John Robert McDowall was a Finney convert, as were several of the leading figures in the Female Benevolent Society to rescue fallen women in the Five Points he helped found. He attended Princeton Theological Seminary, as did his brother who would share in his mission. He worked in Rhode Island in 1829 as agent for the American Tract Society, returned to Princeton but did not complete his studies. Instead, with the financial support of Arthur Tappan, another Finney convert and a wealthy merchant, he organized the “Society for the moral and religious improvement of the Five Points.” (Memoir and Select Remarks of the late Rev. John R. McDowall, the Martyr of the Seventh Commandment in the Nineteenth Century, edited and transcribed by his brother [?], New York, 1838) This was Oct. 1, 1830.
Five Points in 1827 as depicted in Valentine's Manual of Old New York, 1855
McDowall’s initial reaction to discovering the world of prostitution in the Five Points is worth quoting at length. On Oct. 5, four days after launching the new society, he wrote in his journal:
Visited about one hundred families. Saw one house of ill-fame, where the girls were beautiful and elegantly dressed. It is said the house in which they live, is, by the will of the late occupant, left to this class of women.
It is painful to see, in the centre of New-York, the tender sex destitute of the semblance of modesty. To see young women, of wanton eyes, of impure speech, spreading their nets for the silly youth—the young man whose love of virtue, whose sense of character, whose regard for sisters, whose kindly feelings to his race, should inspire his soul with lofty sentiments of all that is lovely, and amiable, and of good report. Yes—for the young man whose heart should revolt at such scenes. Truly, Solomon has wisely and minutely drawn the character, progress, and end of these deluded souls. O to grace, how great a debtor am I. ‘T’is grace—grace alone makes me to differ. To grace be all the glory. [emphasis in the original]
Note the phrasing – beautiful, elegantly dressed, the tender sex, destitute of the semblance of modesty, wanton eyes, impure speech, silly youth. This early description emphasized the temptation these women posed for young men. They were beautiful and fashionable, but lacking the “semblance of modesty.” This is a revealing choice of words. Harlots were destitute of modesty by definition. And what moral reformer would accept the semblance of virtue? Also interesting is that McDowall almost put himself in the category as the “silly youth.” After listing all of the reasons why his heart “should revolt at such scenes,” he exclaimed “O to grace, how great a debtor I am.” "Grace alone" made him different from the young men who congregated in these houses of ill-fame.
McDowall’s next entry shows him still struggling with the appeal these harlots exercised.
Oct. 6th.—Visited fourteen families. It is a pleasant work to instruct the poor and ignorant. We are kindly received, often urgently invited to revisit them again. But O, the harlots! How numerous! Modesty and purity forbid a minute detail. A passing remark on some is ventured. I think I am safe in saying, some of these women have noble lineage. For strength of intellect, general knowledge, and elegant taste, perhaps few ladies in the city can excel a few at Five Points.
“Modesty and purity forbid a minute detail.” Whose modesty and purity? McDowall’s? It is his journal, published only posthumously and presumably meant for his own eyes. Or did he mean that the conventions of propriety prohibited a detailed description? In any case, he did hazard a “passing remark.” Some of the harlots must have had a “noble lineage.” This too is an extraordinary phrase. It is clear from the following sentence that he meant that they came from affluent and respectable families. Why noble instead of respectable? Why lineage instead of family? Only a “few ladies in the city can excel a few at Five Points” when it came to “strength of intellect, general knowledge, and elegant taste.”
How did McDowall, on such brief acquaintance, manage to assess their strength of intellect or range of general knowledge? Their beauty he could take in in a glance. So too the elegance of their attire. Neither implied nobility. Physical beauty was just that. And anyone could put on fashionable clothes. But McDowall was in the process of inventing a romance, one in which he would play a noble part. And so his quest, for such it became, itself had to have elements of nobility. Rescuing harlots had to become akin to rescuing maidens. McDowall apparently constructed the whole of his romance in this single journal entry. The construction began with a question.
Why are such women at this place? Is it improbable, these nobler ones, being unfortunate in love, upon their seducer’s eloping, are disowned by brothers, despised by sisters, rejected by parents, and abandoned by their associates?
The question reverses the presumptions of his earlier entry. There it was the women who entrapped “silly” young men. Now, the young men are the seducers. “Nobler” women are their prey. In the earlier entry, McDowall himself escaped the harlot’s lures only by grace. In this he cast himself as the righter of wrongs.
In this dilemma; depressed, despised, and cast off; penniless, without shelter, and broken-hearted, denied a residence in the dwelling of parents and friends; the last, the fatal resort, is to the more respectable seats of ill-fame, where, after serving the unhallowed purposes of barbarous masters and mistresses, and men in elegant attire and in honorable stations, they are, when ruined, disgraced, and diseased, with merciless brutality driven from these seats of refined iniquity in high places, these mints of common night-walkers.
Such “nobler” harlots were more to be pitied than censured. Not only had the seducer abandoned them, but parents and family have cast them out. They turned to “the more respectable seats of ill-fame.” This is also an amazing turn of phrase. What can be respectable about a brothel? The clientele? Not according to McDowall who, as will shortly appear, excoriated the rich clients of such establishments. The general ambience? Nice furnishings, better liquor, more beautiful and better dressed whores? More respectable meant higher priced. Their stay, McDowell was certain, was short-lived. Soon they would be “ruined, disgraced, and diseased.” Were they not already disgraced? And already ruined? “Ruined, disgraced, and diseased” meant diseased. Once they were, they would be “with merciless brutality driven from these seats of refined iniquity in high places.” McDowall again returns to the theme of the refusal of the family to accept a prodigal’s return.
Fallen from the bosom of parents, brothers and sisters, friends and paramours, one step more remains, it is the Five Points.
A small problem of fact intrudes. McDowall met his beautiful, elegant, intellectually gifted, and knowledgeable harlots in the Five Points. He also, of course, saw others who were not of noble lineage. Even a few days of knocking on doors in the neighborhood would have led him to encounter women whose degradation was so complete it would not violate modesty and purity to describe them in harrowing detail. Some of his favored terms include: turbulent, thievish, drunken, offensive, diseased, haggard, bloated, and filthy. Facts aside, arrival at the Five Points begins the final act of the melodrama he constructed.
Necessity now binds to the commission of crime. Cut off from all intercourse with the reputable and virtuous in society, their daily food, drink, and apparel is only attainable in the ways of vice. The choice is now reduced to immediate death by starvation, or remote dissolution by disease. The alternative is speedily chosen. A few days or weeks intervene, and worms riot on their bodies, and Satan on their souls.
What McDowall did was to extrapolate backwards from the sodden hags he encountered to the beautiful and elegant whores who so fascinated him. They too would wind up as hags. There was a vortex of destruction into which they would be inexorably pulled unless rescued. Again, McDowall emphasized that they were victims.
But where are their guilty murderers? The young seducer of unsuspecting virgin modesty, stands at the head of the catalog; next rank our men of fashion and professions; then the catalog closes with a list of sailors and negroes. O! what a list of accessories to their ruin! And yet these murderers, with impunity and éclat, move in the circles of the young and fashionable.
One has in this second journal entry the complete script for the rest of McDowell’s life. He had developed a full-blown narrative that we can call, after Bunyan and Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress.” At its start she is young, modest, from a good family. Into her life comes the Deceiver in the form of a plausible young rake. He tells her many lies, typically involving marriage, and persuades her to come away with him. She falls through naïve trust and love, and sacrifices her virginity. Sooner or later, the seducer tires of her and abandons her, often with a baby. Her family refuses to help or, in a minor variant, she is too ashamed to ask their forgiveness. This leaves the brothel as her sole recourse. If beautiful, she begins in a “more respectable” establishment. But her descent is swift and irreversible. Disease and death await. Enter, stage right, the Reverend John Robert McDowell. He understands her plight. He offers the Gospel and refuge.
It was not enough to rescue the maiden. McDowall had also to slay the dragon. He had to go after the “murderers,” who “with impunity and éclat, move in the circles of the young and fashionable.” His sword would be McDowall's Journal with which he would expose the seducer. But he needed support. There was little likelihood it would come from “men of fashion and professions” who patronized the more respectable brothels. He wrote in the first issue of the Journal:
In one half hour, on a Sabbath evening, I saw five or six companies of men knock for admission to a brothel. The mistress opened the window and told them that her house was so full of visitors that they could not be admitted. The last troop she invited to return in half an hour. In this group there were seven persons. Into a similar house, three doors distant, I saw, on the same evening, seventeen men go, and eleven come out. On another Sabbath evening, I saw between twenty and thirty young men standing around the door of one of the most genteel brothels in the city. Those most distant from the door encouraged those nearest to it to force it open. The dress and appearance of these men resembled that of men of wealth and fashion. Their thoughts were vicious. They associated and persuaded each other to go to those houses of death. They hold the doctrine that vice is necessary. They degraded themselves, and encouraged each other to go on in wickedness.
There was little enough reason to hope for support from such as these. No, as McDowall wrote in his remarkable second journal entry on prostitution, it would come from wives.
Can this be christianity? No. The religion of Jesus has no unhallowed connection with such crimes. Christianity will add to her benevolent institutions in New-York what she has been compelled to add in other lands—a Magdalen Asylum. Ladies, ladies, your suffering sex demands this at your hands—the Savior demands it.
Within days of writing this, McDowall launched his crusade.
He chose this task. The critical journal entry begins: "Visited fourteen families. It is a pleasant work to instruct the poor and ignorant. We are kindly received, often urgently invited to revisit them again." MeDowall could have concentrated on working with such families. There were thousands of them in the Five Points, some indeterminate number apparently eager for his ministry. "But O, the harlots!" We can never know completely what complex of motives lay behind that exclamation point. We do know that it marked McDowall's resolve. He had found his life's work. He would expose the licentious, organize societies pledged — like Temperance Societies — to promote purity and stigmatize seducers, and rescue the "nobler" harlots.
The example of the temperance movement was very important. A few years before McDowall began his quest, the United States had been, as one historian put it, "the alcoholic republic." Liquor was served at every social occasion, including the ordination of ministers. Workmen took rum breaks in the morning and afternoon. Merchants sealed sales over a bowl of punch. People literally drank morning, noon, and night. Drunkenness was common and generally regarded as a minor failing. Clergymen only occasionally preached on temperance and, when they did, advocated drinking in moderation. Suddenly, in large part because of the moral fervor associated with the Second Great Awakening, all of this began to change. Temperance came to mean complete abstention from the use of alcohol. Ministers preached against even the most moderate drinking, warning that it was a fatal first step. Respectability came to include refraining from the use of alcohol. This was precisely the sort of sea change McDowall hoped to bring about.
He wrote in the initial issue of the Journal:
On the social principle let societies in every congregation and neighborhood in the land be formed to prevent lewdness, seduction, and immorality of every kind. Let young men associate to root licentiousness, profanity, intemperance, vice, and crime, out of existence. Let ladies join to discountenance it, and to place libertines on a level with harlots. Let merchants, masters, and others, protect the morals of the young men under their care. Let parents use their best efforts to instill into the minds of their children correct views of truth, duty, and honor. Let ministers remember that each of the ten commandments God has commanded them to cause the people to understand and to obey. Let magistrates execute the laws, and legislatures, by salutary enactments, protect the property, health, and morality of their constituents. Let all do all that is in their power to free the land from vice and crime.
This was a revival solution. It called for an Awakening. McDowall hoped to organize anti-licentiousness societies, one for each congregation. Members would sign a pledge in which they would themselves promise to abstain from sins against the seventh commandment and to treat seducers and habitués of brothels as pariahs. Such a plan depended upon ministerial cooperation, something that was not forthcoming. McDowall’s Journal, Jan. 1833, contains a characteristic attack on clergy and “professors of religion” who refused to condemn sexual licence.
A Theatre Hotel.—Mr. __________ lets a house for a Theatre Hotel. It is a resort for young men and servant girls, and other women just entering on the road to ruin. Late at night, abandoned persons of both sexes are loitering about its doors, and passing in and out of it. Gambling is practiced there even on the Sabbath day. Widows’ sons there gamble away the money their mothers need to buy food. Occasionally there are riots in it, and mobs in the street before it, and pickpockets in the throng of its supporters.
A professor of religion owns it, and rents it for the purpose to which it is devoted.
Is it not time to begin at the house of God? How long will you, ye ministers of the gospel, be silent? Profligacy and vice abound, and profound ministerial silence reigns throughout the land. And you know it, and know that your Master has, in your commission, charged you to lift up your voice like a trumpet to show the people their sins. [emphasis in original]
Absent ministerial support, McDowall helped organize the Female Benevolent Society of New York on December 27, 1832 with members from a dozen or so Presbyterian churches in lower Manhattan and officially became its agent the following February. The Society, according to its First Annual Report, had two goals:
1. Prevention; and 2. Remedy. To promote the first of these objects, the Board have made no direct attempts; nor are they now prepared to recommend any definite course to be pursued on this point. They feel divine Providence must yet develop the method, by which they can most effectually exert a preventive influence against this monster vice. [emphasis in original]
Remedy meant rescue, the rescue of McDowall's betrayed maidens:
It is mainly to benefit a different class [than the “very lowest, whose consciences are seared, and whose hearts are hardened by their long practice of iniquity"] that the Society would awaken the sympathies, and solicit the aid of the Christian public. From facts which are continually coming to their knowledge, the Board believe that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, in this city, who, though they have been basely enticed from the path of virtue, are not yet so far hardened in vice, that they may not by timely efforts, be rescued from being swallowed up in the vortex, which they are rapidly approaching.
"Nobler" harlots were, in fact, as McDowall acknowledged in his journal entry, few in number. But readers of his Journal and of the Society's Report might well infer that they were as thick on the ground as acorns in Autumn. Every issue carried tales of seduction and abandonment. In the initial number (January 1833) readers encountered this story:
A merchant at the south sent his daughter, a young woman, to this state, to spend some time with her sister. A lawyer acquainted with her family, invited the girl to walk with him one evening. In the year 1830, he led her into a den of the unclean. There he kept her for nearly six months. Then he handed her over to another person. A merchant’s clerk became her gallant, paid $5 per week for her board, took her to the theatre every week, and clothed her like a lady. She is not yet twenty years old, and is now a forsaken, broken-hearted, friendless, homeless, turbulent, thievish, drunken, offensive, diseased, haggard, bloated, filthy creature. And the lawyer and the clerk do not condescend to look at her, for they have procured other young women whom they are plunging into infamy and wretchedness like hers.
The Board of the Female Benevolent Society asserted in their Report that the case of the merchant's daughter was typical.
It cannot be concealed that the treachery of man, betraying the interests of confiding and dependent woman, is one of the principle causes, which furnishes the victims of licentiousness. Few, very few, so far as can be ascertained, have sought their wretched calling. The most of them have been betrayed by the perfidy of a pretended friend, and when robbed and despoiled, they have been abandoned to their fate. Tales might be told of deep-laid schemes of treachery against female innocence, that would make the ear tingle, and man blush for the baseness of his fellow.
To learn how most prostitutes, in fact, took up the profession, readers would have had to turn to the police reports. That from 1849 is unusually detailed.
In connection with this report, I deem it my duty, to call the attention of your Honor to a deplorable and growing evil which exists amid this community, and which is spread over the principal business parts of the city. It is an evil and a reproach to our municipality, for which the laws and ordinances afford no adequate remedy.
I allude to the constantly increasing number of vagrants, idle and vicious children of both sexes, who infest our public thoroughfares, hotels, docks, &c.; children who are growing up in ignorance and profligacy, only destined to a life of misery, shame and crime, and ultimately to a felon's doom. Their numbers are almost incredible, and to those whose business and habits do not permit them a searching scrutiny, the degrading and disgusting practices of these almost infants, in the school of vice, prostitution and rowdyism, would certainly be beyond belief. The offspring of always careless, generally intemperate and oftentimes immoral and dishonest parents, they never see the inside of a schoolroom; and so far as our excellent system of public education i[s] concerned, and which may be truly said to be the foundation stone of our free institutions, is to them an entire nullity. Left in many instances to roam day and night wherever their inclination leads them, a large proportion of these juvenile vagrants are in the daily practice of pilfering wherever opportunity offers, and begging when they cannot steal.
In addition to which the female portion of the youngest class, those who have only seen some eight or twelve summers) are addicted to immoralities of the most loathsome description; each year makes fearful additions to the ranks of these prospective recruits of infamy and sin, and from this corrupt and festering fountain flows on a ceaseless stream to our lowest brothels, to the penitentiary and the state's prison.
Reports have been made to me from the captains of the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, Eleventh and Thirteenth Patrol districts, from which it appears that the enormous number of two thousand nine hundred and fifty-five children are engaged as above described in these wards alone, and of these, two-thirds are females, between eight and sixteen years of age. This estimate, I believe, to be far short of the number actually thus engaged. Astounding as it may seem, there are many hundreds of parents in this city who absolutely drive their offspring forth to practices of theft and semi-bestiality, that they themselves may live lazily on the means thus secured. Selling the very bodies and souls of those in whom their own blood circulates, for the means of dissipation and debauchery.
These embryo courtezans and felons may be divided into several classes. . . .
The third class . . . are mostly girls of tender years, and frequently neatly dressed and modest looking. Their ostensible business is the sale of fruits, socks, toothpicks, &c., and with this ruse they gain ready access to countingrooms, offices and other places, where, in the secrecy and seclusion of a turned key, they submit their persons for the miserable bribe of a few shillings, to the most loathsome and degrading familiarities.
By these practices they frequently are enabled to carry home some two or three dollars daily. And this very money, to obtain which the miserable child exchanges its present and future welfare, is eagerly grasped by the often inebriate parents, who, with the full knowledge of the sacrifice by which it was obtained, scruple not to use it; and on the morrow the girl is again sent forth upon the same disgusting errand. The captain of the eleventh patrol district, in speaking of this class of children, says, "scenes of almost nightly occurrence might, if necessary, be related, which, for vileness and deep depravity, would absolutely stagger belief."
The captain of the second patrol district says, "this class of children is, probably, the most degraded of any in the city; the others steal, but most of the girls who sell fruit, &c., at the different offices, are in the daily habit of practising the most beastly and immoral things, (and when old enough they turn out as common prostitutes,) and frequently get four or five dollars per day in this way. I have known several instances where these children have grown up, and are now living in a state of prostitution, while others are already in the hospital, and some have been sent to the prison or Blackwell's Island."
These enormities have long been known to the department, and they come to me in such an unquestionable shape, that I cannot doubt the truth of the statement.
I am aware that there are honorable exceptions to the above, and some among the hundreds, included in this third class, are in reality honest children, endeavoring to gain a living by the legitimate sale of trifles, but the majority are vicious, and only so. The number is computed in the districts named at three hundred and eighty. . . .
All of which is respectfully submitted, GEO. W. MATSELL, Chief of Police
Semi-Annual Report of the Chief of Police From May 1, to October 31, 1849 (New York, 1850).
Most prostitutes grew up in slums, did not attend school, and took up various forms of crime and vice as young children. Often their first pimps were their parents. McDowall knew this as well as the police. But he did not set out to rescue these children. Instead he set about rescuing the few "nobler" harlots and organizing respectable opinion to denounce licenciousness by portraying them as typical of fallen women.
Rescue proved a shattering failure. The Society attempted to put the best face on the numbers as they could but had to admit that of the twenty-seven prostitutes who were “received” into the asylum between May 1832 and January 1834, “there are nine now in the asylum, and five at service in pious families, who are still under the care of the Society. The remaining thirteen have left the asylum, and the most of them have returned to their former vicious habits." In the middle of the year McDowall resigned as agent. According to the Female Benevolent Society Report, he gave "as his reasons, that the labor of taking charge of the asylum, and publishing his Journal, was more than he could sustain.” At this point there were seven repentant harlots in the asylum. "The Board feel, that the large number, who have left the asylum, should be no source of discouragement to their future labors in the cause; because they left, when the affairs of the Society were in great disorder, and before any fair trial could be made to reclaim them from vice." Once the Board took charge, at the beginning of August, they instituted stricter screening procedures. Only seven entered the asylum, and only one left to resume her life of vice. If these numbers are correct, twelve of the twenty whom McDowall sought to redeem fell back into their old ways. Seven of the remaining eight were still at the asylum. What happened to the eighth is not clear.
What was rescue about? On October 12, 1830, McDowall preached his first sermon to the harlots of the Five Points. “One came to tell me of a dead man.” He wrote in his journal that his “feelings were strange, indescribable.” He knew many would suspect his motives.
Any man hazards his good name being seen loitering in the vicinity of the Five Points, what then do I hazard to have such a multitude of these creatures around me in this place? But my soul was in grief. I knew God, the righteous Judge, was omniscient and just, and whatever man might think of me would not influence the final Judge; so I stood firm in conscious innocence of evil purpose, and found strength in discharging my duty.
McDowall's concern that he was risking his good name was entirely justified, as events would show. But, again, his choice of words is revealing. He was not "loitering." He had been summoned as a minister to attend to the last rites of a Five Points resident. "This place" was the dead man's room, not a brothel. And the "multitude" of prostitutes were around him because they wished to pay their last respects to the deceased. McDowall, in effect, congratulated himself that he "stood firm in conscious innocence of evil purpose, and found strength in discharging" his duty. He read from the Bible. The harlots “were attentive.”
A fine opportunity to impress on their minds the scenes of a future meeting. Death, and heaven, and remission of sin, were my great themes, blended with appeals to their consciousness of misery’s being connected with vice. But in heaven there is pure pleasure. Then I spoke to them thus:--‘Think of your course. In it there is no pleasure unmingled with pain. The more vicious you are, the more miserable you are. Think of your guilty revelry at midnight, those fierce and fiery forebodings of the just judgment of your Maker; of your parents who loved you, educated and trained you to virtue, now broken-hearted, sorrowing, going down to the grave; of sisters afflicted—of brothers mortified—of relations grieved; of your bodies abused, your souls injured—of God offended—of heaven lost—of hell gained, whose agonies you now anticipate as the earnest of your inheritance.’
McDowall preached his own narrative of their lives. He reminded them of their loving parents when many of his listeners had been put out on the streets by those same parents. He spoke of them being trained to virtue when many had been apprenticed at early ages to vice. It was not that NO prostitute had ever had a loving family or that NO prostitute had even been seduced and abandoned. But most had led lives that had nothing to do with McDowall's "A Harlot's Progress." Charles Loring Brace, who organized and then led the Children's Aid Society in 1852, noted that "the great majority of prostitutes . . . have had no romantic or sensational history, though they always affect this. . . . The number among them who have 'seen better days,' or have fallen from heights of virtue is incredibly small."
Since the Female Benevolent Society shared this same master narrative, their efforts were no more effectual. The "Christian public," to whom the Board appealed, was unimpressed. The Report concludes on an almost despairing note.
. . . let the public know, that since the first of January  the Society has not received a cent, no not a cent, to sustain them in this enterprise, while their expenses since that time, have been nearly two hundred dollars. [emphasis in original]
The failure of rescue attempts left prevention. And, despite their claim that they awaited the revelations of Providence to guide them in this area, the Society shared McDowall's vision here as well.
. . . let an honest indignation be felt and expressed by the virtuous part of the community towards the base seducer, and toward every profligate man; let them be loaded with the disgrace which they justly deserve; especially let every virtuous female utterly refuse to associate with them; let her feel herself to be polluted by their very presence; let them be regarded as enemies to the sex; yea more, as traitors that will betray its dearest interests—as wolves that prowl about to prey on the peace of the virtuous. . . . Until virtuous females will thus arise and assert and defend the rights of their sex, little, perhaps nothing can be done towards arresting that torrent of licentiousness, which threatens to deluge the country.
For his part, McDowall devoted himself to stirring up that honest indignation. McDowall’s Journal, February 1833, provides a good example of his approach.
For the Journal. [every issue contained at least one poem]
The Victim of Seduction
What poignant anguish fills this breast of care,
A victim left to misery and despair;
Despoil’d of virtue, stripp’d of health and ease,
Lur’d to hardships, want, and fell disease.
Ah, cruel man! Too oft thy treach’rous art
Sheds baneful poison through the female heart,
Too oft, alas, in some unguarded hour,
Strips smiling beauty of her fairest flow’r.
Thy oaths and vows with fond affection fraught,
Thy flatt’ring accents, which my fancy caught,
Thy rapturous kisses, too late, I find,
Were all call’d forth to win my youthful mind,
To banish virtue from her bless’d abode,
The female heart—where nature and God
Have fix’d their empire—let no villain dare
To snatch this treasure from the beauteous fair;
For ‘virtue fled,' alas! What then remains,
Save cruel treatment, scorn, and bitter pains;
Shunned by my sex, despised by all the world,
To vicious pleasures, and intemperance hurl’d;
Doom’d to look cheerful, though I feel within
The scorpion lashes of despair and sin—
With cheerful smiles to welcome every guest,
While torturing anguish gnaws my aching breast;
To seek solace in the midnight bowl,
And with its juices calm my troubled soul.
At last, when heav’n shall close my misery here,
No kindred friend to drop one pitying tear!
No loving brothers weep a sister dead,
No beauteous sisters tears of sorrow shed,
But unlamented, I to death descend,
Bereft of virtue, beauty, wealth, and friend.
The anonymous author reconciled one of the apparent contradictions in McDowall's version of the harlot's progress, why the prostitute so often did not appear miserable. She is "doom'd to look cheerful," "hurl'd" "to vicious pleasures." She must "with cheerful smiles . . . welcome every guest." Part of her punishment is a false gaiety. So is intemperance. She turns to the "midnight bowl" to "calm" her "troubled soul." No harlot in McDowall's Journal ever turned to prostitution because of the low wages of honest labor. None ever drank because she enjoyed it. And why? Because the allure McDowall experienced when he first encountered the beautiful and elegant harlots with the wanton eyes must be false. Otherwise his crusade would have no meaning.
Immediately following the poem came:
AN UNFAITHFUL HUSBAND
A Chapter of History.—There are some men, more like monsters than human beings, who delight in the misery and destruction of the innocent. One circumstance under my immediate knowledge, I shall give you.
A young man in the practice of the law, near this city, became acquainted with a young lady, and offered marriage. He was accepted, and they were united. (Oh, if we could read futurity, and unfold the book of fate, how much misery we could escape!) Mild and amiable, her face and form were only equaled by the beauties of her mind. She was devoted to him. His smile was her happiness, his frown her misery. Two happy years rolled around—she became a mother, and fondly thought her bliss complete—but perfect happiness is not the lot of mortals here below. Under the garb of all that is good and noble, he was a fiend, blasting all that came in his way—scattering misery and despair around him. He soon became acquainted with a milliner thirteen years of age. He won her affections; (he passed for a single man,) young and inexperienced, in an unguarded hour, he accomplished her ruin. The poor injured girl, she knew not what to do. He promised her protection. She confided in him—and left her home. The villain immediately took her to one of the most notorious houses of ill-fame in the city. She was impressed with the idea that he would marry her, which from time to time he had promised.
Thirteen months passed, and one day he called and told her he must leave her forever—that he was tired of her, and was a married man—that she must get some other to support her—hoped she would excuse the deceit he had used, and plead [sic] some engagements that made it impossible for him to call again, hoped she would take care of the child, (for she had given birth to a little girl,) and look to her own health. Horror-struck at this avowal, she could not answer—and the wretch, taking advantage of her despair, left her destitute and penniless, herself and child, without friends, in a house of ill-fame. Whole days passed without her tasting food, nor could she be persuaded to see her infant, until they brought it one day to her in strong convulsions. All the feeling of a mother in an instant rushed to her bosom—but too late; its little spirit soon fled to a better world. She knelt beside its little corpse and kissed a thousand times the unconscious clay, upon which the warm and bitter tears of her agony were falling. Her sense failed her, and one hour of blessed forgetfulness passed, before she awakened to know her situation. Tears came to her relief—but the thoughts of her deceiver, the cause of all this scene of wo [sic], till then forgot, flashed upon her brain. It dried her tears, and she felt in herself the strength of madness; and starting up, with the speed of hatred seeking revenge, she sought the house of her betrayer, and in a short time she stood before him and his wife, (his lovely, innocent wife) and loudly raved for justice for herself, and vengeance to satisfy the spirit of her lost child. He told them [whom?] to take her away, that she was mad, and knew not what she said, (ah, too well she knew.) He actually turned her out of doors, and shut the door in her face. In agony she retraced her steps to her abode of guilt. There all was gaiety. The loud laugh of dissipation and guilt resounded through the rooms, but those sounds of joy found no echo in her bosom. There was an aching void nothing on earth could fill. She felt herself fatherless, for said she, “I dare not write to him from this abode of guilt. I have so cruelly deserted him, the kindness of a father must be denied me in my last hours. Oh, God, if my father even knew where I was, and what I suffer, he would forgive me. All I have ever loved are lost to me forever. Why should I stay here? May God forgive the injuries I have received, and,” said she, “comfort his afflicted wife,” meaning her seducer’s. She tried to pray, but could not. One thing was left, and with frenzied joy she welcomed the deadly vial as an antidote against misery. In three hours she was called to render up her account to God—she died in horrid agonies. His wife became a maniac, and never came to her recollection from that hour—she is in the asylum for lunatics, an awful spectacle. And he, the monster, still prowls about, shunned by the good and virtuous, not yet satisfied with his victims—still seeking whom he may devour.
McDowall presented this tale of woe as a "chapter of history"; clearly it was not. The young milliner was alone, supposedly, when she cried out "Oh, God, if my father even knew where I was, and what I suffer, he would forgive me" and tried unsuccessfully to pray, then "welcomed the deadly vial" "with frenzied joy." Similarly, the only persons present when she confronted her seducer and his wife were those three and an unexplained "them" who took her away. Clearly the husband did not share the details with McDowall. Nor could the wife who "became a maniac . . . from that hour."
"A Harlot's Progress" dominated every issue of the Journal. But McDowall's master narrative reflected more than his own obsession. The same narrative dominates the Female Benevolent Society Report. The Society's Board would come to blame McDowall for their inability to raise donations and several of their husbands would bring charges against him at the New York Presbytery. But they nonetheless defined the campaign of prevention and remedy in the same terms as he. Why?
The question is worth asking because the crusade against urban vice was the most conspicuous failure of antebellum reform. Anti-slavery culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. Temperance advocates succeeded in altering the way respectable people viewed the use of alcohol, even as their efforts to enforce prohibition through the Maine Law sputtered and then flamed out in the second half of the 1850s. Woman's rights activists made great strides in terms of gaining property and custody rights, in making divorce easier to obtain, and in gaining educational opportunities. But the crusade against licentiousness failed, utterly in terms of rescue, and partially in terms of transforming social attitudes. In the years following the Civil War, prostitution and other forms of vice remained as prevalent as ever, but Anthony Comstock led a successful effort to censor books, prints, and theatrical productions. He also successfully suppressed the discussion of "free love," sex education, and birth control. But there was a massive irony in these victories. Comstock did not seek to expose the profilgate. Quite the opposite. He tried to put Victoria Woodhull and her sister in jail for doing exactly that, for publishing the names and details of cases of seducers' bragging of their conquests. He labored instead to shore up the social hypocrisy the early reformers denounced. On the other hand, McDowall clearly anticipated Comstock's reliance on prudery as the antidote to licence.
Evangelical reform failed in this arena precisely because it was evangelical, i.e., brought the themes and methods of the revival to bear. It failed because it defined success in terms of redemption. Reform efforts that did enjoy some success — Lewis M. Pease's House of Industry in the Five Points or Charles Loring Brace's Children's Aid Society — explicitly abandoned revival methods early on.
Brace criticized what he called "too great a confidence in technical religious means," in his account of his work with the Children's Aid Society, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them (1872). He hastened to add that he "would not breathe a word against the absolute necessity of Christianity in any scheme of thorough social reform." The mistake he had in mind "is too great use of, or confidence in, the old technical methods—such as distributing tracts, and holding prayer-meetings, and scattering Bibles." Brace's choice of "scattering" is particularly dismissive. "The neglected and ruffian class which we are considering are in no way affected directly by such influences as these. New methods must be invented for them."