Municipal Monsters

In what has become a pattern for me, I was looking for something quite particular, when I came across something that diverted me from my path altogether, this time in the online catalog of the American Antiquarian Society. The item in question was an image–a political cartoon from circa 1845 which depicts a gluttonous Boston consuming the smaller cities of Massachusetts, including Salem–and it immediately commanded my attention, not just because of the Salem reference but also because the “insatiable [urban] monster” depicted reminded me of an underlying perception in early modern Europe, if not before, of the emerging city consuming the countryside. You can easily understand this allegory, given the conspicuous growth of cities in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, paired with an equally conspicuous urban death rate. Apparently this was an issue in America too: though the sentiment seems more economic than demographic on this side of the Atlantic, on both continents it was not only about consumption, but also corruption.

monster-boston-1845 ‘A Nightmare Dream of a Patriotic Politician of the Interior’, c. 1845, American Antiquarian Society

I’ve never been able to find a great image of the emerging “Londonopolis” in the seventeenth century when that term was first used (in the title term of James Howells’ Londinopolis an historicall discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain, 1657). London more than doubled its population over the seventeenth century, but only later do any “monstrous” depictions appear. Southern England, with London at its center, is the sea monster supporting Great Britain in the late eighteenth-century maps created by Robert Dighton and published under the title “Geography Bewitched”.

municipal-map-london-geography-bewitched-bmRobert Dighton, ‘Geography Bewitched or, a Droll Caricature Map of England and Wales‘, published in London by Bowles & Carver, 1793, British Museum.

It is not overwhelmingly obvious unless you make several connections, but the depiction of a country gentleman apparently escaping that “Sinners Seat”, Whitehall Palace, whose inhabitants ended up in a monstrous hell, captures the moral divide between rural/urban and virtue/vice. The sheer corruption of city hall (the American Whitehall Palace) was never more accentuated than in the anti-Tammany Hall cartoons in wide circulation in the later nineteenth century, in which Tammany is either an octopus or a tiger, preying on the people of New York City and state.

V0047997 A Stuart gentleman is standing before Whitehall, entitled "S


monster-tammany-tiger-lc‘Sinners Seat’, published: Rob. Walton[London] (At the Globe and Compasses at the west end of St. Paules church & Bon. Church Yard), Wellcome Images; J.S. Pughe, Boss Croker as an octopus consuming City Hall and beyond, Puck Magazine, 1901; S.D. Ehrhart, ‘The Tiger’s Prey’, Puck Magazine, 1913, both Library of Congress.

7 responses to “Municipal Monsters

  • bradaustin

    Very interesting, Donna. I’m intrigued by the specific cities on the menu: Salem, Lynn, Worcester, Waltham, and ????.

    Thanks for sharing.



  • daseger

    Hi Brad, loyal follower! I think it’s Springfield but it also might be Greenfield. Swallowed-up Massachusetts cities. Surprised New Bedford is not there. The AAS has such GREAT archives; wish I were an American historian.

    • Brian Bixby

      This image was reproduced on page 65 of Wilie and Tager (eds.), “Historical Atlas of Massachusetts” (1991), where it’s clear the city is Greenfield. Looks like the two little ships on the left also have names on them, but the “Atlas” rendition doesn’t have the resolution to make them out.

      • daseger

        Thanks, Brian–I had never seen this image before so I thought it was a real discovery (but then again, I’m not an American historian, much less a Massachusetts one)–now I’m wondering where Springfield is?

      • Brian Bixby

        It can’t be that common; I tried a Google image search and came up with one result: your blog!

        I’m actually surprised Greenfield made it, and have to wonder if there was some issue at the time that brought that town into prominence.

        At a guess, one of the great rivalries of the railroad era was whether a a southern route from Boston to Albany through Springfield was the better choice, or a northern route through Fitchburg, Greenfield, et al. was better. Ultimately, the Hoosac Tunnel was needed to make the northern route a reality, by which time it was too late. But maybe someone was trying to push a railroad through to Greenfield at the time.

      • daseger

        So interesting! And then again, the AAS doesn’t seem completely confident of that date, so it could be some other obscure issue…

      • Brian Bixby

        I looked up the credit in Wilkie and Tager; they also got it from the AAS, and back then it was dated c. 1840.

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