By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred sixty-six years ago this week, on Jan. 9, 1836, the first copies of a book entitled “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” went on sale. Purportedly written by a young women who had escaped from a Catholic convent in Montreal, it wove a sensational tale of sex, conspiracy, and murder. In an age of surging anti-Catholicism, it went on to become one of antebellum America’s best-selling books.
From its origins, America had a strong tradition of hostility toward Catholicism. But it was in the 1830s, as immigration from Ireland and Germany swelled the Catholic population in America, that the first full-blown nativist movement began. Many anti-Catholics focused on the questions of dogma and declared Catholicism a superstitious religion based on false ideas about the nature of faith, good works, saints, and transubstantiation. Others feared the power of the pope. As head of the papal states and possessor of an army, they viewed him as an autocratic leader and an enemy of republican government. Moreover, given the fact that Catholic dogma declared that all good Catholics owed complete allegiance to the pope, did that not disqualify Catholics as potential republican citizens? Wasn’t it possible, even likely, that the priests would control the votes of Catholic immigrants in America and thereby bring down the republic?
Based on these fears, nativists took action in the 1830s. Some politicians pledged to curb immigration while nativist ministers fulminated against the “whore of Babylon.” In several cities mobs led violent attacks against Catholics and their institutions.
Fueling this wave of hostility was an outpouring of anti-Catholic literature. Two of the decade’s most famous books, “The Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States” and “The Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States Through Foreign Immigration,” were written by Samuel F.B. Morse of telegraph fame. Another, by Rebecca Reed, “Six Months in A Convent” (1835), detailed the alleged kidnap and coerced conversion of Protestant girls at the hands of Catholic nuns and priests.
But none could hold a candle to Monk’s infamous “Awful Disclosures.” It told a lurid tale of her conversion to Catholicism and entry into the convent where, she soon learned the dark secrets of the faith, chief among them that nuns had to submit to the lustful desires of priests. As the book related:
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“The Superior now informed me that having taken the black veil. . . . I must be informed that one of my great duties was to obey the priests in all things; and this I soon learnt, to my utter astonishment and horror, was to live in the practice of criminal intercourse with them. I expressed some of the feelings which this announcement excited in me, which came upon me like a flash of lightning; but the only effect was to set her arguing with me, in favour of the crime, representing it as a virtue acceptable to God, and honourable to me. The priests, she said, were not situated like other men, being forbidden to marry; while they lived secluded, laborious, and self-denying lives for our salvation. They might be considered our saviours, as without their service we could not obtain pardon of sin, and must go to hell.”
Any babies resulting from these liaisons, wrote Monk, were immediately baptized, strangled, and buried in the convent basement.
According to the book, Monk soon became pregnant by one Fr. Phelan and fled the convent to save her child’s life. She made it to New York where, she checked into a charity hospital and delivered a baby girl. The book ends with her agreeing, at the urging of a visiting Protestant minister, to publish her tale of woe to warn Americans of the menace in their midst.
Already hyped for weeks before its publication in the pages of a nativist newspaper, The Protestant Vindicator, the book became an instant bestseller. In six months it sold 26,000 copies, a number that grew to hundreds of thousands in the coming 15 years. So popular was “The Awful Disclosures,” it outsold all other books before the Civil War except the Bible and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1853. It also inspired several copycat versions of the story and a sequel by Monk in 1837.
Remarkably, most of these books were sold long after Monk’s story was exposed as a fabrication. Catholic defenders and a few skeptical Protestant ministers conducted investigations that revealed Monk to be the victim of both a mental disorder and a cadre of nativists willing to exploit her for their own ends. According to her mother, Monk suffered from delusions resulting from a traumatic head injury. She’d run away with her boyfriend and been sent to a respected Catholic asylum for prostitutes in Montreal. Kicked out of the institution when officials discovered she was pregnant, she sought shelter at the Canadian Benevolent Society. There she met its director, William Hoyt, a zealous anti-Catholic missionary. Monk became his mistress and the two made for New York City. There Hoyt, with the assistance of several like-minded nativists, wrote the “Awful Disclosures.” The latter fact became known when the men sued each other for the profits from the book.
For a while Monk was a star performer on the nativist lecture circuit, but soon doubts about her the truthfulness of her story coupled with her own erratic behavior — to cover up her journey to Philadelphia with a male companion, she claimed she had been abducted by a group of priests intent on returning her to Canada — prompted her backers to distance themselves from her. After a second out-of-wedlock baby was born, she was abandoned without a penny in her pocket. She’d served them well and now the story had a life of its own.
Monk quickly disappeared into a life of poverty. A decade later she was arrested for theft while working in a brothel and sent to prison on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. She died there of consumption in September 1849 at the age of 33.
The fictional Maria Monk, however, lived on. Sales of “The Awful Disclosures” topped 300,000 by the Civil War and the book remained popular reading for decades thereafter. To this day the book remains in print, offered for sale as a truthful account of Catholic treachery by a variety of modern day anti-Catholic groups.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Jan. 10, 1922: Arthur Griffin is elected president of the Irish Free State.
Jan. 12, 1971: Former priest Philip Berrigan is indicted along with five others for anti-war actions.
Jan. 14, 1882: Boxer John L. Sullivan KOs Paddy Ryan in Mississippi to gain the heavyweight crown.
Jan. 12, 1729: Statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, in Dublin.
Jan. 14, 1919: TV commentator and writer Andy Rooney born in Albany, N.Y.
Jan. 15, 1921: Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O’Connor born in Philadelphia.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at >odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.