The Popery Panic

Mother Abbess Strangling the Infant; lithograph from an anti-Catholic pamphlet
‘Mother Abbess Strangling the Infant’; lithograph from the anti-Catholic pamphlet Popery!: As It Was and as It Is, 1845

In the early 1830s, the Hôtel-Dieu nunnery in Montreal was reportedly the site of illicit sex and mass murder. Lecherous priests from a nearby seminary snuck in through a secret tunnel and forced themselves on nuns. Scores of babies were born, baptized, strangled, and cast into a cellar. Lime was spread over the tiny corpses to speed their decomposition.

These stories appeared in Awful Disclosures, by Maria Monk, of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (1836), which became an instant best seller in the US. Its purported author, the “escaped nun” Maria Monk, claimed that the horrors she had witnessed in the nunnery had impelled her to flee. She wrote that she was so distraught by her experiences there that she twice attempted suicide. After escaping from the nunnery, she made her way to New York, where Protestant ministers helped her publish her narrative.

The book was a sham, perpetrated by minister friends of Monk’s. Its ghostwriter was most likely the Reverend George Bourne, who ran a nativist newspaper and had previously written a similarly salacious anti-Catholic exposé. Investigations of the nunnery yielded no evidence of the kind of behavior Monk had recounted. The respected Colonel William L. Stone, an influential New York journalist and public official, inspected it with Awful Disclosures in hand and concluded that she was never a nun but rather “an arrant imposter”; her book was “a tissue of calumnies,” and “the Priests and Nuns [were] innocent in this matter.” Monk’s mother testified that she had suffered brain damage as a child when she ran a pencil into her head and had drifted into prostitution as an adult. Monk had been living in a Montreal asylum for “fallen” women during the seven years she supposedly was at the nunnery. Exposed as a fraud, she sank into obscurity and poverty. In 1849, at thirty-two, she was living in an almshouse in New York when she was arrested for theft. She died in a penitentiary shortly thereafter.

The revelation that Awful Disclosures was a hoax concocted by Protestant men trying to stoke nativist fears of Catholics did not prevent the book from selling more than 300,000 copies before the Civil War and remaining in print to this day. It attained, as one historian writes, “the questionable distinction of being the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Know-Nothingism’”—a prominent anti-Catholic nativist movement.

As Cassandra L. Yacovazzi shows in her lively book Escaped Nuns, Awful Disclosures was a typical example of the anti-Catholic literature that captured the popular imagination during the antebellum period, when over twenty best-selling convent tales appeared. Among them were The Escaped Nun, The Female Jesuit, Priests’ Prisons for Women, The Captive Nun, The Haunted Convent, The Convent’s…

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