Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vice in Colonial Philadelphia

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

When we think of the America of colonial times and the days of the early Republic, we seldom think of the word vice.  And yet behind the fa├žade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets, vice lurked.  As early l720, when Benjamin Franklin first came to Philadelphia, the atmosphere of that city was already both permissive and hazardous. Franklin later wrote “that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth had hurried me frequently into intrigues.”  One of these intrigues resulted in an illegitimate son, whom Franklin subsequently raised.  Not all illegitimate children were so lucky. Out-of-wedlock births had become, as one contemporary put it, “extremely common in Philadelphia.” Unwed pregnancies often left poor women on the street fending for themselves.  Some turned to prostitution.  Readily available in taverns and brothels or outside in thoroughfares and byways, these “ladies of pleasure” were so numerous, observed a visitor to the city, “that they flooded the streets at night.”

The price of sexual freedom was often very high.  Venereal disease was rampant.  In Philadelphia, for example, a significant number of those admitted to the almshouse (9% of the men and 16 % of the women) were described in the register as “venereal,” “highly venereal,” or “eaten up with the venereal disease.” Infected men and women arrived at the almshouse gate because they were too sick to support themselves.

A quick historical look at murder most foul in the Virginia of colonial times and the early Republic. Behind the facade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets evil lurks.

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