The Ursuline Outrage

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Not all responses to the burning, however, were anti-Catholic; loud expressions of outrage and disgust came from Protestant circles. Even Lyman Beecher, who the night before the riot squeezed in three anti-Catholic sermons, denounced the mob action from his pulpit the following Sunday, while another clergyman put it to his congregation this way: “Do you wish to introduce a Protestant inquisition to establish a religion by law—crush all dissenters from the legal faith, and bring back the age of persecution for opinion?” An investigative committee made up of respected citizens, among them Harrison Gray Otis, later U.S. senator and mayor of Boston, subsequently vindicated the Ursulines of the alleged wrongdoings and provided evidence leading to the arrest of thirteen men.

Their trials began in December, 1834, and lasted nearly six months. The first and most sensational was that of the ringleader, John R. Buzzell, a brawny, six-foot-six brickmaker with a reputation for streetfighting. Over the objections of Attorney General James T. Austin, who claimed that prosecution witnesses were being threatened with death, Buzzell’s trial began on December 2. Two indictments were brought against him—one for arson, one for burglary—both hanging offenses in 1834.

But to most observers Buzzell’s acquittal was a foregone conclusion, even though his guilt was never in doubt. One illustrated account published in Boston within days after the trial refers in its title to Buzzell as “The Leader” of the rioters, even though this account concludes with the jury’s verdict of innocence. The decision, we are told, was received with “thunders of applause by the audience,” while outside the courthouse Buzzell “received the congratulations of thousands of his overjoyed fellow citizens.”

As each of the accused came before the judges and was acquitted, the Catholics realized how hopeless their cause had become. Although the evidence against the thirteen defendants was overwhelming, all but one went free. Only Marvin Massey, a footloose sixteen-year-old, was convicted for his mock auction and burning of the bishop’s books. He was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, but at the request of five thousand citizens, including Bishop Fenwick (whose name headed the list) and the mother superior, Massey was pardoned.

The triumphant Buzzell was doubtless less delighted by an unexpected outcome to the burning: it bolstered the Catholic cause as few other events could have. One unidentified Protestant writer who remained staunchly anti-Catholic deplored the burning for its obvious cowardliness, but more because it rallied popular sympathy where none should have been afforded. “The Propaganda of Rome,” he fumed in 1835, “and the founders of the Leopold fund in Austria, to convert heretics in America, could not have found better missionaries for their purpose, than the scoundrels who burnt the Convent. …”

Such a view was shared by at least one Catholic writer who saw the destruction of the convent as inspired by Providence. In 1887, Sister St. Augustine, a member of the Ursuline community who witnessed the burning, wrote that a few years after the event she was visited in New Orleans by “two ladies from Boston,” one of whom “consoled me by saying that the destruction of our convent might well be considered the seed of Catholicity in Boston, just as the blood of the early martyrs was styled the seed of Christianity. …”

When the Massachusetts general court assembled in January, 1835, Bishop Fen wick petitioned for indemnification to help rebuild the convent school. But opposition from the Protestant press and within the legislature was furious; after a series of debates in March, the legislative votes were cast: 67 for, 412 against indemnification. An editorial writer for the American Protestant Vindicator had tersely summarized the issue when he wrote: “Any man who proposes, or who would vote for the measure, which would rob the treasury of the descendants of the Puritans to build Ursuline Nunneries … as the headquarters of the Jesuit Fenwick and his ‘20,000 vilest Irishmen’ must be a raving lunatic.”

But some perceptive members of the community saw that there was more at stake here. As the lawyer George Ticknor Curtis argued, “The state that does not protect the rights of property … especially against open and public violation, loses sight of its own highest policy, and breaks its contract with the individual, and weakens that of all its members.” On the night of the riot, all property, not just that owned by Catholics, was at the mercy of the mob.

Several days after the vote was taken the general court did pass a short, face-saving resolution which declared “its deliberate and indignant condemnation of such an atrocious infraction of the laws. ” This was something of a moral victory for the Catholics, but the resolution said nothing about compensation.