Philadelphia’s Zombie Apocalypse? Lippard’s “Last Day of the Quaker City”

Looking Across the Delaware in 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

Seventy years after Lippard imagined “a fleet of coffins” on the Delaware River (PhillyHistory.org)

“The river became the scene of a strange and awful spectacle.

“The waves were suddenly crowded by a fleet of coffins, tossed wildly to and fro, each coffin borne upon the surface of the waters like a boat, with the foam dashing over its dull dark outlines. And in each coffin sat a corpse, with the death-shroud enfolding its limbs and waving along the blackness of the night, while it urged its grave-boat merrily over the waters, using a thigh-bone for an oar. And at the foot of every coffin, which served for the prow of the unearthly boat, was a lurid light burning in a skull, and flinging its radiance around over the waters, over the faces of the dead and over the fluttering folds of each death-shroud. Ten thousand coffins, each bearing its boatman in the form of a shrouded corpse, floated on the surging waves of the river, ten thousand lurid lights, each flaring from the eyeless sockets of a skull, gave a terrible radiance to the scene, and the river, far as the eye could see, was crowded by this fleet of grave-boats with their shrouded oarsmen, tossing the water aside with the skeleton bone for an oar.

“On the south, with a broad path of waves between, another grim line of coffins extended from the island to the river, the white shrouds of the corpses borne aloft by the wind, while ten thousand deathly hands swung the thigh-bone wildly overhead. In front of each line of coffins burned the lights, flaring from the orbless eyes of a skull, and now as the lurid rays gave strange radiance to the scene, the faces of each corpse, the leaden eyes, the blue lips and the brow all green and clammy with decay, became fired with deadly rage, and beating the thigh-bone on the side of each coffin, the antagonist lines of the dead began to move slowly towards each other.

“Then an unearthly peal of music broke upon the air the music of the hollow skull echoing to the blow of the skeleton-bone from side to side it swelled, it rose clanking to the heavens, it deafened the ear of night with its infernal din. Nearer and nearer to each other the opposing lines of coffins drew, faster and faster they glided over the waves, wilder and more terrible swelled the music of the skeleton-bone and the skull!

George Lippard. The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall. A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery and Crime. (Philadelphia, 1876). (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

George Lippard. The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall. A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery and Crime. (Philadelphia, 1876). (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“Now the opposing lines of the dead glared in each other’s faces. Now they raised their stiffened hands as if eager for the onset, and waved their white shrouds if the air. Now a thin line of water lay between each division of the dead. Hissing and whirling and plunging, the combatants drew near each other, with a low muttered groan, far more terrible than the loudest shout, each party hailed the approach of its opponent, and then with one deafening crash they closed together, corpse fighting with corpse, dead throttling dead! Coffin meeting with coffin, each urged onward by the heaving waves, each crashing madly into the prow of its antagonist, while the dead arise, and leaning over the side of their death-boats, they reach forth their arms and grasp each other in the clutch of an infernal hate! Then how the fires flaring from the orbless eyes of skulls danced to and fro. Now the river grew alive with the white robes of shrouds fluttering on the air, with the gleam of lights hissing as they sank beneath the waters, with that horrible groan of the corpse as it fought with its fellow corpse!

“Then how merrily the music of the skeleton-bone and the hollow skull shrieked over the waters, and mingling with the low-muttered groans of ten thousand thousand corpses, rose echoing to the heavens above ! Then crash upon crash with horrible yells of laughter, the shrouded dead again urged their coffins full upon each other, and fought like living men upon a battle-field! With ghastly faces mouldering with corruption, yet fired by all the passions of life, upturned to the sky, with the waves rearing and plunging all around them, with their shrouds tossing madly on the air, while the skull-fires danced to and fro they closed together in terrible combat, and fought amidst the howling of the waters.

“Another peal of the skeleton-bone and the skull, another wild burst of laughter. Like a flash of lightning the scene was changed.

“The river was calm as the joy of the Saint, first awakening from the sleep of the grave into the peace of God s own sweet rest. Pure, serene, and placid. It lay like a mirror before the eyes. Yet still in the sky overhead, hung the cloud with its letters of flame,—Wo unto Sodom—still from the letters of flame a lurid light fell over the waters, now so calm and tranquil. And the dark mass of walls and roofs which marked the position of the city, with the lofty steeples and proud domes steeped in livid light, was reflected in the calm waters, like a magnificent picture, delineated by some unearthly hand.”

[Source: Excerpted from the chapter entitled “The Last Day of the Quaker City,” found at this archive.org version of George Lippard’s classic Gothic novel, The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: a Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime, originally published in Philadelphia in 1844-45.]

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