Category: Archive

Book of deceit

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

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 nativists denounced Catholicism on the basis of theology (i.e., transubstantiation), while others focused on the pope, whom they viewed as a monarch and an enemy of republican government. Because they owed complete allegiance to the pope, nativists argued, Catholics could never be good republican citizens. Their growing numbers raised fears that 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. 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 Irish priest named 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 America 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 best seller. In six months it sold 26,000 copies, a number which 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 complete 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 “wayward girls” and 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.

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