Harmon’s Common Sin

Imagine that it’s 1834 and you’re in a crowded tavern, drinking ale. Women of dubious morals giggle at your side and despite your determination to resist, temptation abounds. Since entering the establishment, you have narrowly avoided committing three minor and one intermediate transgression, but your greatest fear is the sins you do not know. Luckily, in your pocket is a newly published book to guide you, the second volume of John Harmon’s “Common Sin and its Causes Expounded, with an aid to identification,” the first “field guide” to vices. Having had the foresight to buy the book, you leave the tavern seven hours later with your virtue intact.

The first volume of Harmon’s guide, published in 1832 and intended for home study, presented an alphabetical list of sins. It remains a valuable resource on transgressions available in the nineteenth century. The revolutionary second volume, the field guide, sold out within weeks of its December 1834 release. To use the guide, you began by choosing your current location from an extensive list, among which were home, a tavern, in the forest, at a house of ill repute, near a grist mill, on the battlefield, at worship, at the tannery. Your location established, the section presented a series of questions, each answer followed by instructions leading to additional questions, narrowing the possibilities until presenting three probable sins. Amazingly, anecdotes abound of persons committing the transgressions identified in the guide, even those the reader did not know existed until consulting the book.

The index alone was a delight. Under the heading, “Bathsheba,” Harmon has written: “See rooftop nudity.”

Despite its success, readers intent on avoiding an intermediate vice would often commit a serious infraction. Often cited is the example of young Philadelphia papermaker Samuel Howper. After consulting Harmon’s guide in the company of his fiancée and discovering that his probable sin was “committing unseemly acts,” Howper killed her instead. At his trial, Howper defended himself by blaming Harmon, to no avail. Still refusing to accept responsibility, he was hanged three weeks later.

The first illustrated edition, published in 1968, “expanded, with 72 new vices,” was an international bestseller, though generally used more as a how-to manual than in the manner intended by its author. Harmon’s guide enjoyed a brief resurgence during the Clinton administration, but is now out of print and copies are more often found in the erotica section of the bookstore than in their proper place. When you can turn to the internet and discover the latest immoral craze, or join a club and have a vice delivered to your door each week, the concept of a printed sin guide seems quaint.

Still, some people keep their dog-eared copies handy. It remains a distinct pleasure to find yourself beset by temptation when Harmon’s guide is nearby. You pull it from your pocket, turn the browning pages, discover the sins you are wont to commit, and take evasive action.

Sycamore Shadows resident Shady Glen never leaves home without his copy. “I don’t need these new-fangled electronic sins,” he says. “My daddy’s sins is good enough for me.”

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