In this edition, I revisit a topic that I briefly explored as background in my very first foray into blogging and podcasting, which looked at the demagogue Lewis Charles Levin and his influence on the 1844 nativist riots in Philadelphia. I’ve decided to delve more deeply into nativism in American history not only because I feel that this story deserves a better telling than I gave it in 2016, but also because, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the embers of nativist sentiment that candidate Donald Trump fanned during his campaign erupt into flames during his presidency. And Donald Trump, during his first term, has done much to further encourage the nativist feelings that helped carry him into office. Say what you want about him as a chief executive, but he is not one to forget about the constituency that elected him and has consistently and tirelessly appealed to his base, which of course may help him in his bid for reelection. Soon after taking office, within days of being sworn in, in fact, he signed a series of executive orders that would certainly appeal to xenophobes and Americans that are fearful of foreigners. These orders stripped federal funds from cities that provided sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, drastically increased the numbers of immigration enforcement and border patrol officers, and built detainment facilities at the border. During the ensuing years, his administration faced significant criticism for a continuing year-over-year increase in arrests and removals by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE officers as well as for the policy of separating families and interning children at the U.S.–Mexican Border. Meanwhile, he has consistently pushed during budget negotiations to fund the concrete barrier, or wall, that he promised his supporters in 2016, even allowing the government to shut down over this sticking point, the most recent being the longest government shutdown in American history. As I write this, after a State of the Union address in which he threatened to do so, Trump has declared a state of National Emergency over a border crisis that he insists can only be resolved by building his proposed wall, while many insist there is no border crisis, or that the crisis is actually humanitarian and has been mischaracterized, or that the wall will cost too much and be ineffective. Clearly, the fear of immigrants and their perceived pernicious influence on society is a current issue, and so the situation demands an awareness of America’s history of nativist politics, lest we risk true historical blindness. In particular, Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban, the executive order that barred the entry of immigrants from certain countries whose inhabitants happened to share a predominate religion puts one in mind of the original objects of nativist aversion: European Catholics. Anti-Catholicism was the original engine of anti-immigrant sentiments, and to couch our analysis of that part of American history in a narrative, we shall look to the most popular, most influential anti-Catholic work every published in America. In 1836, the first edition of this book sold 40,000 copies, and it was the best-selling book in America for years, until it was finally surpassed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is certainly strange, then, that when the woman credited as its author died in 1849, she expired in an almshouse, and rather than remembering her accomplishments in her obituary, newspapers reported her death as though taking pleasure in the passing of a villain.
The woman presented as the author of the book in question, Maria Monk, told of her chaste Protestant youth. Her father, an officer of the British garrison in Montreal, died before she could know him, and her mother sent her away to a nunnery for her education, a common practice even among Protestants because of the well-known quality of Catholic schools. As she grew older, Maria Monk became interested in converting to take the veil and join the Black Nuns of the nearby Hotel Dieu Nunnery, a convent highly regarded for its charitable contributions to the community. So she converted and entered as a novice, toiling for years at the arduous tasks of sewing and candlemaking until such time as she received the black veil, took oaths and learned some terrible truths about the nunnery in which she had resided for so long. The Mother Superior explained to her that she must “obey the priests in all things,” and the principal thing they would demand of her was to have sexual intercourse with them. The Mother Superior explained that in this case, it was no crime but rather a virtue to offer this relief to the poor, secluded, ascetic priests without whose service all of mankind must burn in hell for lack of the pardoning of their sins. So after all, the convent was little more than a harem for the priesthood, she discovered, and on that first night, as a baptism of sorts, one priest summoned her to his private chambers, where she was brutally raped by three priests. And as if this violation were not horror enough, she also learned that beneath the nunnery lay a warren of secret tunnels connecting to other convents and churches through which the nuns were forced as a humiliation to walk on their hands and knees, and dungeons and torture chambers in which uncooperative nuns were held and branded like cattle and whipped with rods until they bled. Perhaps the most horrifying discovery she made was the fate of the children produced by the rape of the priests: these newborns were baptized, strangled to death, and discarded into a lime pit. Of course, Maria considered escape, but the example of another nun discouraged her. St. Frances, a beautiful nun, resisted the priests for fear of having a child that would be murdered, and for this crime they sentenced her to death, forcing the other sisters to watch as they laid her on a bed, threw another bed on top of her, and then jumped up and down on it, as many as the bed would hold, not only smothering St. Frances but battering and crushing her body. When she no longer drew breath, they threw her into the pit along with the decomposing infants.
Maria Monk often found herself imprisoned and tortured in those secret places beneath the convent, usually for an ill-considered comment to her Mother Superior. While there, she met a mentally unstable nun named Jane who shared her knowledge all of the secret places of the Hotel Dieu. Armed with this knowledge as well as the certainty that any child she bore would be promptly put to death, Maria Monk finally resolved to escape the nunnery when she discovered she was pregnant. Upon the pretense of seeking supplies for the physician, she managed to get herself out of the Hotel Dieu and fled Montreal for New York, where she ended up almost dying in childbirth at a charity hospital. It was there that she spoke frankly to a Protestant minister about her terrible experiences at the nunnery, and the minister encouraged her to tell the world. Thus was born her book, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal. First news of the book and its shocking revelations was published in October of 1835 in the Protestant Vindicator, teasing only that a nun was being sheltered by a group of Protestant ministers, and that she had recently escaped the Hotel Dieu nunnery pregnant with a priest’s child. Immediate outrage erupted in Montreal newspapers, from Catholic and Protestant alike, insisting the Vindicator retract their libel, for the nuns of the Hotel Dieu were looked upon as saintly women for feeding and clothing the poor and the sick, and ministering to the dying and their orphans. Moreover, the idea that such abominations would be ignored by everyone in their city or that they were all so blind as to be ignorant of them entirely was enough to incense nearly every resident of Montreal. But the publishers of the Protestant Vindicator insisted that more details and proofs would be forthcoming, and soon other Protestant publications joined in the promotion of the book, thus ensuring it would sell well and be widely read upon its publication, and indeed, within weeks, it had sold 20,000 copies.
The advance press and the scandal itself might seem an obvious explanation for the book’s success, but from another view, it may seem anomalous in the otherwise staid and prudish 1830s for so lurid a tale to find so wide an audience. For context, we must consider the rise in anti-Catholicism in those years. Since 1820, a fear of Catholic influence in America, as spread by Catholic immigrants, specifically Germans and the Irish, had welled up like sewage after a storm. Catholic populations had been growing in America since the Revolutionary War, but they had largely been communities of businessmen and artisans, and their religious institutions were admired for the way they gave back to their communities, as with the Catholic private schools in convents, to which even Protestants desired to send their children. In the early 19th century, however, the influx of poor and uneducated Catholic immigrants put many Protestants on guard. They saw diseases spreading in slums, as in New York in 1832, where cholera thrived among new immigrant populations, and they saw social services like poorhouses, asylums, and prisons spread thin because immigrants disproportionately filled them. Looking at these problems, Protestant ministers settled on the Catholic Church as the cause of many societal woes. Whereas before they had focused on doctrinal differences and theological disputes in their anti-Catholic messages, in the 1830s they began to attack them on moral grounds, selling a great number of pamphlets, books, and newspapers like the Protestant Vindicator by publishing sensationalist material that played on the public’s anxieties over gender roles and sexuality. Nuns who devoted themselves to God rather than to a husband, and priests who took vows of celibacy, could be seen as subverting traditional domestic and family roles, and some have seen this as the reason why much of the anti-Catholic literature of the day was focused on female sexuality and on seduction and rape narratives. Thus, when Maria Monk’s disclosures were published, they had a waiting audience ravenous for more and more lurid revelations about the Catholic bogeyman.
Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures fit comfortably into this genre of anti-Catholic literature that was doing well at the time. Some of the earliest entries in this category, like the 18th century titles Master-Key to Popery and Mysteries of Popery Unveiled, were simple exposes of priestcraft, illuminating the minutiae of sacramental rituals and the practices of inquisitors. Even these prefigure Monk's narrative, however, as they were often preoccupied with the practice of confession, which since the Middle Ages had been frowned upon for its suspected inappropriate contact between priests and the virtuous young women who confessed to them. This was the first sex scandal of the Catholic Church, and priests were sometimes subject to Inquisition themselves, for the crime of "solicitation," which today might be called sexual harassment. Interestingly, the confessional was invented during the Reformation to combat this precise problem, and originally they had been open air dividers to be used in public, meant to separate the confessor from her priest but not afford the priest any privacy. But these were not exposés of convents or heinous crimes committed therein. Some more contemporary anti-Catholic literature took the form of conspiracy theorizing, such as in Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, an 1835 collection of letters that Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, had written to the New York observer cautioning against the political influence of popery--a concern that would soon come to dominate Anti-Catholic thought. For more direct predecessors to Monk’s Disclosures we must look to fiction, particularly the gothic novel, among the many contemporary popular examples of which we find more than one story of nuns being exposed to the corruption and lechery of priests. The Nun, published in 1834, portrayed monks as nefarious sorts who lured women into nunneries, depicting a heroine, Clarice, who is held captive in a convent. That same year, in Lorette, History of Louise, Daughter of a Canadian Nun, readers followed a protagonist that was ill-used by a lecherous priest. And nunnery exposés were not just the stuff of fiction but explored in non-fiction as well, such as in 1834’s Female Convents and Open Convents in 1836, the latter of which claimed nuns were subject “to the savage and brutal lusts of men professing to be ministers of religion” (qtd. In Pagliarani 111). Nor even were Monk’s disclosures the first of their kind. A year earlier, one Rebecca Reed wrote of escaping from the terrors of another convent in Charlestown, outside of Boston, Massachusetts, in her Six Months in a Convent. Reed’s book did not sell as many copies as Monk’s, and in the long run, due to problems of credibility stemming from her unreliable character, neither was her story given as much weight as Monk’s, nevertheless it contributed significantly to a notorious riot in Charlestown.
During the year prior to its publication, Rebecca Reed’s manuscript was circulated locally, its allegations of captivity and abuse at the local Ursuline convent stirring up rumor and anti-Catholic resentment in an area where it already festered. By 1834, the population of indigent Irish Catholic immigrants in the greater Boston area had soared to 20,000, a fact resented by Yankee Protestant laborers who felt their work prospects were being undercut by this cheaper labor supply, a fear that had already led to numerous skirmishes among these workmen. Into this explosive atmosphere Reed injected her claims, further rousing suspicion and anger against a convent school whose students were actually predominately Protestant. Then one day, a nun from the convent showed up at a local man’s door, incoherent and wearing only a nightdress. A carriage soon arrived from the convent, from which the mother superior and a bishop emerged, explaining that the nun was suffering from a brain fever. They took the poor nun back to the convent and let it be known that her condition improved after her return. But that didn’t stop the rumors which Reed’s book had already set in motion. As the story spread, it was said that a nun had escaped her convent only to be recaptured and dragged back to her captivity. Newspapers took up the rumors, suggesting the poor escapee had endured torture prior to her escape and speculating that she had likely been murdered once recaptured. Placards appeared in public with threats, indicating that if the convent were not investigated, it would be demolished in four days’ time. These were not put up by anti-Catholic ministers but by truckmen, lower class workers of Boston who felt great resentment toward the Irish laborers who had become their competitors. In order to prevent this threatened mob action, town selectmen went the next day to inspect the nunnery and were led in their tour of the building by the very nun whose recent brain fever and wanderings had encouraged the furor. She was quite well now, and her thorough tour turned up no torture chambers or secret tunnels. But even as the selectmen prepared a statement for the newspapers, a mob gathered at the nunnery, three days before the time they had appointed.
They shouted for the mystery woman who had escaped and been recaptured to be set free, and the mother superior, in high dudgeon, threatened the mob, announcing sarcastically that if they didn’t leave, the bishop would unleash the power of the “twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command.” Of course, this only made matters worse. Pistol reports filled the night sky, and the mob increased, setting barrels of tar on fire to light the area and illuminate the imminent riot. When they finally broke through the front entry, the nuns were ushering their students out the back to hide by a tomb in the garden. From this vantage, they watched as the rioters, finding no evidence of the evils they imagined within, set about looting, breaking windows and dishes and picture frames, pushing furniture out onto the grounds, and setting fire to the interior of the beautiful school, hollering and laughing all the while. Firemen arrived, and they did nothing. In the aftermath, some few rioters were charged for their crimes, but all were either acquitted or pardoned. Rather than fueling anti-Catholic hysteria, the Ursuline riot of 1834 garnered sympathy for the plight of the Catholic in America and caused many Protestants to temper their anti-Catholic rhetoric. After this egregious incident and the subsequent publication of Reed’s book, which was implicated in the affair, it is perhaps not surprising that the most popular convent exposés and escaped nun narratives tended to expose the goings-on of nunneries in foreign countries, which could safely be accused of improprieties and iniquities without fear of accidentally inciting violence against them. So in 1836, we see Rosamond: or, a Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female under the Popish Priests, in the Island of Cuba, and we see The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, with its horror stories set in a Canadian convent.
However, Canada was simply not far enough away for the calumnies to go unanswered. While the nuns and the bishop of Hotel Dieu would not lower themselves to respond to such nonsense, the newspapermen of Montreal did. A very public investigation was conducted, with numerous affidavits sworn. A variety of respectable citizens of the city went on record that the Hotel Dieu was a perfectly reputable establishment, and that Maria Monk was known as a vagrant and a woman who made her living by disgraceful means on the streets, a “stroller” (Sullivan). Most damning was the affidavit sworn by Maria Monk’s own mother, which revealed the true life story of the increasingly infamous woman. Maria was born to a Protestant family in Quebec around 1816. She had been an unruly child, made even more disorderly after a brain injury she had suffered as a toddler: a slate pencil had been thrust deeply into her ear. From that time onward, her mother claimed that she had indulged in outrageous fantasies. These troubled her all her life and must have bordered on delusions as eventually, after some time spent in prostitution, she was committed to the care of the Magdalene asylum in Montreal. This had been her only contact with Catholic nuns, and it came to an abrupt end when she became pregnant while an inmate there. The nuns had turned her out into the street, and it was then that she met one William Hoyte, anti-Catholic activist and head of the Canadian Benevolent Society, who took her to New York and encouraged her to spread the story of her captivity in a convent. Maria’s mother even swore that Hoyte had offered to pay her off if she would corroborate her daughter’s claims, but she refused, feeling that he was taking advantage of her brain damaged daughter. All of these statements were published and circulated not only in Montreal but beyond as well, for some Montreal newspapermen collaborated on a book that refuted Maria’s Awful Disclosures called Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals Against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, Through the Intervention of Maria Monk. Their book, however, was not widely read, and William Hoyte and the cabal of nativist agitators responsible for promoting Monk’s book, among them certain Protestant ministers such as Reverend J. J. Slocum and Reverend George Bourne, assured the public through their anti-Catholic mouthpiece newspapers, that these affidavits were simply lies promoted by the Catholic Church to dupe the foolish Protestants who lived among them in Montreal.
One American Protestant newspaperman, Colonel William Leete Stone, happened to be travelling through Canada in the autumn of 1836, and harboring some nativist sentiments himself, he could not resist the urge to go see for himself the terrible sins in which the priests and nuns of Montreal might have been engaged. Colonel Stone walked every inch of the Hotel Dieu and the Magdalene asylum and two other convents in the city, never finding any sign of mass graves, torture chambers, or hidden passageways. Upon his return to New York, he interviewed Maria Monk herself, and finding that she could not accurately describe the convent, he declared in his pamphlets and in his newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, which was one of the most widely read in the city, that Monk was a fraud. This certainly injured her credibility, but still supporters clung to the truth of her book. That same year, however, further revelations emerged from the courts, where a series of lawsuits among the coterie of nativists surrounding Monk hauled the secrets of the whole affair into the open. It turned out that Maria Monk had been the mistress of William Hoyte, but after he brought her to New York and introduced her to the others in his nativist circle, she left him to be the mistress of Reverend J. J. Slocum, and now Slocum was encouraging her to sue for a better share in the profits of the book. As the suits commenced, it became clear that, although Maria Monk’s name appeared on the book, its principal authors were the aforementioned trio of Hoyte, Slocum and Bourne. Nevertheless, when one wants to believe something, all sorts of mental gymnastics can ensure it remains believable, like insisting that these nativists only helped her put down what were her true recollections, that they were ghost writers rather than hoaxers. And so the book kept selling, so much so that a rival nativist newspaperman, Samuel B. Smith, wanted a piece of the action and, unbelievably, produced his own supposed escaped nun, Francis Patrick, whom he claimed had also fled the Hotel Dieu. This Francis Patrick, though, was an outright fiction, played in public by a woman named Frances Partridge, and her story, published by Smith in The Escape of Sainte Francis Patrick, Another Nun of the Hotel Dieu, was more widely disbelieved. Therefore, when Maria Monk met her and wrapped her in a hug and announced through tears that she had known Francis Patrick at the Hotel Dieu, rather than lending credibility to Patrick’s claims, it only further discredited her own. The next year, Maria Monk left Reverend Slocum, then her legal guardian, and ran away to Philadelphia with some unknown man. There she disappeared, eventually turning up on the doorstep of a doctor with a new story, claiming that a band of Catholic priests had kidnapped her and held her in a Catholic asylum in Philadelphia with plans to spirit her back to Montreal. The doctor contacted her guardian, Reverend Slocum in New York, who eventually came to get her, but not before the physician had spoken at great length with Maria about her abduction. Finding her story inconsistent, this doctor further damaged her trustworthiness in the public’s eyes when he published a pamphlet called An Exposure of Maria Monk’s Pretended Abduction and Conveyance to the Catholic Asylum, Philadelphia, by Six Priests on the Night of August 15, 1837: with Numerous Extraordinary Incidents during her Residence of Six Days in This City.
Soon Slocum, trying to rehabilitate her reputation, arranged for the publication of a sequel to Awful Disclosures, titled Further Disclosures by Maria Monk concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, the substantial profits of which, as her guardian, Slocum kept entirely for himself. That same year, Maria became pregnant, and Slocum abandoned her to destitution and public denigration. She disappeared from the public eye after that, only showing up in the historical record again just before her death in a poorhouse, when she was arrested for picking her own boyfriend’s pocket. This woman went from being held up as a paragon of Protestant virtue, inspiring a nation’s sympathy as the ultimate victim of the wicked foreign power that was Catholicism, to being a blurb in an 1849 newspaper, which announced, “There is an end of Maria Monk” (Pelchat).
But there seems to be no end to her awful disclosures. After the conspiracy behind the book was exposed, after she was thoroughly discredited, even after her final ignominious end, her books sold and sold. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and even into the 20th, the worst continued to be believed about what went on behind closed doors in convents. And in the form of tracts circulated by evangelical groups, this known hoax continues to be disseminated, showing up in 1961 when Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned for president, and again in 1995 when Catholic traditionalist Pat Buchanan sought the Republican nomination for president. Much like the insidious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this lie just won’t die because if they want to, some people will stubbornly believe even the most thoroughly debunked fraud and will spread it to others who don’t know any better.
And of course, the fact that the Catholic Church is so mired in current scandals having to do with inappropriate sexual contact certainly doesn't help the public discern what they should believe when exposed to hoaxes like these. Just last month, in fact, Pope Francis declared that his predecessor, Pope Benedict, had dissolved an order of nuns in France because of allegations that priests there kept the nuns in "sexual slavery." A story like this might cause one to wonder if escaped nun narratives like Maria Monk's were actually true... but then the evidence that they were frauds rather causes one to wonder if these modern accusations might not be a similar kind of hoax. But there is every reason to believe recent accusations made by nuns encouraged by the #MeToo movement against abusive priests, as reported on by the Associated Press, not to even mention the massive, ongoing pedophilia scandal. So we are left with some cognitive dissonance, believing accusations against the modern church but disbelieving previous claims. However, the difference of motivation and the presence of ulterior motive must be considered here. The struggle of sexual assault victims to overcome fear and shame in order to bravely expose their abusers must be differentiated from the machinations of those seeking through bald-faced deception to promote the fear and resentment of an entire class of people based on race or religion.
Franchot, Jenny. “Two ‘Escaped Nuns’ Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk.” Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism, University of California Press, 1994, publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft1x0nb0f3&chunk.id=d0e2483&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e1634&brand=ucpress.
Frink, Sandra. “Women, the Family, and the Fate of the Nation in American Anti-Catholic Narratives, 1830-1860.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 18, no. 2, 2009, pp. 237–264. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40663352.
Hughes, Ruth. “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.” University of Pennsylvania, www.sas.upenn.edu/~traister/hughes.html.
Kennedy, Kathleen. “The Nun, The Priest, and the Pornographer: Scripting Rape in Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures.” Genders, no. 57, 2013, Academic OneFile, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A324981030/AONE?u=sjdc_main&sid=AONE&xid=67fbbac8.
Pagliarini, Marie Anne. “The Pure American Woman and the Wicked Catholic Priest: An Analysis of Anti-Catholic Literature in Antebellum America.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 9, no. 1, 1999, pp. 97–128. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1123928.
Pelchat, André. “Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures” Beaver, vol. 88, no. 6, p.28. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login/aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=36006571&site=ehost-live.
Prioli, Carmine A. “The Ursuline Outrage.” American Heritage, February/March 1982, www.americanheritage.com/ursuline-outrage.
Sullivan, Rebecca. “A Wayward from the Wilderness: Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures and the Feminization of Lower Canada in the Nineteenth Century.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 62, Fall 1997, p. 201. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=339667&site=ehost-live.