- Historic Sites
The Ursuline Outrage
In the shadow of Bunker Hill, bigots perpetrated an atrocity that showed a shocked nation that the fires of the Reformation still burned in the New World
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
On a sweltering Monday afternoon in July, 1834, Edward Cutter of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was startled by the sudden appearance of a woman in his house. Her hair was closely shorn, she was clad only in a flimsy nightdress, and she was muttering incoherently. Cutter probably surmised that she was from the Ursuline convent a few hundred yards up the hill, then known as Mount Benedict.
Sure enough, before long, a carriage was dispatched from the convent and the deranged woman was quietly escorted back there by the mother superior and the Right Reverend Benedict Fenwick, bishop of the Boston diocese.
Later, Cutter learned that the woman who had so unexpectedly descended upon him was indeed a nun; in fact, she was Sister Mary John, the mother assistant of the Ursuline community, which operated the Mount Benedict school for girls. Her bedraggled appearance and nervous disorder were, the mother superior explained, the symptoms of a “brain fever” brought on by the suffocating heat and the stress of a heavy academic workload. Following her return to the convent, Sister Mary John’s condition was reported as significantly improved under the care of the Ursuline sisters.
Before long, however, Charlestown bristled with rumors: a girl had tried to escape from the nuns at Mount Benedict but had been captured and was imprisoned at the Catholic school. Several daily newspapers ran sensational stories about the “mysterious lady” who was held against her will, maybe tortured, perhaps murdered by the Catholics. On August 8, 1834, the Boston Mercantile Journal , under the heading “Mysterious,” ran the story of her alleged imprisonment. Three days later the same paper published a small retraction: “The Bunker Hill Aurora says that the version we lately gave of the ‘mysterious’ affair at Charlestown, is materially incorrect ….” But it was too late: the flames of bigotry already had been kindled.
At the time of the American Revolution, there were about one hundred Catholics in Boston. Predominantly French, Irish, or Spanish, they had no church organization or regular place of worship. Priests were transient, and it was not until 1790 that the superior of Roman Catholic missions in the United States ordered one of his ablest men, the Reverend John Thayer—a former Congregationalist minister—to strike northward from Baltimore for the “hub” of the Protestant universe. Services in Boston for the next decade were held in a rented Huguenot chapel, but it was not long before the Catholics outgrew their humble origins. They were skilled artisans and shrewd businessmen who adjusted well to the Protestant work ethic, and by the turn of the century they numbered around twelve hundred and enjoyed two assets for continued success: influential friends and money. In 1799 they commissioned Charles Bulfinch—fresh from his work as chief architect of the Massachusetts State House—to build their exquisite cathedral. In 1808 even Rome began to take notice, and Pope Pius VII designated Boston an episcopal see. So by 1820 it seemed natural that the Catholic community should have an elegant school for girls.
The Ursuline curriculum included basic courses in “plain and ornamental Writing,” arithmetic, geometry, chemistry, and botany. Natural and moral philosophy, rhetoric, logic, and “the use of the Globes” were also taught along with “Ornamental Needlework,” “Japanning,” and drawing “in all its varieties.” Finally, almost as an afterthought, for an additional twenty dollars, students could “attend to Cookery.”
Established in 1820 on Franklin Street, the first Ursuline school prospered so quickly that in 1826 the mother superior, Sister Mary Edmond St. George, moved her community to a larger building in Charlestown at the foot of “Ploughed Hill,” directly across from Bunker Hill. The name of the property was changed to Mount Benedict, after the presiding bishop, and construction began on the new convent school.
The completed building was, for the 1830’s, most elaborate—a brick structure eighty feet long and three stories high, with wings on either side, an enclosed courtyard, and terraced gardens. Years later, Louise Whitney, a student at Mount Benedict, recalled that “nearly the whole of Mount Benedict was inclosed for the use of the Convent; there was a lodge, a Bishop’s house, several terraced walks, and grounds tastefully laid out, for the recreation of the pupils. No such elegant and imposing building had ever been erected in New England for the education of girls. Picturesque on the summit of the hill…, its many windowed façade, glowing in the light of the setting sun, [it] was a sightly object to the good citizens of Boston, returning from their afternoon drive in the suburbs. ” Unfortunately, the good citizens of Boston were not the only ones eyeing the new building.
To the Protestant workers toiling throughout greater Boston, the hilltop edifice typified a religion whose presence signaled economic strife. They failed to distinguish between the small, affluent religious community that sponsored the convent and the masses of poor Irish Catholics now settling in Boston, willing to provide the cheap labor that threatened the livelihoods of thousands of Yankee workmen. By the 1830’s scuffles between Protestants and Catholics were commonplace.
To make matters worse, the exotic quality of the building and the nuns who moved through it piqued local curiosity: “[The] whole establishment,” said Louise Whitney, “was as foreign as the soil whereon it stood, as if, like Aladdin’s Palace, it had been wafted from Europe by the power of a magician.”
Although the school was run by Roman Catholics, fewer than ten of the fifty to sixty students enrolled in 1834 were of the Catholic faith. The remaining majority were mostly daughters of upper-class Boston Protestants, cultured and successful parents who wanted more for their young women than the public schools then provided. (For the first one hundred and fifty years of Boston’s existence, only boys were permitted to attend public schools. Girls were not admitted until 1790, and then only for six months a year.) Thus, opposition to the convent school came, in part, from other Boston Protestants, and especially from conservative clergymen like the Reverend Lyman Beecher.
Beecher was convinced that the “Romish heretics” meant to subvert the United States government and deliver America squarely into the Pope’s despotic hands. Deluding the cream of Protestant youth was the first step, and papist propagandists had gotten a foothold in—of all places—Boston, the bulwark of American Puritanism. Pulpits rang with clamorous accusations, and always there were the questions: Why were the Catholics meddling with our children? Why were they not uplifting their own miserable offspring from their lamentable poverty?
The sisters of the Order of St. Ursula were primarily educators, and their mission in Boston was to provide a superior education for young women, whatever their religious denomination, whose parents could afford it. Few could have foreseen that by 1834 the Catholic population would increase tenfold to more than twenty thousand souls, most of them indigent and uneducated. With their distinguished history of charitable works, it is likely that the Ursulines would have adjusted their mission to meet the growing social need. But they never really had the chance.
The riot that broke out on the night of August 11,1834, was precipitated by rumors of the “mysterious lady,” combined with tales of depravity and torture professed by a girl, Rebecca Teresa Reed, who claimed to have escaped from the convent in 1831. The workmen of Charlestown confused the mysterious lady with young Rebecca, and the story became more fanciful and grotesque with each telling. On Sunday morning, August 10, placards were found posted in several parts of Boston saying: “To the Selectmen of Charlestown!! Gentlemen: It is currently reported that a mysterious affair has lately happened at the Nunnery in Charlestown, now it is your duty gentlemen to have this affair investigated immediately[;] if not the Truckmen of Boston will demolish the Nunnery thursday night—August 14.”
Convinced trouble was brewing, the selectmen enlisted Edward Cutter and on Monday afternoon were permitted to inspect the convent. Their guide was none other than Sister Mary John, the mysterious lady herself, now happily recovered from her “brain fever.” No dungeons, torture chambers, or improprieties of any kind were uncovered, and the selectmen went home to draft a statement assuring an aroused public that nothing unusual was going on at Mount Benedict. This statement was to appear in Tuesday morning’s papers and might well have saved the convent. But even as the selectmen wrote, events overwhelmed them.
The siege of Mount Benedict began around 8:00 P.M. when a mob gathered at the front door of the convent shouting for the release of the mysterious lady. At least part of the responsibility for what followed must be borne by the mother superior, a headstrong woman who did little to conceal her contempt for the workmen. Hadn’t the innocent sisters already endured enough slanderous abuse? Hadn’t she opened her doors—just a few hours ago—to an inspection committee and hadn’t they left completely satisfied? What would it take to convince these vulgar blockheads that there was nothing here for them? Exclaiming that “the bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command,” she threatened the Protestants with ferocious retaliation.
Sister Mary St. George’s declaration enraged the mob, whose spirits already had been enlivened with rum. Her threat was answered with two pistol shots, apparently meant as signals to others milling at the foot of the hill. Lucy Thaxter, a student at the school, said: “I could keep still no longer but getting up went to a window from which I had a distant view of the convent gate. There I could see a dense black mass apparently moving up the avenue towards the house and the sound of their prolonged hurra’s came upon my ears like the yells of thousands of fiends.”
Soon the noisy crowd swelled as hundreds of spectators joined the core of rioters. Tar barrels set ablaze brought firemen from surrounding communities, but when they arrived on the scene they did nothing. Two days later the Mercantile Journal reported that “from 150 to 200 [men], disguised in various fantastic dresses, and with painted faces, immediately commenced breaking open the doors and windows of the Convent…. The number of persons assembled as actors in this scene of destruction, or spectators, has been computed at from some thousands. But no attempt was made to restrain the mob in their acts of violence. Not a Magistrate nor Police Officer was to be seen. Engines from Charlestown, Boston, and we believe from Cambridge, were on the spot, but no effort was made by the firemen to extinguish the fire. …”
As the rioters crashed through the front doors, the nuns and schoolgirls were quietly slipping out into the back garden, where a high wooden-fence blocked their escape. They took refuge in front of a mausoleum containing the bodies of several Ursuline nuns. There the terrified nuns and children hid as the assault on the convent got under way.
Once inside, the mob quickly overran the convent from garret to cellar. First the rioters ransacked the basements, where they hoped to uncover the fabled dungeons and torture chambers. Finding none heightened their anger to frenzy. Huddled in the garden with her schoolmates, Louise Whitney heard their voices sounding like “the hoarse growling of a pent-up sea.”
With the mausoleum at their backs, the refugees watched the destruction of their school. The darkened windows came alive with torches. Story by story, fantastic silhouettes ascended, upending furniture, smashing pictures and china, stealing what could be carried. Occasionally the din would give way to a brief silence; suddenly a window would clear, and a large piece of furniture would fill the gap for a minute and then crash to the pavement below, followed by cheers and laughter.
Despite their terror, none of the girls cried out even as smoke began to drift from the convent. “We were shut up in that garden,” Mrs. Whitney wrote, “as closely as if we were in prison, with no place even of temporary refuge from the rioters but the tomb, and the poor girls held the tomb in as much horror as they did the rioters.”
Within minutes they heard footsteps on the other side of the fence. Beset by new terror, the children rushed toward the mother superior, trying to stifle their screams lest they be heard. Suddenly the footsteps stopped and hands began to tear down the fence. Louise Whitney heard “the deep breathing of men intent on hard work”: it became clear that escape was impossible. “I looked at the superior anxiously; brought to bay at last, she opened her mouth to call out, ‘Who is there?’ I hastily interrupted her, not knowing what might happen if her voice was heard, and, taking the word from her lips—with a desperate effort of courage, I confess—I called out, ‘Who is there? What do you want?’” A horrible moment of silence, and then a suppressed voice answered: “‘We are friends; don’t be afraid, we have come to save you.’ The Superior knew the voice and exclaimed joyfully, ‘It is Mr. Cutter, and his men are with him. O, God be thanked!’ she added fervently.”
As the nuns and schoolgirls were spirited away, the carnage continued. While flames roared through the .convent, rioters looted and fired surrounding buildings, including the bishop’s house and library. Then they broke into the mausoleum, opened the coffins, and mutilated the remains of the dead.
When news of the convent’s destruction became known, everyone expected reprisals by bands of enraged Irishmen. Even Bishop Fenwick feared the worst, and in a letter to his brother he confided: “Certainly some lives will be lost in case of another attack, for our good Irishmen are now wound up to a point where if you go one step further the cord will snap. …”
But the reprisals never came. How Irish-Catholic emotions were kept in check is still a mystery; the bishop’s pleas for restraint alone could not have been enough in light of continued Protestant outrages. On August 12, the night after the Mount Benedict riot, another mob marched through Boston intent upon burning the Catholic cathedral. When confronted with armed guards, the mob returned to Mount Benedict, where they proceeded to finish the work begun the night before, setting shrubs, vines, fruit trees, and fences ablaze. The rampage was resumed yet a third time on Wednesday, August 14, with another attempt to “pull down” the cathedral. Again confronted with armed guards, the mob set out for Charlestown and was detained only when the Boston drawbridge was raised against it.
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.
Bishop Fenwick, however, had crossed political swords with the Protestants before and he was not easily discouraged. He knew that no effort for compensation could be successful until the excitement had abated, and the issue was not brought before the legislature until 1841. By that time the general court had passed more stringent riot laws, which, among other things, mandated that local municipalities were financially liable for property destroyed by mobs. Nevertheless, in 1841 a petition headed by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier was submitted and rejected. Subsequent attempts for compensation in 1842,1843, and 1844 were unsuccessful. In 1846 a sum of ten thousand dollars was approved by the legislature but was rejected by the Catholics, who estimated the total loss of real estate and personal property at ten times that amount. In 1853 another bill for indemnification narrowly missed passage by 9 votes; but the same bill was defeated the following year by a resounding 160 votes, permanently dashing Catholic hopes for reparation.
The convent ruins stood for nearly half a century, grim evidence that Reformation fires of intolerance still smoldered more than two hundred years after they were brought to America.
The hill upon which the Ursuline convent stood is now part of Somerville. By the turn of the century Mount Benedict had been leveled, its soil used for landfill. Nothing remains of the convent except some bricks which form the arch of the front vestibule of the present Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
For citizens who were able to rise above popular prejudice, the convent riot had a special, malign significance: a travesty of human rights had been committed adjacent to Bunker Hill, where the blood of American patriots had flowed while defending those rights. The monument commemorating America’s legendary stand against tyranny was well under construction in 1834, and soon it rose to tower above the blackened walls of the gutted convent. But those walls would stand on their hill for nearly half a century, and in time they too became something of a landmark, a cautionary counterpoint to Bunker Hill’s proud spire.
Attorney General Austin was prescient enough to see this bleak irony taking shape, and in his closing statements at Buzzell’s trial, he asked the jury: “Where will be the pride of your American feelings when you take the stranger to Bunker’s heights and show him the slowly-rising monument … where will be the pride of your American feelings when that stranger points to the other monument of ruins that frowns so gloomily on the adjacent eminence? The chills of fifty winters would not send such an ice-bolt through your hearts. ”