If you’re in the mood for some cheap–heck, free–lowbrow reading, I can recommend George Thompson’s brief autobiography, My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson, which you can find at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Thompson offers up a double murder plus suicide, blackmail, robbery, gambling, teenage drunkenness, prostitution, child abuse, and adultery–and that’s just in the first three chapters.
George Thompson’s name won’t be found in too many histories of American literature. That’s because his claim to fame was as perhaps our country’s first great writers of trash. Thompson wrote dozens, maybe hundreds of works with such titles as Venus in Boston, The Gay Girls of New-York, The Mysteries of Bond Street, Adventures of a Sofa, and The Amorous Adventures of Lola Montes, which were as popular and pandering in their day as, say, “Jersey Shore” or “Date My Ex” are today. As David S. Reynolds puts it in an entry on “Sensational Fiction”, “Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, and gay sex.” These books were sold by publishers advertising “Rich, Rare and Racy Reading,” and sold for 25 or 50 cents–equivalent to $50 to $100 today, if Internet inflation calculators are reliable.
No surprise, then, that he lays the melodrama on thick when it comes to telling his own life’s story. He runs away from home after knocking his uncle down a staircase and quickly meets up with one Jack Slack, a thief and swell barely older than him, who proceeds to introduce Thompson to beer and champagne. Before the night is over, they’ve met up with a prostitute and fallen into a card game. “What wonder is it that I became a reckless, dissipated individual, careless of myself, my interests, my fame and fortune?,” Thompson reflects.
Methinks he doth protest too much.
He gets a job working as a printer’s apprentice, but the work is, of course, merely the pretext for introducing us into the tangled affairs of the printer and his wife, both of whom are cheating on the other. This soon leads to one of the book’s many dramatic climaxes, as the enraged husband offers the wife one final choice:
With these words, Romaine cocked his pistol and approached his wife, saying, in a low, savage tone that evinced the desperate purpose of his heart—
“Take your choice, madam; do you prefer to die by lead or by steel?”
The miserable woman threw herself upon her knees, exclaiming—
“Mercy, husband—mercy! Do not kill me, for I am not prepared to die!”
“You call me husband now—you, who have so long refused to receive me as a husband. Come—I am impatient to shed your blood, and that of your paramour. Breathe a short prayer to Heaven, for mercy and forgiveness, and then resign your body to death and your soul to eternity!”
So saying the desperate and half-crazy man raised on high the glittering knife. Poor Mrs. Romaine uttered a shriek, and, before she could repeat it, the knife descended with the swiftness of lightning, and penetrated her heart. Her blood spouted all over her white dress, and she sank down at the murderer’s feet, a lifeless corpse!
Now that experience would have been enough for a lifetime for most folks, but it’s just the beginning in Thompson’s case.
Eventually, after a detour into acting, a jail break, a few dozen romantic entanglements and enough other scandals that one soon gives up keeping track, Thompson decides to head to the peace and civility of Brahmin Boston. Oddly, however, for a man who made his fortune on telling other people’s secrets, Thompson took great offense at the prying nature of Bostonians:
A stranger goes among them, and forthwith inquisitive whispers concerning him begin to float about like feathers in the air. “Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? What’s his business? Has he got any money? (Great emphasis is laid on this question.) Is he married, or single? What are his habits? Is he a temperance man? Does he smoke—does he drink—does he chew? Does he go to meeting on Sundays? What religious denomination does he belong to? What are his politics? Does he use profane language? What time does he go to bed—and what time does he get up? Wonder what he had for dinner to-day?” &c., &c., &c.
Thompson spends just one year in Boston before heading back to the fleshpots of New York, which is where the book comes to an end. Not, however, before he has a chance to swear that “not one single word of fiction or exaggeration has been introduced into these pages.”
And I am Marie of Roumania.