- Historic Sites
The Nun’s Story
A look at one of America’s most resilient prejudices
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
Maria seems to have become a prostitute and died in prison after being arrested for pickpocketing. Her lies lived after her, as lies will. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, successive waves of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant violence wracked the nation. A series of wild riots near Philadelphia, in 1844, left 13 dead, while three Catholic churches and many Catholic homes were burned to the ground. Priests, nuns, and thousands of lay Catholics were forced to flee for their lives.
Through the mid-1850s, nativist mobs committed more murders and burned more churches and homes, in cities from Baltimore to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Know-Nothing politicians won sweeping electoral victories, once taking over almost the whole Massachusetts legislature and threatening America’s whole legacy of immigration.
Throughout these depredations, the bible of the Know-Nothings remained Awful Disclosures —no matter how thoroughly Maria Monk was discredited. Shannon records that the book “went through twenty printings, sold 300,000 copies, and down to the Civil War served as the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of the Know-Nothing movement. The book was again in circulation on a small scale in the presidential campaign of 1960.”
John Kennedy was running for President in 1960, and he was thought to have put the whole issue of anti-Catholicism to rest once and for all that year. Yet here it is back with us, 40 years later—along with Awful Disclosures . The ersatz nun featured here is on the cover of a paperback edition published no longer ago than 1997, by something named Senate—the imprint of no less a publisher than Random House UK Ltd. It might be justifiable to publish such a document as something of purely historical interest, but as both the cover and an inside illustration of various whips and chains make clear, the publisher’s intentions are somewhat less high-minded.
There is, as well, an anonymous introduction to this edition that purports to vouch for all of Maria Monk’s “disclosures.” The unwitting reader is offered absurd “proofs” that “the truth contained in this explosive book was undeniably confirmed” and fed the outright lie that”… Maria Monk was able to corroborate her claims by producing reliable witnesses. This show of good faith effectively prevented the detractors from taking the matter further, and, over the years, Maria Monk’s story has been freed from any suggestion of untruth.”
In an age when every outrageous conspiracy theory and nugget of Internet gossip are passed off as the historical record, the truth is more important than ever. It is doubtful that Maria Monk—or even Bob Jones University—will be able to do much damage to individual Catholics or the Catholic Church in the foreseeable future (or that new readers of Awful Disclosures will be outraged about anything so much as the fact that the disclosures aren’t awfully erotic).
It’s instructive to note, though, that just this past April the American Jewish Committee was forced to run a large ad in The New York Times , protesting that an even more notorious fraud, Protocols of the Elders of Zion , was being republished by a pair of extremist publishers and distributed through the mainstream booksellers Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Yet what are we to expect when even a major, respected publishing house is willing to make a few bucks by passing off old ethnic and religious slurs as mere sexual high jinks? Once the whole tissue of truth is torn, once reality becomes a weak and tattered thing, there is no keeping down the most monstrous of lies. This is why history matters. This is why truth matters.