This is part two of a three-part series about escaped nuns and anti-Catholicism in early Nineteenth Century America. You don’t have to read the entire series to understand each individual story, but it would provide extra context that might be helpful. Part one, about nativists destroying a Boston convent in 1834, can be found here. Part three, about attempts by the Know-Nothings to use anti-Catholic propaganda to sway elections in 1854, can be found here.
If you are in Montreal, the Exchange Coffee House is the place to be. Well, at least it was back in the 1800s. It was a rest stop for travelers, a hangout spot for locals, popular with businessmen and intellectuals and everybody who liked a leisurely meal washed down with a hot cup of brown joy and maybe a beer and a shot. Or two. Or three.
On August 19, 1835 four strangers walked into the Exchange: two well-dressed men accompanied by a pretty, dark-eyed woman with a newborn baby. The taller and younger of the two claimed to be the Reverend William K. Hoyte, President of the Canadian Benevolent Association, and introduced his companions as “Judge Turner” and “Maria Monk.”
They had an incredible story to tell, one that the good people of Montreal needed to hear.
Miss Monk was a nun — or rather, she had been. During her time at the city’s famous Hôtel-Dieu convent and hospital she had uncovered its terrible secret: it was secretly a bordello whose residents were whored out to the priests of nearby Notre Dame Cathedral. She had witnessed every sort of perversity and depravity imaginable, and had been forced to participate in these sinful orgies against her will. Eventually she could take it no more and escaped, only to discover that she had been impregnated by one of the city’s most respected priests. Now she had returned to destroy the convent with the only weapon at her disposal: the truth.
Were the good people of Montreal willing to listen?
Back in the day Protestants were kind of weird about nuns. They felt that a woman’s place was in the home as a wife and mother, and that the celibate life of a nun was a perversion of that natural order. Since no one would willingly be so perverse, nuns must have been tricked into taking the veil and then locked away by priests to prevent them from taking it off.
Many Protestants suspected that the deception went deeper, that celibacy itself was a front. Nuns, you see, were actually hyper-sexual harlots who got up to things that would make an incubus blush. It was hardly a new idea — there are naughty nuns in the Decameron, for Heaven’s sake — but it had been given new life by the Reformation. It helped that there was an element of truth to it. Even back then the Catholic Church had seen more than its fair share of sex scandals, any many of them involved nuns and convents. No one had ever been able to prove that this behavior was systemic or widespread, but it did happen.
Maria Monk’s tale was perfectly crafted to rouse lapsed Protestants and force them to take decisive action. Decisive action like, say, burning down a convent and outlawing Catholicism once and for all.
The only problem was, Montreal wasn’t Protestant. Lower Canadians were very French and very very Catholic.
They were also quite familiar with the Canadian Benevolent Association, and knew that its “benevolence” largely consisted of the distribution of anti-Catholic literature. Rev. Hoyte himself was little more than a door-to-door salesman reduced to selling Bibles nobody wanted because they were the expurgated Protestant editions without the gannet… er, Ecclesiasticus.
Once again Canadians had no interest in buying whatever it was that Hoyte was selling. After a few weeks Hoyte and Monk gave up and took their show on the road, hoping to find a more receptive audience somewhere else.
Somewhere like New York City.
The United States was a Protestant nation, though Protestants were being driven apart by sectional differences and quickly losing ground to Catholic immigrants. The country’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite were grasping at straws to retain their control on culture and religion, and anti-Catholicism was the order of the day.
Hoyte and Monk soon found themselves hobnobbing with some of the country’s most famous Protestant social reformers, including prominent abolitionists Arthur Tappan and George Bourne; newspaper publishers Theodore Dwight, Samuel B. Smith, and William Craig Brownlee; and well-known painter and conspiracy theorist Samuel F. Morse.
Their new American friends became convinced that the horrors of the Hôtel-Dieu had to be shared with the world, so Protestants would finally rise up and overthrow the evils of popery. To that end Hoyte sat down and transcribed Monk’s stories into a manuscript, which was then hammered into a publishable state by a veritable army of ghost writers. As each chapter was finished, W.C. Brownlee published an excerpt in his crusading newspaper, The Protestant Vindicator. The public was hooked, and copies flew off the stands.
It was clear that the book would be an instant best-seller. The Harper Brothers had snatched up the publication rights, but were conflicted. Monk’s memoir was sensationalistic trash — heck, by the standards of the day it was downright pornographic — and that didn’t fit with their dignified and aloof reputation. They wound up starting a second company, Howe & Bates, fronted by two of their employees but with the Harpers calling all the shots behind the scenes. The brothers would get all of the money, and Howe & Bates would get all of the opprobrium.
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
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 was published in January 1836. (And they say the modern publishing industry has a problem with concise titles.) Here’s a quick summary.
Miss Maria Monk was the only daughter of two Scottish immigrants to Lower Canada. The Monks were nominally Presbyterian but not particularly religious; they did not have a Bible and rarely went to church services. After Maria’s father died unexpectedly she and her mother Isabella had to make do with his meager government pension.
For several years Maria attended a Catholic school, not because of any particular religious conviction but purely because it was convenient and local. Maria was not a talented student. She did not study the Catechism the nuns gave her, and let her mind wander when the priests began lecturing about the “evil tendencies” of the “Protestant Bible.”
As a teenager Maria decided become a nun. Her reasons remain obscure, especially since she did not seem to have any sort of religious awakening. If I had to guess I would wager that her childhood experiences had given her a mistaken impression that life in a convent was all play and no work, and found that preferable to a life of scutwork and poverty. (The subject of our previous episode, Rebecca Reed, made the exact same mistake.)
It turned out becoming a nun was easy. Maria convinced a local priest that she was sincere, and a few weeks later she was admitted to the “Black Nunnery” of the Hôtel-Dieu. Maria joined a group of forty other novices, who worked day and night sewing and weaving and lacemaking. The items they crafted were sold to pay for the upkeep of the convent.
It wasn’t long before Maria found herself bored by a simple life of humility, obedience, hard work, and prayer. She did not get along with the other nuns, who she found cold, reserved and cliquish. To make things interesting she starting palling around with the convent’s resident bad girl, “Mad” Jane Ray. Jane never took anything seriously, not even Jesus or her vows; was too jaded to take orders from anyone, not the Mother Superior, not the priests; and fought her own boredom by staging mean-spirited practical jokes and pranks.
The first thirty or so pages are very similar to Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent. Essentially, what you have is a befuddled, indignant Protestant compiling a listicle of all the wacky things Catholics do. Some were true but banal, some were exaggerated half truths, and others were outright lies.
- Their Bible has extra chapters! (Well, yes, but only because Protestants excised a few books from the Old Testament.)
- They have rites and rituals that originate from outside the Bible! (Almost every Christian church has beliefs that originate outside scripture, especially when it comes to actual worship rites. I mean, have you ever read the New Testament? It’s not exactly big on form and ritual.)
- Priests tell them what’s in the Bible and don’t let them read it for themselves! (Catholics are allowed to read the Bible. This was weird Protestant bug-a-boo at the time. Contemporary Catholic Bibles were study Bibles, and Protestants felt that the commentary they provided was interfering with your ability to make an independent interpretation…)
- Priests and nuns are infallible and can’t commit sins! (What? No. Only Pope is infallible, and only when speaking ex cathedra, and frankly, even that infallibility is frequently debated…)
- That means it’s okay for them to lie if it was for a good cause! (Where do I even start?)
After four or five years as a novice, Maria began beefing with another nun, so the Mother Superior stepped in to maintain the peace. Maria became indignant at the thought of having to apologize when she felt she was in the right, and quit the convent in a fit of pique. She moved upstream to Saint-Denis, got a job as a teacher’s assistant, and fell in love with a handsome young man. Friends tried to warn her away from her new beau, but she didn’t listen and soon they were married.
She should have listened. Maria’s new husband left her after only a few weeks.
Husbandless, jobless, and penniless, Maria did the only thing she could think of: she went crawling back to the Hôtel-Dieu. She begged the Mother Superior for forgiveness, promised to be a better nun, and conveniently forgot to mention that she was still married. The Mother Superior relented and agreed to let Maria back in.
This time, though, she would have to pay an initiation fee, a sort of “dowry” scraped together for the brides of Christ. The Church had waived it for Maria’s first go-around, but refused to do so now. Maria scraped together the money — by going to the bank and stealing what was left of her father’s pension from her mother’s accounts.
After being readmitted to the convent Maria was Confirmed in the Catholic faith, spent a solid year studying and praying, and took the veil, becoming Sister Ste. Eustace.
That very night the Mother Superior finally revealed the horrible truth: her true purpose as a nun was to be a sexual plaything for priests. Whenever a priest dropped to satisfy his urges, she was expected to take care of them. To facilitate this clerical canoodling the convent and nearby cathedral were connected by a series of secret chambers and passages that allowed visitors to come and go unobserved.
Of course, these unholy affairs would eventually result in pregnancy. When pregnant nuns started to show, they were hidden from the prying eyes of the public in the inner cloister. Once they gave birth their children were Baptized and strangled to death so they would go right to Heaven in a state of Grace. Then their bodies were dumped into a giant quicklime pit in the lowest sub-cellar. Every convent in the world had a similar pit, filled with the decaying bodies of thousands upon thousands of murdered babies.
Not every nun was willing to play along, of course, at least not at first. Anyone who resisted was tortured until they decided to play ball. These tortures were fiendishly clever. Some nuns were forced to wear a cap that gave them terrible seizures somehow. Others were prodded with red-hot pokers until the flesh sloughed off their bones. The truly recalcitrant were bricked up inside their cells and forced to starve… or just die.
The nuns who were in on the gag were like high school mean girls, forming themselves into cliques, stabbing each other in the back to catch the eyes of the hottest priests, and even brawling in the halls of the convent like girl gangs.
The meanest girl of all, the queen bee, was the Mother Superior. Get on her good side and she might exempt you from chores; get on her bad side and she’d make you drink her bath water. Really get on her bad side and she’d have you killed. One nun who crossed her was sandwiched between two mattresses, which dozens of nuns and priests jumped up and down on until she was squashed flat. Mad Jane Ray fared no better: she was eventually given over to a priest with a thing for bondage, beaten and bloodied, and wound up choking to death in a weird shibari set-up.
Maria was too shocked by these revelations to resist, and went along with it all for a while. Eventually she attracted the attentions of Montreal’s most distinguished priest, Father Patrick Phelan. Soon she was pregnant with Father Phelan’s child.
When Maria realized she was pregnant she started stumbling around the convent in a daze. During these wanderings she stumbled across a ledger that tracked every baby who had been born in the convent; she leafed back two years and was horrified to realize there were hundreds of names on the list.
That shocked her out of her torpor, and she swore to escape. A few days later she snuck into a side yard and slipped out through an unguarded gate.
Well, the Harper Brothers were right. The public could not get enough of Maria’s lurid memoir, and snapped up copies faster than Howe & Bates could print them. Some readers were trying to keep up with current events, others were activists looking for a new cause, and many were just perverts who skipped right to the dirty bits. The Awful Disclosures sold some 26,000 copies in its first six months on the market, which is an astounding number for the time.
But did the public believe the substance of Maria’s accusations? Well, the book certainly primed them to. The Awful Disclosures is a masterclass on how to indoctrinate someone into a conspiracy theory. It starts off with low stakes revelations that are easily verifiable (“Look how silly Catholics are!”), gradually introduces harder stuff that’s harder to check (“Hey, isn’t this heresy?”), and then whammo! it flips a switch and goes full-bore crazy (“Catholics are murdering hundreds of babies right in your own back yard!”)
There were certainly skeptics, people who felt that the whole story had been invented to stir anti-Catholic sentiment. Most readers seemed to echo the thoughts of W.C. Brownlee, who declared that “no candid person… can read this straightforward narrative of Maria Monk without deep conviction of its truth.”
Most male readers, at least. Whether you found Maria Monk credible or not depended on how badly you wanted to bang her. Here’s how she was described by a particularly fawning article in the New York Herald:
Looking over the shoulder of a good lady, in a line between her Bird of Paradise and her shawl, Maria appeared to be of a very delicate stature; her age does not exceed twenty-one, which, to a bachelor like us, is an important element in making up an algebraic equation as to the truth of her statements. Her eye was dark, with a fine lambent light shining from under the eye-lashes, like the first ray [of] morn over “the russet clad hill.” Her complexion is fair and delicate, — the texture soft and silky, far beyond the beautiful fancy articles of Bailey, Keeler, & Remsem, 75 Broad-street. Her hair is a fine dark brown, hanging in long, loose, neglected tresses, down her finely chisselled [sic] alabaster neck, that no doubt attracted the attention of those excellent judges of female beauty, who haunt the convents. The general expression of Maria’s face, is interesting and intellectual; yet — “Melancholy has marked her for its own,” partly arising from the many unpleasant recollections of her nunnery life. Maria moves gracefully, with a light step, a slight Grecian bend,—and so much of the pure woman is there about her that no one — no editor, no clergyman, no man, no philosopher, can see her without feeling an interest in her behalf.“Maria Monk, the nun.” New York Herald, 6 Feb 1836
The Herald reporter was hardly alone. Dozens of well-to-do Protestant lads were eager to white knight for a pretty young damsel in distress. Samuel F. Morse was so smitten that he planned on proposing to Monk. His friend James Fenimore Cooper had to talk him out of it by reminding him that her marriage had never been annulled. Morse had to settle for making anti-Catholicism a central plank of his run for mayor of New York on the anti-immigrant Native American Democratic Association ticket. (Morse finished a very distant third with only a thousand votes.)
The Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals Against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada
The people of Lower Canada were utterly befuddled by the reception The Awful Disclosures were receiving in the United States. It was pretty obvious to them that the book’s allegations were crazy, and the only conclusion they could reach was that Americans were equally crazy. Someone would have to put the record straight.
That someone would not be the Catholic Church. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the clergy wanted to speak up, but realized that Americans were not kindly disposed to official Church statements — indeed, they usually made things worse, as they had in Charlestown the previous year. It was decided that the Church would just keep mum, and hope the hubbub died down quickly.
Lay Catholics, though, they were ready for a fight. They had been assembling a dossier on Hoyte and Monk’s ever since the duo’s trip to Montreal the previous summer. They published their findings in a slim volume called The Awful Exposure of The Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals Against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, or, as it was more commonly known, The Priests’ Book. (Which was ironic, because the priests themselves wanted nothing to do with it.)
It was the first of many attempts to expose The Awful Disclosures as a work of fiction. It addressed every aspect of Maria Monk’s tale, and did so thoroughly and decisively.
So of course no one believed it.
One of the core weaknesses of The Awful Disclosures is that Maria Monk and her ghostwriters did not really understand Catholicism. They thought the Catholic Bible had extra books in the New Testament. They seemed to think you could enter a convent without being Confirmed as a Catholic, which is not true. They did not seem to know the difference between a postulant and a novice, which a former Catholic nun definitely should. They did not know how long the typical postulancy or novitiate should last. They did not know the difference between the three separate orders of nuns that operated in Montreal and constantly confused them with each other. For some reason they also seemed to think the nuns at the Hôtel-Dieu sold textiles, when they actually ran a hospital.
Catholic observers could only conclude that Maria Monk had never even been Catholic, let alone a nun. It’s a fair assessment. The problem was that anti-Catholics just didn’t care. They felt Monk’s mistakes were minor errors that didn’t affect the overall thrust of the story. That is, of course, assuming that they were actual errors and the Jesuits weren’t up to their old tricks and trying to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. After all, everyone knew that Catholic priests were allowed to lie for the good of the faith. It said so in The Awful Disclosures.
Okay, said Catholic critics, then why don’t we address the plagiarism? The tortures described in The Awful Disclosures were clearly plagiarized from a obscure Portuguese anti-Catholic pamphlet, The Gates of Hell Opened, or, a Development of the Secrets of Nunneries.
Except someone dug up a copy of The Gates of Hell Opened and whoops, there was no plagiarism. The critics who used that line of attack were instantly discredited. Then just to rub salt in the wounds anti-Catholics who hadn’t read either book doubled down, claiming any similarities between the two books were the inevitable consequence of their being based on real events.
All right then, how about Maria Monk herself? She was clearly a terrible person — she admitted it in her own book, when she talked about lying to nuns and stealing from her own mother. Maybe there was something in her background that could be used to discredit her. So Canadian Catholics pieced together Monk’s true story, and it wasn’t pretty.
Maria Monk was actually born in St. John’s to Scottish immigrants. That much, at least, is true. However, she was born in 1816 or 1817, making her only nineteen years old at the time The Awful Disclosures were published, which throws the entire timeline of her book into question. Maria was claiming to have spent somewhere between five and eight years at the Hôtel-Dieu, meaning she would have been an eleven-year-old postulant. That’s not entirely out of question, except it also turns out her movements during those years were pretty well documented.
Maria’s father did die of “apoplexy” in 1824 but there was no government pension because he did not work for the government. Her mother Isabella did, because after she became a widow she started housekeeping for the government house in Montreal to make ends meet.
That meant she had less time for her daughter, who started getting into trouble. One day Maria and a friend were playing around, taking turns jamming slate pencils into each other’s ears as one does. One of those slate pencils got stuck, and would give Maria intermittent migraines for the rest of her life. It also changed her personality. Once she had been sweet, but now she was now a “wayward child” “prone to concocting the most ridiculous and plausible lies.” Her unruly behavior got her kicked out of several schools, including one run by the Sisters of Charity.
In 1829 twelve-year-old Maria ran away from home and stowed away on a steamship, the Hercules, bound for Québec. When she was caught, Maria tried to throw herself out of a window into the St. Lawrence River. The crew had to wrestle her to the floor and confine her a cabin for the remainder of the journey. The captain took pity on her and gave her a free ride back to Montreal, where she was returned to her mother.
Mrs. Monk decided that Maria was out of control, and tried to get her into an environment where she would learn discipline: the local convent. Except the nuns didn’t want Maria, for several reasons: the Monks were so poor they could not afford the dowry; Maria was a known troublemaker who now had an actual criminal record; and most importantly of all, the Monk’s weren’t Catholic.
Maria mooted the problem by running away from home again. For the next five years she was a vagrant, picking up odd jobs and lodgings from soft-hearted marks who she would inevitably steal from. She traveled up and down the river, never staying anywhere for more than a few months.
In October 1834 Maria left the village of Varennes after stealing a lady’s veil and a silver watch, which she pawned in Montreal. This time her former boss swore out a formal complaint, and Maria was arrested. Then constable Louis Malo offered Maria a deal: sleep with him and he would let her off with warning. That worked for Maria, and the two started a relationship.
Well, either Louis was a terrible lay or Maria had more problems that we know about, because a few weeks later on November 9 she attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the Lachine Canal. A local worker pulled her out before she could drown.
Maria told her rescuer that she was the daughter of Dr. William Robertson, the local justice of the peace. She was promptly taken to Dr. Robertson’s house, where she suddenly changed her story — her parents had been keeping her chained up in a cellar, she had just managed to escape, but her newfound freedom had driven her temporarily insane and so she tried to kill herself. When Dr. Robertson noted that she seemed awfully hale and hearty for someone who had been chained up underground, Maria hemmed and hawed before blurting out that her mother had lined the chains and manacles with soft chamois to avoid damaging her daughter’s skin.
The doctor didn’t buy it. He had Maria pegged as a vagrant, probably a “stroller” (or prostitute) who was trying to avoid jail time with an improvised sob story, Keyser Soze-style. Maria was sent to the local jail for a few days and eventually remanded to the custody of Mrs. Monk.
Then omeone suggested that Maria would be a good candidate for the local Magdalen Asylum. If you are not familiar with the concept of a Magdalen Asylum, it is a religious home for “fallen women” — though the definition of “fallen woman” is usually flexible enough that it could mean anything from a hardcore criminal to a down-on-her-luck prostitute to a teenage girl who mouths off to her parents. The idea is that the residents will engage in a course of Bible study and prayer that will set them back on the straight and narrow path, while simultaneously learning a trade that will allow them to earn an honest living after their release. Now, it’s an awful system, prone to terrible abuses, as the Irish will gladly tell you, but that’s a story for another day.
Maria entered Montreal’s Magdalen Asylum but clearly didn’t want to be there, as evidenced by the fact that she kept sneaking out to have trysts with Louis Malo. (I guess he wasn’t a bad lay after all.) Eventually Louis got her pregnant, and by March 1835 she started showing. She was kicked out of the asylum and sent back home.
She ran away yet again, earning a living by begging on the streets of Montreal and prostituting herself whenever she found someone who was into preggos. To play off the sympathies of her marks and johns she started creating an elaborate backstory where she had been a resident of the Hôtel-Dieu convent who had been abused by priests.
That’s when Maria Monk met the Reverend William K. Hoyte, who was going from street corner to street corner looking for prostitutes. (To convert to Protestantism, one hopes, but also definitely for sex.) Hoyte thought Maria’s sob story was sensational, exactly the sort of angle his anti-Catholic Canadian Benevolent Association needed to attract more converts.
Hoyte’s backers agreed but demanded some sort of proof. In August 1835 Hoyte visited Mrs. Monk and tried to get her to back up Maria’s story by offering her a bribe of £100. Mrs. Monk spat back that “thousands of pounds would not induce me to perjure myself” and flatly told Hoyte that her daughter could not be trusted under any circumstances. Which Maria then proved by running away from Hoyte to shack up with someone else.
That was too much for the Canadian Benevolent Association, which dropped Hoyte and Monk like a hot potato. Hoyte, though, would not be discouraged. He knew where to find bigger marks. He enticed Maria away from her new lover with the promise of fame and fortune, and dragged her off to New York to start phase two of his plan.
Which is more or less where we came into the story.
Well, went the Catholics, this is who Maria Monk really is: a compulsive liar, thief, and prostitute. How can you believe anything this woman says?
Monk and her ghostwriters deflected this line of attack by releasing a second edition of The Awful Disclosures which incorporated the less damning incidents into the overall story. The steamship ride, the suicide attempt? They’re placed after her escape, and are reinterpreted so it sounds like Catholics are trying to capture her and return her to the convent. She is only spared when she meets kindly Protestants who ship her off to New York to expose the “evils of popery.”
It was a brilliant move, because now confused audiences had to choose between two different versions of events. Since most of those audiences were only reading one book, The Awful Disclosures, they tended to believe Monk’s version and dismiss the Catholic version as a lie. If they dug deeper they just became hopelessly confused and gave up trying to make sense of things, which also favored Monk.
The ad hominem attacks clearly weren’t working either.
That left only one thing left to discuss, the very heart of The Awful Disclosures: sex. Were nuns and priests really getting it on? Were they really baptizing innocent babies and strangling them so they would go straight to heaven? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Catholics found Monk’s claims prima facie absurd — if hundreds of babies were being killed at the Hôtel-Dieu every year each nun would have to give birth twice a year for several years, including the ones who had gone through menopause. Even if you conceded that such a thing were possible, Monk also alleged that every convent in the world was doing exactly the same. Surely if hundreds of thousands of babies were being born and murdered in convents someone would have noticed during the course of the last several hundred years?
If you remember the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, then you’ll know that logic was never going to win this argument. Monk’s defenders just lowered the bar by claiming that even if the specific claims of mass infanticide weren’t true, the general claims of clerical hanky-panky were. And also, they refused to concede that the specific claims weren’t true, not because they had any facts to back them up but just because it felt right to them.
Well, then, there was only one thing that could be done. The Awful Disclosures described the interior of the Hôtel-Dieu in exhaustive detail. It even included a floor plan. Someone would just have to go to the convent, compare its layout to the floor plan, and go down into the basement to see if there was a giant lime pit filled with dead babies.
That’s exactly what Lower Canadians did. In October 1835 a committee that included prominent Catholic citizens and Protestant ministers searched the Hôtel-Dieu from nave to narthex, and found nothing. Less than nothing. In fact, they reported that the interior layout of the convent did not resemble the floor plan in The Awful Disclosures in the least.
Case closed, right?
Anti-Catholics claimed that the supposed search was actually a fraud. The search committee could not be impartial because it included Catholics, and the Protestant ministers were actually “secret papists” and “Jesuits in disguise.” (Always with the Jesuits!) Even if the search was legitimate its results could not be trusted, because it was highly likely the convent’s interior had been altered after Maria’s escape. She had even hinted at that possibility in her book!
(Let’s set aside the question of how, over the course of six months, a building open to the public could undergo extensive renovations without someone noticing. Especially when the building was made of stone, and the supposed renovations would require repositioning load-bearing walls. Put it out of your mind completely.)
The anti-Catholics agreed with the Catholics on one point only: a search of the convent would put an end to the matter once and for all. However, that search had to be conducted on their terms, which meant a committee composed entirely of well-known anti-Catholic Protestants like Samuel F. Morse. It was a ridiculously audacious demand — it would be like a Republican declaring they would accept the findings of the January 6 Committee if its only members were Rudy Giuliani, Orly Taitz, and the Q Shaman. The nuns were clearly never going to allow that to happen.
In the end, The Priests’ Book was unable to discredit The Awful Disclosures. Maria Monk and her handlers were able to muddy the waters in a way that allowed her to maintain a tenuous hold on her credibility.
But only just barely.
The Escape of Sainte Frances Patrick, Another Nun from the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal
Of course, merely holding on to credibility wasn’t going to be enough to keep Maria Monk in the spotlight. Eventually the news cycle moved on and The Awful Disclosures were no longer front page news.
Maria resorted to staging publicity stunts to keep her name in the headlines. In late spring Father Phelan traveled to New York to pursue libel charges, so Maria dropped out of sight and her handlers began circulating rumors she had been kidnapped by Jesuits. (Again with the Jesuits!) When she resurfaced a few days later and the story shifted to be all about her “miraculous escape.”
It gave the story new legs, but they were short legs. Maria and her handlers needed something bigger like, say, the existence of a second escaped nun from the Hôtel-Dieu who could corroborate Maria’s story.
In July 1836, they got Frances Partridge.
Partridge made some wild claims. She was supposedly abandoned at the convent as an infant, raised by the nuns there as a child, and eventually admitted to the cloister as Ste. Francis Patrick. She had also discovered the convent’s sinister secret, but it was far worse than Maria Monk ever suspected — the nuns were not reserved for the exclusive use of priests, but were whored out to anyone in Montreal would could scrape together the cash. The discovery destroyed Frances Partridge’s faith in the Catholicism, but she was trapped until Maria Monk’s escape gave her new hope. She, five other nuns, and two priests made a mad dash for freedom but were quickly recaptured by the Church. Her compatriots were tortured and murdered.
Partridge herself was tossed into the “dungeon of despair” and was only freed when she agreed to devote all her energies to destroying Maria Monk. As part of those duties, she helped steer the citizens of Montreal away from problem areas when they searched the convent — she claimed that the search committees had been moments away from opening a Fibber McGee’s closet full of dead babies when she diverted their attentions elsewhere.
The Jesuits slipped up by sending her across the border to take on Monk directly. In the United States she was able to ditch her minders and find salvation among true, God-fearing Protestants who had sent her to New York to join forces with her former sister-in-arms and take down the Catholic Church once and for all.
Protestants rejoiced. Here was someone who had been at the convent at the same time as Maria, who could confirm every one of her stories. Someone arranged a public meeting between Maria Monk and Frances Partridge, and the two women embraced, laughed, and began swapping tales from their time at the convent. Afterwards they worked together and presented a united front. Nothing could stop them now. It all seemed too good to be true.
It was. It had all been arranged by Samuel B. Smith.
Smith was a Protestant crusader who claimed to be a former Catholic priest, famous for his fiery anti-Catholic lectures and for publishing numerous anti-Catholic tracts including a newspaper called The Downfall of Babylon.
In January 1836 Smith released a novel about an escaped nun — Rosamond: or, a Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female under the Popish Priests, in the Island of Cuba, with a Full Disclosure of Their Manners and Customs, Written by Herself. His timing couldn’t have been worse, because it was released alongside The Awful Disclosures. The public could only deal with one escaped nun at a time, and they chose the (supposedly) non-fictional one. Smith’s novel flopped.
Well, Smith figured if you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em. There was only one problem: there was no room left on the Maria Monk bandwagon. Publisher W.C. Brownlee was one of her handlers, so her scoops were exclusive to Brownlee’s Protestant Vindicator. That left Smith’s Downfall of Babylon with the leftover scraps. If Smith wanted a piece of the action he was going to have to find some other way to get it.
So he did. He went out and found his own mentally disturbed “escaped nun,” gave her a little coaching, and shoehorned her into the hot story of the day.
Now, there were enormous problems with Frances Partridge. No one in Montreal had ever heard of her. Her understanding of Catholicism was shaky at best. She frequently contradicted Maria’s claims and then had to backtrack. She also didn’t seem to know when enough was enough, like her job was to up the ante by topping every one of Maria’s anecdotes with something even more outrageous. Their partnership was clearly one of begrudging convenience, because neither of them could call the other out without revealing that they, too, were a liar.
Samuel B. Smith didn’t care as long as he was making money. Which he was, from increased sales of The Downfall of Babylon and the publication of The Escape of Sainte Frances Patrick, Another Nun from the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal.
Maria Monk and the Nunnery of the Hotel Dieu, Being an Account of a Visit to the Convents of Montreal, and Refutation of the “Awful Disclosures”
Enter the man who would soon prove to be Maria Monk’s most implacable foe: Colonel William Leete Stone, the publisher of the New York Commercial Advertiser.
Stone had heard Monk’s tale, but like most Americans he had not examined it too deeply and had just accepted that it was true because of his own personal prejudice against Catholics. He figured an investigation of the convent would quickly prove that Monk was telling the truth. The important thing was Stone was also fair-minded. He felt that everyone was innocent until proven guilty, and if that’s what an investigation discovered he was willing to accept that.
While visiting Montreal, he impulsively decided to go check out the Hôtel-Dieu for himself and see if it lived up to its fearsome reputation. What he found was not a prison protected by “gorgons, hydras and chimeras dire” but a public hospital whose doors were wide open during the day. Visitors could go anywhere except the inner cloister, which could only be visited with the express written permission of the local bishop.
Which Stone promptly went out and secured.
Stone and several other truth-seekers were given an extensive guided tour of the grounds by the nuns. They were allowed to go wherever they wanted and poked their noses into every cellar, every closet, every nook and cranny. They were briefly denied access to one cellar, on the grounds that it didn’t belong to the convent but the cathedral, but they made such a stink that the nuns relented and showed them a root cellar full of turnips and potatoes. There was only one chamber they didn’t visit: a locked storage room, where Stone figured it wasn’t worth sending someone to fetch the key since the entire chamber was visible through a window in the door.
The layout of the Hôtel-Dieu didn’t even remotely match the building described in The Awful Disclosures. There were no secret passages to be found, and certainly no pits filled with dead babies. Even the garden gate that Monk claimed to escape through did not exist. There were no indications that the structure had ever been altered in any way.
Then Stone took a tour of the Magdalen Asylum down the street. That perfectly matched the floor plan printed in The Awful Disclosures. It also had a side gate that matched the one Maria supposedly escaped through. The inmates did textile work which was sold off to help fund the operations of the asylum. The nuns and inmates remembered Maria Monk very well. One of those inmates was her old friend Jane Ray, who was very much not dead.
By the time he left Montreal, Stone was starting to suspect that Maria Monk was a liar. Still, she deserved the same benefit of the doubt that he had given to the Catholics, so he arranged a joint interview where he interrogated Monk and Partridge simultaneously.
The supposed nuns did not do well. They were still getting basic facts wrong: they didn’t know the geography of Montreal or the layout of the convent, and still couldn’t keep the different orders of nuns straight in their head. It as a particularly bad showing for Monk, who you think would have learned some of this stuff after running the grift for more than a year. It was a worse showing for Partridge, who Monk had to carry through the interview because her new partner wasn’t picking up her cues.
In October 1836 Stone published his conclusions in several issues of the Commercial Advertiser, and then republished them in a collected volume called Maria Monk and the Nunnery of the Hotel Dieu, Being an Account of a Visit to the Convents of Montreal, and Refutation of the “Awful Disclosures”.
As a critic, Stone was Maria Monk’s worst nightmare: an American Protestant whose honesty and objectivity were beyond reproach, and whose first-hand experiences could be corroborated by several others with a similar reputation. So you think that would be it, right? Game over?
Are you new here?
Evidence Demonstrating the Falsehoods of William L. Stone Concerning the Hotel Dieu of Montreal
That was certainly Stone’s preferred version of events, that he was a conquering hero who had slain the dragon of falsehood with the sword of truth. In reality the wheels had started to come off months earlier when Frances Partridge showed up.
Monk’s handlers had been willing to suspend their disbelief about some things, but the ever-increasing baroque complexity of the story now required them to check their common sense at the door. They came to the easy conclusion that Maria Monk and Frances Partridge were liars and quietly stopped associating with them. Even W.C. Brownlee of The Protestant Vindicator gave up on Monk after she dumped William Hoyte and ran off with Brownlee’s own protege, John J. Slocum. With no one in a position of power willing to publish stories about Maria Monk, she dropped out of the headlines overnight. And with no new developments in her story, the public gradually lost interest.
It wasn’t over yet, though. John J. Slocum had a vested interest in keeping the story alive, because Maria Monk was now his lover and his meal ticket. He churned out two quick books to capitalize on the story before it faded forever: one trying to bolster Monk’s story (A Confirmation of Maria Monk’s Disclosures Concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal) and one attacking her critics (Evidence Demonstrating the Falsehoods of William L. Stone Concerning the Hotel Dieu of Montreal).
Slocum’s arguments aren’t very convincing, mostly because he doesn’t bother to make anything resembling a coherent argument. He denied the validity of Stone’s search on the grounds that he had skipped that one room, because who knows, it could have had a pile of dead babies right under the window where Stone couldn’t see them. He just reflexively denies everything else, painting criticism as “Jesuit juggling” and “priestcraft” that should be dismissed out of hand. His only argument is literally that you can’t trust Catholics because they’re catholic.
Ought the testimony of Roman Catholics, unsupported by respectable Protestants, to be received as such evidence? I answer no. The reason is obvious. It is an established principle, acted on for ages, in the Catholic Church, “That the end sanctifies the means.”John J. Slocum, Confirmation of Maria Monk’s Disclosures…
Slocum had made the cardinal mistake of saying the quiet parts out loud, and it backfired spectacularly. His bigotry got him kicked out of his church and shunned by polite society.
Then there were the lawsuits.
In November 1836 Slocum and Monk were about to sail for the United Kingdom, which was having an anti-Catholic renaissance of its own, when they were stopped by sheriffs. It turns out William Hoyte had filed a lawsuit claiming that the pair had stolen his share of the royalties from The Awful Disclosures. They were not to leave the country until after the suit had been settled. Slocum found himself suing Howe & Bates just to seize Maria’s share of the royalties so he could use them to pay off Hoyte.
Eventually involved wound up suing everybody else involved, and the whole mess wound up in court, and everyone wound up looking bad. It was revealed that Maria had written very little of the book, which had been ghostwritten by Hoyte and Theodore Dwight. They were originally going to publish with George Bourne, and signed a contract with Bourne that guaranteed royalties for Hoyte and Dwight but not for Monk. When Maria had objected to that state of affairs, Hoyte scared her back in line by presenting her with a $900 bill for her upkeep and threatening to kick her out on the street. Then they failed to make a schedule payment to Bourne, who used that as an excuse to seize the manuscript and resell it to Howe & Bates. After Hoyte and Monk split up, the Harpers had been paying Hoyte’s share of the royalties to her former patron W.C. Brownlee, who had just been pocketing them in the interim.
In the end, Hoyte’s lawsuit failed, Maria’s lawsuit failed, and the only winners of the whole affair were the Harper Brothers. Maybe Hoyte, who had already taken most of the royalties, and Bourne, who had been paid handsomely for the manuscript. At least Slocum and Monk could take some solace from the fact that they weren’t on the hook for anything other than attorney’s fees.
After the trial, the pair vanished from the headlines. Partly that was because the finally managed to make their long-delayed trip to London, where they expected a warm welcome from the “no-Popery crowd” but discovered they had missed their moment and immediately left. Mostly it was because they were trying to keep a low profile.
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
In August 1837 Maria Monk reappeared in the headlines by suddenly vanishing in the real world. No one in New York could find her, and no one in New York knew where she had gone. On August 16 she reappeared just as suddenly in Philadelphia on the stoop of Dr. William Sleigh, 285 Race Street. She had an incredible story to tell.
On August 15 Maria had been in New York planning another trip to Montreal when Father Phelan suddenly appeared in the city. The two met in public and Phelan begged her to call off her trip. Instead he offered to give Maria $4,000 to travel with him to Alexandria, VA where he would marry her and make her child legitimate. Maria accepted, and that night she left the city in a coach with Phelan and five other priests. Shortly after midnight they stopped at Philadelphia’s Catholic Orphan Asylum, at the intersection of Seventh and Spruce. There the priests gave Maria a strange-tasting beverage which made her pass out. She woke up in the morning to overhear Phelan and the others making secret plots to dispose of her, so she snuck out of the Orphan Asylum to seek help. Dr. Sleigh’s house was the first good, Protestant establishment she had stumbled across.
Dr. Sleigh was confused. His house was more than a mile from the Orphan Asylum; surely she could have stopped somewhere else. But moreover: why had she left New York in the company of six men she believed were cold-blooded Jesuit killers? Maria had a two part answer: first, she wasn’t afraid of anyone and second, she needed the money to support her child because she and Slocum were on the outs and Brownlee had cut her off. Then she went back to the Orphan Asylum, after giving Sleigh a sealed envelope to send to the press if she disappeared again.
Dr. Sleigh was still confused, so he sent a letter to Brownlee asking for advice. Brownlee responded that he was out of the Maria Monk business, but had notified her legal guardian, Slocum, who would be arriving shortly. He also told Sleigh not believe anything Monk said, or to give her money, under any circumstances.
Slocum arrived the following day to retrieve Monk and he did not impress. When Sleigh asked Slocum what would happen to his charge, “I don’t know what is to become of her; and I don’t think she will have anything coming to her!” Up to this point Sleigh believed that Brownlee and Slocum were noble men, spreading the truth about Catholicism. Slocum’s “perfect indifference” changed his mind, and now he thought the two men were fraudsters who were merely using this young woman who had suffered so much.
On Sleigh’s advice Maria hired an attorney and swore out a complaint against Slocum. Her one-time lover was then arrested, only to be immediately bailed out by Sleigh for no real reason. The pair then made up, and left Philadelphia together. Dr. Sleigh was left scratching his head trying to figure what had just happened.
After a few days he came to the conclusion that Maria’s latest story did not hold together. She hadn’t suddenly vanished from New York; she had actually told friends several days earlier that she was going to leave town for a while. She hadn’t left the city in a coach with six priests; instead, she had traveled had by boat where she was spotted and recognized by people who knew her by sight. The priests had rock-solid alibis that placed them elsewhere on the days in question, confirmed by press clippings from unimpeachable Protestant sources. She had not been staying at the Orphan Asylum; in fact, she had immediately checked into a boarding house on Chestnut Street. She had subsequently attempted to gain entry to the Orphan Asylum by getting a job there, but had been turned away.
At this point, Dr. William Sleigh lost all faith in Maria Monk and could no longer believe in any of her stories. To spread the word, he published his account in another book, 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.
In the end, though, he still pitied her. She was a fallen woman and a compulsive liar, yes, but that just meant she needed love and help. Love and help which Slocum was clearly not going to give her.
Further Disclosures of Maria Monk Concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal; Also, her Visit to Nuns’ Island and Disclosures Concerning That Secret Retreat
In the Exposure of Maria Monk’s Pretended Abduction, Sleigh wondered if Monk’s visits to the Orphan Asylum were an attempt to dig up dirt about Catholics for another book. He was right. Within a few months Maria and Slocum published a second book, The Further Disclosures of Maria Monk Concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal; Also, her Visit to Nuns’ Island and Disclosures Concerning That Secret Retreat.
The problem was Maria was tapped out. She had poured her entire life experience into that first memoir, and most of her subsequent life experiences into the second edition. There was nothing else to write about, especially since her attempts to gather material in Philadelphia had failed in spectacular fashion. As a result The Further Disclosures is little more than a dry recitation of standard anti-Catholic talking points, padded out to book length with information about an island near Montreal which she which she claimed was a secret Catholic prison where nuns went to give birth. She provided no evidence for these claims, of course.
Without the hot goss and the lurid sensationalism attached to the first book, no one gave a damn. Slocum had originally intended to dress up Maria in a nun’s habit and send her on a lecture tour to promote the book, but when the initial sales numbers came in he called the whole thing off. Then he dropped Maria like a hot potato, leaving her stranded in a foreign country, husbandless, friendless, penniless, and with a small child to feed.
Make that two small children. In early 1838 Maria gave birth to a second child, and didn’t even bother to pretend this one had been fathered by a priest. The public had pitied Maria for having one child out of wedlock, but a second? Nope. Their disinterest quickly turned to distaste, and Maria became persona non grata in New York.
She still had one or two defenders. Brownlee’s Protestant Vindicator gallantly suggested that her second pregnancy had been secretly engineered by the Jesuits somehow. Most newspapers weren’t nearly as kind. The Boston Herald wondered if Maria was a Jesuit double agent sent to drive Protestants mad. Or maybe that was Frances Partridge. Maybe it was both of them.
Frances Partridge went completely off the deep end. She began claiming that Maria Monk was an impostor and that she, Frances Partridge, was the real Maria Monk. She eventually published her own memoir, Nunneries As They Are, which bombed so hard that you can’t even find copies online. Then she vanished.
Hoyte and Slocum had their reputations ruined, but most of Maria’s associates were able to consign their role in the scandal down the memory hole. Arthur Tappan and George Bourne later become two of the country’s most prominent abolitionists. W.C. Brownlee continued to be a prominent voice in Protestant circles. The Harper Brothers eventually became the most successful magazine publishers in America. Samuel F. Morse was celebrated as America’s greatest inventor until everyone realized he was also an enormous jerkwad.
Maria Monk eventually married and had a third child, but no one would ever dare say that she “settled down.” She continued to rack up arrest after arrest for public inebriation, pickpocketing, petty theft, and prostitution. Eventually it was too much for her husband, who abandoned her and her children. In July 1849 she was arrested after an unsuccessful attempt to pickpocket a sailor in a Five Points whorehouse. She was convicted and sent to Blackwell’s Island, but the process of drying out did not agree with her. In early September she suffered a fit of delirium tremens and died.
She was 32 years old.
At her autopsy a noted phrenologist examined Maria and asked the public to be kind to her memory. After all, the shape of her skull indicated that she was “so susceptible that she was an easy prey to the influences of others, and had thus been the instrument of designing men until she lost all self-control and self-respect and yielded to the unrestrained and perverted sway of her lowest animal passions.”
Maria Monk’s Daughter
Maria continued to cause trouble even after death. Anti-Catholics refused to accept any of the multiple refutations of her claims and kept republishing The Awful Disclosures. New editions appeared in 1853, 1854, 1855, 1870, 1879, 1904, 1916, 1920, 1929, and 1939. It sold more than 300,000 copies and was the all-time best selling book in America until Uncle Tom’s Cabin knocked it out of the top spot. You can still go out and buy a copy today. (Please don’t.)
The popularity of The Awful Disclosures led to a small explosion of “escaped nun” literature. Most of the books were pure fiction, but they still tried to masquerade as fact. Some of the more entertaining titles include:
- Convent Cruelties
- The Testimony of an Escaped Novice from the Sisterhood of St. Joseph
- The Death Book of the Black Nuns and Nuns, the Most Frightful Disclosures of Diabolical Plots Against Female Chastity by the Rev. Mr. Poole and Miss Joy
- The Awful Disclosures of Miss Julia Gordon, The White Nun, or Female Spy! Her Vile Jesuit Plots; Scenes of Infamy, Torture and Murder in Convents And the Strangling & Burning of New-Born Infants, in a Lime Pit, To Conceal the Crimes of the Priests with the Nuns
The last real entry in the genre made it a true family affair. In 1880 Lizzie Eckel St. John published a memoir, Maria Monk’s Daughter, where she claimed to be just that. Before her untimely passing, Maria supposedly revealed to her children that The Awful Disclosures were a complete fabrication. Later in life Lizzie attempted to atone for her mother’s sins by converting to Catholicism and entering a convent. Maria Monk’s Daughter seems every bit as fantastic and contrived as The Awful Disclosures — though apparently at least some parts of it are true.
If there is any lesson you can take away from this story, it should be that there comes a point where you just can’t reason with some people. While some of Maria’s defenders could be persuaded to abandon the cause, most of them remained stubbornly steadfast. They set an unreasonable standard of proof; when it was met, they moved the goalposts back; and when that standard was met they just gave up and declared that feelings don’t care about your facts. Nothing could change their mind; not logic, not facts, not emotional appeals.
If you’re looking for a more positive lesson, well, how about this. The general public was not heavily invested in Monk’s story, and once she dropped off of the front pages people stopped giving her a second thought. Turns out if you deplatform the crazies the crazy stops spreading. You can actually starve the beast. I mean, assuming you don’t let them turn the deplatforming into the story.
Of course, that wouldn’t be applicable to anything today, would it? Probably not.
The New York Herald once called Maria Monk “The Joanna Southcott of the Age.” Southcott was an English mystic whose prophecies became the basis of a religious sect called the Christian Israelites; we talked about the American branch of the faith in the episode “Exceeding Great.”
Spiritualist scam artist Ann O’Delia Diss Debar also claimed to be a former nun by the name of Vera P. Ava and then faked her own kidnapping by Jesuits. That’s just a small fraction of her total output, which we ran down in the episode “Spirit Princess.” (Ann O’Delia also spent some time on Blackwell’s Island.)
In addition to being a noted anti-Catholic, Samuel F. Morse was also the inventor of the telegraph. Maybe. Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson claimed that Morse had stolen the idea, and the two men spent decades locked in pointless litigation. Dr. Jackson also claimed to have given William Morton the idea for surgical anesthesia. We discussed both conflicts in the episode “Kings of Pain.”
Samuel B. Smith also gives us a direct tie to our previous episode, “Six Months in a Convent” — he was one of the anti-Catholic Protestant activists being chased through the streets by Catholic mobs in the early days of 1834. (For that matter there’s also Harriet Beecher Stowe, who knocked Monk off the bestsellers list and whose father was one of the instigators of the burning of the Convent.)
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