Friday, April 10, 2009

Lippard: Supreme Washington

Today celebrates the anniversary of the birth of George Lippard, "Poe's Philadelphia friend." If I were still living in the Philadelphia area, it would be the perfect day to visit his grave - an impressive monument that has an interesting story. I hope it's not improper to talk about his death on his birthday...

Born on April 10, 1822, Lippard became a hugely successful novelist, part of the Philadelphia Gothic literary movement which presented a decaying urban environment of sin, hostility, and greed. He was also a journalist and owned his own newspaper. In the last years of his life, two of his children died, as did his wife. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lippard was working on an article protesting the Fugitive Slave Law when he died on February 9, 1854. His last words were to his physician: "Is this death?" He was 31 years old.

But, he would not be forgotten. In addition to his novels and journalism, Lippard was a labor organizer, among the first unions in the United States. The Brotherhood of the Union, as it was called, was based on Christian ideals - and heavy secrecy. Like any secret society, the Brotherhood had rituals and customs that seemed sensational, including Lippard's title as "Supreme Washington." In fact, George Washington often made appearances in Lippard's fiction (see the Boston 1775 blog for an idea) and the Brotherhood considered themselves a political entity which would do good for society as a whole, leading to decreased crime, the elimination of poverty and, of course, advancing Christian values.

It was the Brotherhood that gave Lippard his nearly 5-foot tall monument in 1886, years after he was buried at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Philadelphia. The Brotherhood would have a near-worship of their founder in the coming years; as their numbers swelled to between 20,000 and 30,000 members, they began a semi-regular procession to his grave, where they sang hymns and read dedications. But Lippard would not stay at rest.

In 1951, Odd Fellows Cemetery was razed for a housing project. Lippard (and his monument) were moved to Lawnview Cemetery, just outside of northeast Philadelphia, hidden way in the back, where no processions come, and no hymns are read. In fact, when I first went to the grave (on his death anniversary, unknowingly - February 9, 2008), his burial records were not found on the computer. A staff member had to go into the bowels of the handwritten burial records which were never transferred over. She showed me the little index card, yellowed in the 50 years since it was first inscribed with pencil, which casually noted his plot number.

To get an idea of its extravagance (which matches Lippard's eccentricity), the front of the monument reads (in all capital letters):

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he hath anointed me to
preach the Gospel to the poor;
He hath sent me to heal the
brokenhearted to preach deliverance
to the captives, and recovering of
sight to the blind, to set at
liberty, them that are bruised,
to preach the acceptable
year of the Lord.

Happy birthday, George.

1 comment:

Ed said...

And I've been so busy lately, I forgot all about it. Thanks for the reminder, Rob. Hope you've been well.