776 to signal the Declaration of Independence. But later authors have generally been able to see that the presence of a “voluptuous demon-woman” makes Paul Ardenheim fiction.

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