1849 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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On September 4, in the Blackwell’s Island prison in New York City, a woman named Maria Monk died at the age of thirty-three. The cause of her death was not recorded, but it presumably was the wages of more than a decade spent as a drunkard and a streetwalker. Mentally unbalanced since she jammed a slate pencil into her head at age seven, Monk had taken to prostitution as a teenager and borne two illegitimate children. Her last known address was a brothel in the city’s notorious Five Points section, where she had recently been arrested for picking the pocket of one of her customers.

While such stories were all too common at the time, Monk’s biography held an especially tawdry twist. In between her wretched youth and sordid death, the ill-fated girl from rural Quebec had written a fabricated memoir, as popular as it was scurrilous, that inspired riots, looting, church burnings, and countless other acts of hatred, doing for anti-Catholicism what Protocols of the Elders of Zion would later do for anti-Semitism.

The book, ponderously titled 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 Hôtel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal , purported to be a true story of licentious convent life. On taking the veil, Monk wrote, she had been told that she must defer to the priests “in all things.” The meaning of this rule became all too apparent when one sister who rebuffed a priest’s sexual advances was smothered beneath a mattress. Monk described a secret passage connecting the nuns’ quarters with a nearby priests’ residence as well as dungeons where babies born of the illicit liaisons were strangled and buried (after being baptized, of course). To save her own child, Monk fled the convent when she became pregnant.

 

Convent exposés had been selling briskly for several years, capitalizing on a nationwide outburst of nativism and anti-Catholicism (the two overlapped considerably). The genre had seen a few moderate successes, the biggest being Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent (1835). But Awful Disclosures was easily the most salacious.

As soon as it appeared, Monk’s book was conclusively refuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. Journalists uncovered the author’s wayward past while prominent citizens visited the convent and found no resemblance to the floor plan she had described. Still, Monk retained her supporters, particularly a cluster of New York ministers who took a deep interest in the pretty, impressionable young woman with loose morals and a weakness for clergymen. One of these was the Reverend William K. Hoyt, a rabid crusader against “popery” who had taken the delusional Monk under his wing. Hoyt had helped his protégée leave Montreal (where she had in fact never been a nun at all), trumpeted her cause in New York, and apparently made her his mistress. Theodore Dwight, also a devotee, admitted to writing the manuscript of Awful Disclosures himself but insisted that Monk had dictated it.

In 1838 the feckless Monk bore a second illegitimate child, probably fathered by yet another clerical admirer, the Reverend John Slocum, who promptly abandoned her. Having received little or no royalties, and bereft of powerful friends, she began her long and sorry decline. Yet Awful Disclosures lost none of its appeal to the general public, and Monk’s sad end did little to dent the book’s popularity. It went on to become America’s bestselling book until Uncle Tom’s Cabin —which was itself a piece of propaganda, though much more benign, and acknowledged to be fiction. Imitations from other purported exnuns proliferated, and well into the twentieth century reprints of Monk’s poisonous fantasies continued to stoke the fires of bigotry.