Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures: A Classic American Conspiracy Theory
February 27, 2012
Conspiracy theories are nothing new to America. They were here when Salem exploded in a flurry of unfounded accusations of witchcraft and they remain with us today. We have a long history of being afraid of the wrong people: the Masons, the Illuminati, the Commies, those cunning homosexuals—all of these groups at some point or another have been identified as the enemy, the embodiment of evil that would tear the heart out of America and deliver it to perdition.
In the early days of the Republic, there was no guarantee that the American experiment would succeed, and many thought that the ballot box was especially vulnerable to undue influence. Even in the fairly egalitarian period following the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers thought that the American system of democracy was especially vulnerable to manipulation by outside interests, and Catholicism, with its hierarchical institutional structure, seemed to be a special threat. In 1816, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “I do not like the late resurrection of the Jesuits,” maintaining that they are
more numerous [in the United States] than everybody knows. Shall we not have more of them here, in as many shapes and disguises as ever a king of the gypsies … assumed? In the shape of printers, editors, writers, schoolmasters, &c? … If ever any congregation of men could merit eternal perdition on earth and in hell, it is the Company of Loyola. Our system, however, of religious liberty must afford them an asylum. But if they do not put the purity of our elections to a severe trial it will be a wonder. (Adams 219)
Jefferson agreed that the restoration of the Jesuits from one of their many suppressions was a “retrograde step from light” but insisted, “We shall have our follies without doubt. … But ours will be follies of enthusiasm, not bigotry, not of Jesuitism” (Jefferson 223).1
By the 1830s, the warm, fuzzy afterglow of the American Revolution—which had brought many colonists together to fight with a common purpose—had faded, and nativist factionalism emerged as more Catholic immigrants came into the country. One of the most curious salvos in these early culture wars arrived in 1836, when an anti-Catholic New York periodical, the Protestant Vindicator, announced the upcoming publication of Awful Disclosures by Maria Monk, purportedly written by an escapee from a Montreal convent. The supposed author, Maria Monk, related a story of deception, torture, idolatry, rape, priest worship, and murder. Awful Disclosures was perhaps America’s most widely distributed book before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and it was popularly republished throughout the nineteenth century. Awful Disclosures was part of a spate of similarly themed books in the period, including Rosamond (about the wife of a Cuban priest), and Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent.2 Forty years later, Awful Disclosures was still being published, with the publishers’ hope that it would “inspire a wholesome and practical hatred of Popery and all that means to-day in our very midst” (iv).
In Awful Disclosures, young Maria finds herself commended into the care of the Catholics for her education due to the indifference of her widowed Protestant mother. She learns little at her convent school because the nuns are coarse and ignorant, though the nunneries manage to maintain an outwardly pious and holy appearance. Despite the neglect of the girls’ education (Maria says her studies never progressed beyond grade school), Maria decides to take vows and join the convent, believing that she will “retire from the temptations and trouble of this world into a state of holy seclusion, where, by prayer, self-mortification, and good deeds, [she will prepare] herself for heaven” (18). It’s hard to imagine how she comes to this conclusion, given the stories of abuse she hears while at Catholic school. For example, take the tale of a young squaw, La Belle Marie, who
had been seen going to confession at the house of the priest, who lived a little out of the village. La Belle Marie was afterwards missed, and her murdered body was found in the river. A knife was also found bearing the priest’s name. Great indignation was excited among the Indians, and the priest immediately absconded, and was never heard from. A note was found on his table addressed to him, telling him to fly, if he was guilty. (16)
A trope introduced early in the book that bodes poorly for every female character is “what happens in the confessional.” Of course, because the book was written in the 1830s, we don’t get descriptions of exactly what goes on there, which, of course, makes the goings-on all the more sinister because the mischief is limited only by the reader’s filthy imagination. For instance, Maria relates the testimony of a thirteen-year-old acquaintance: “She told me one day of the conduct of a priest with her at confession, at which I was astonished. It was of so criminal and shameful a nature I could hardly believe it. … She was partly persuaded by the priest to believe that he could not sin, because he was a priest, and that anything he did to her would sanctify her… ” (15). When this girl tells her mother what has happened, the mother “expressed no anger nor disapprobation; but only enjoined it upon her not to speak of it; and remarked to her, as priests were not like men, but holy, and sent to instruct and save us, whatever they did was right” (16). The corruption of the Church, Maria suggests, is known to every Catholic daughter and embraced by the faithful.
While in the convent, Maria becomes a witness to extravagant and perpetual horrors. Following her initiation ceremony, which involves a coffin and only the occasional novice’s death, she immediately becomes privy to the secrets of the Black Nunnery, including the women imprisoned in the basement and the fate of babies born in the convent (presumably conceived in the confessional): “Infants were sometimes born in the convent, but they were always baptized and immediately strangled…. ‘How happy,’ [the Superior] exclaimed, ‘are those who secure immortality to such little beings! Their souls would thank those who kill their bodies if they had it in their power’” (40). As a result, a surprisingly large number of corpses are tossed into an apparently bottomless pit in the convent’s basement.
The women are kept largely in the dark about the horrific goings-on elsewhere in the convent, but Maria learns a lot through the intervention of a nun who may or may not be crazy, Jane Ray. She is a defiant character who is largely unaffected by the discipline inflicted upon her and who seems to know a lot more than most of the other nuns. Much of the rest of the narrative is filled with stories of the bizarre abuses and punishments inflicted upon the nuns, including kissing the floor, kissing other nuns’ feet, kneeling on hard peas or walking with them in their shoes, eating meals with a rope around their necks, being fed only food that the nuns detest (like eel), drinking the water in which the Superior’s feet had been washed, brandings, whippings, mass gaggings, standing or sleeping in uncomfortable conditions for hours, and “the cap,” a leather hat that causes convulsive pain by unknown means.
Eventually, Maria learns that she is pregnant. To avoid the inevitable infanticide, she leaves this elaborate chamber of horrors by walking out quickly and fleeing to New York, where her book was presumably ultimately written. As her due date approaches, Maria fears that she may not survive the labor and feels compelled to share what she has witnessed. She openly acknowledges that the reader only has her word that any of this has happened:
If the interior of the Black Nunnery, whenever it shall be examined, is materially different from the following description, then I shall claim no confidence of my readers. If it resemble it, they will, I presume, place confidence in some of these declarations, on which I may never be corroborated by true and living witnesses.
I am sensitive that great changes may be made in the furniture of apartments; that new walls may be constructed, or old ones removed; and I have been credibly informed that masons have been employed in the nunnery since I left it. (53)
She nonetheless maintains that “ … there are some facts for which I can appeal to the knowledge of others” (130). For instance, when priests take “Holy Retreats” and disappear from the public eye for a while, they are actually recovering from venereal diseases at the Black Nunnery (131).3 This is as good as her evidence gets, unfortunately.
The publication of Monk’s memoirs was a sensation, but the account seems to have been entirely fabricated. An exchange of charges and counter-charges ensued in the press between those involved with the publication of Awful Disclosures, those familiar with Maria Monk’s personal history, representatives of the Catholic Church, and investigators who conducted inquiries into the matter. The Protestant Vindicator attempted to validate the story that Maria told by vouching for her character. It turned out, however, that the editors, especially minister J.J. Slocum, had either helped her fabricate or were otherwise intimately involved in the writing of Awful Disclosures.4
Six affidavits were published in the Montreal press in November 1835 that seemed to illuminate some of the background to the publication of Awful Disclosures, though in every single aspect they cast doubt on Monk’s reliability. Nonetheless, these were republished in the 1936 edition of Awful Disclosures as evidence of the veracity of Maria Monk’s testimony by virtue of “discrepancies” in the testimony. In this edition, Monk answers what she calls the three lines of attack by her critics: “1st, That I had never been in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery; 2d, That my character entitled me to no confidence; 3d that my book was copied, ‘word for word, and letter for letter,’ from an old European work, called ‘The Gates of Hell Opened’” (204). Monk’s publishers offered a $100 reward for any book resembling hers (206). Any resemblance in content, they maintained, between her account and any other exposé was due to both being factually true.5
In the first affidavit, justice of the peace and physician William Robertson of Montreal swore in an affidavit that three men had encountered Maria Monk by the Canal on 9 November 1834, and saw her acting in such a way that caused them to fear she was contemplating suicide. She claimed to be Robertson’s daughter, but as Mrs. Robertson turned them away when they came to his door, they took her to a watch-house, where she remained in custody. When Robertson himself went to assess the situation, “[A]s she could not give a satisfactory account of herself, I, as a Justice of the Peace, sent her to jail as a vagrant” (in Monk 213). After she was identified by her pastor and released, he heard no more about Monk for many months until he was approached to take her deposition about her experiences in the convent, but, he says, “I declined doing so, giving as reason, that, from my knowledge of her character, I considered her assertions upon oath were not entitled to more credit than her bare assertion, and that I did not believe either… ” (214). He does say that if she wants to level specific criminal charges, he would be willing to participate in the investigation. Given the seriousness of accusations, Robertson did try to ascertain where she had been during the years she claimed to be at the convent: “During the summer of 1832 she was at service in William Henry’s; the winters of 1832-3, she passed in this neighborhood, at St. Ours and St. Denis” (215).
Maria Monk’s mother, Isabella Mills, also gave sworn testimony about her daughter. In the testimony, taken down and prefaced by Robertson, she claimed that “designing men… have taken advantage of her daughter, to make scandalous accusations against the Priests and the Nuns in Montreal, and afterward to make her pass herself for a nun, who had left the Convent” (215). These men, including W.H. Hoyte of New York, with whom Maria and her child had been lodging at a local hotel, told Mills that Monk had escaped from the hotel, leaving the child behind. They claimed she had been found sick and destitute in New York and had wanted to make a confession about the Montreal Convent. Mills’s warning that they really should not trust her daughter is one for the ages:
I expected to get rid of their importunities, in relating the melancholy circumstances by which my daughter was frequently deranged in the head, and then told them, that when at the age of about seven years, she broke a slate pencil in her head; that since that time her mental faculties were deranged, and by times much more than at other times, but that she was far from being an idiot; that she could make the most ridiculous, but most plausible stories; and that as to the history that she had been in a nunnery, it was a fabrication, for she was never in a nunnery…. (217)
But Hoyte was not willing to accept that his informant was anything but absolutely trustworthy:
Next morning Mr. Hoyte returned, and was more pressing than in his former solicitations, and requested me to say that my daughter had been in the nunnery: that should I say so, it would be better than one hundred pounds to me; that I would be protected for life, and that I should leave Montreal[;] I answered, that thousands of pounds would not induce me to perjure myself; then he got saucy and abusive to the utmost; he said he came to Montreal to detect the infamy of the Priests and the Nuns; that he could not leave my daughter destitute in the wide world as I had done; afterward said, No! she is not your daughter, she is too sensible for that, and went away. (218–9)
Most of the action in Awful Disclosures happens without reference to external, historically verifiable events, with the exception of Montreal’s 1832 election riots and the arrival of cholera in the city. In every respect, her account of the convent’s behavior during the cholera epidemic fails to jibe with Montreal citizens’ accounts of the nuns’ actions. Many published accounts of the epidemic concur that the residents of the convent made their reputations as valuable members of the larger community for highly visible selfless acts during those terrible times, and it is because of this reputation that the community, including Protestants who openly reviled popery, rejected Monk’s claims.
Of course, little could be settled by vouching for the character of the nuns or author. Luckily, Monk made specific statements about the interior of the nunnery, and in the 1836 edition even provided a diagram of the interior of the convent.6 The Church opened the building for inspection. The most impressive investigation was carried out by Colonel W. L. Stone, the Presbyterian editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser. He visited Montreal with the most recent edition of Awful Disclosures, which included the diagram of the convent interior. The full narrative of his investigation was republished in the U.S. Gazette. He inspected every room, and the nuns opened every door and cabinet he asked to peek into. He inspected the walls and floors for evidence of recent construction. In every specific, Monk’s descriptions of the convent—some of which were very detailed, such as her escape through a gate that did not exist—were inaccurate. Based on his inspection Stone concluded, “[I]t may well be said that the girl must be an incorrigible blockhead, not to be able to remember somewhat of the interior of a house in which she pretends to have been a resident” (qtd. in Englund, 395). Most interesting, however, is what else Stone uncovered while in Montreal, hitting on the likely source of the story:
[I]t is a little remarkable that the only internal resemblance to the diagram she has given are said to be found in the recent Catholic Magdalen Asylum of Mrs. McDonnell, which was dissolved about a week before our visit, and in which the celebrated Jane Ray remained until the last. (qtd. in Englund 395)
In a deposition taken in July 1836, the matron of that institution—a reformatory for prostitutes—verified that Monk had been a resident between November 1834 and March 1835 and testified that Maria Monk had “for many years led the life of a stroller and a prostitute.”7 Monk seems to have been pregnant while at the asylum. I believe that it is a reasonable conclusion that during her confinement at a religious charity in New York, Monk came into contact with a group of anti-Catholics, told them what they wanted to hear, and collaborated with them on the book, inventing details from her own past experiences in Montreal.
An interesting stylistic note about Awful Disclosures is that the story shares numerous conventions with popular gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, Frankenstein, and Melmoth the Wanderer.8 One can go through a checklist of the conventions of the gothic novel and find most of them in Awful Disclosures: Large isolated building with secret passageways and terror around every corner? Check. Imprisoned heroine? Check. Tyrannical or abusive male characters? Check. Overwrought emotion? Oh god, yes. Atmosphere of suspense? Check. Supernatural occurrences? Sort of—the nuns believe they live with a “true saint,” a holy daughter of a wealthy citizen who is restricted to one part of the convent and is said to bodily occupy heaven from time to time. Violent or macabre events? Even better—hilarious nun murder.
Let me explain.
In her fifth month as a nun, Maria witnesses the death of a young woman, who has taken the name Saint Frances, at the hands of her sisters. Maria helps carry the poor woman to the place of her “trial” though, she reports, “I had not a moment’s doubt that she considered her fate as sealed, and was already beyond the fear of death” (85). While the interrogation and evidence is being presented against the nun, the bishop seems impatient to see the sentence passed. When Saint Frances plainly states that she refuses to kill a baby, even if it means her own death, Maria reports:
“That is enough; finish her!” said the bishop.
Two nuns instantly fell upon the woman, and in obedience to directions given by the Superior, prepared to execute her sentence.
“She still maintained all the calmness and submission of a lamb. Some of those who took part in this transaction, I believe, were as unwilling as myself; but of other I can safely say, I believe they delighted in it. Their conduct certainly exhibited a most blood-thirsty spirit. But above all others present, and above all human fiends I ever saw, I think Saint Hypolite was the most diabolical; she engaged in the horrid task with all alacrity, and assumed from choice the most revolting parts to be performed. She seized a gag, forced it into the mouth of the poor nun, and when it was fixed between her extended jaws, so as to keep them open at their greatest possible distance, took hold of the straps fastened at each end of the stick, crossed them behind the helpless head of the victim, and drew them tight through the loop prepared as a fastening.
They then tie Saint Frances to a bed. “In an instant,” Maria reports
another bed [later referred to as a feather-bed] was thrown upon her. One of the priests, named Bonin, sprang like a fury first upon it, with all his force. He was speedily followed by the nuns, until there were as many upon the bed as could find room, and all did what they could, not only to smother, but to bruise her.
After about fifteen or twenty minutes of jumping on the bed, the nuns stop and have a good laugh. Later, she reports that St. Frances’ body
was taken down into the cellar and thrown unceremoniously into the hole which I have already described, covered with a great quantity of lime, and afterwards sprinkled with a liquid, of the properties and name of which I am ignorant. This liquid I have seen poured into the hoe from large bottles, after the necks were broken off; and have heard that it is used in France to prevent the effluvia rising from cemeteries. (87–90)
I bring up these gothic elements in this historical discussion of the conspiracy theory because a frequent feature of conspiracy theorists is an apparent inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, and this seems to have always been true. Awful Disclosures was marketed as a non-fictional account, but a cursory glance at the conventions reveals it to be strongly influenced by fiction. The mind-bending improbability of the story is surpassed perhaps only by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Michael Barkun identifies the tendency of conspiracy theorists to commit such fact-fiction reversals in his A Culture of Conspiracy; one should note that many modern conspiracy theories are built around transparently fictitious plots and stories. For instance, you can look to Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame), who wrote of subterranean beings who made use of limitless Vril energy in his 1871 The Coming Race.9 This story jumped into the occult literature and found its way into modern conspiracy literature in the form of free energy narratives and underground civilizations.
It is telling that Maria Monk escaped from Catholic French Canada. Nativists were quick to see Catholics menacing the United States from across both the northern and southern borders. Coordination and cooperation between the Catholics in these countries was thought to be inimical to the well-being of the nation. This strikes me as especially important to an understanding of nativist conspiracy theory—transnational entities, like international Judaism, Catholicism, Freemasonry, big oil, or Google, which do not have strictly defined geographical borders, have historically been the objects of suspicion because their members may have alternative loyalties that do not entirely or exclusively coincide with that of the nation. And the wicked Catholics were thought to especially prize Americans: “The priests and nuns used often to declare that all of all the heretics the children from the United States were the most difficult to be converted; it was thought a great triumph when one of them was brought over to the ‘true faith’” (182–3).
Monk’s story does not have a happy ending. In September 1837, a report appeared that Maria Monk had tried to enter another Catholic institution, this time an asylum in Philadelphia, under an assumed name as the basis of another abduction scheme (qtd. in Englund 418). She was discovered under the name Jane Howard. In 1849, she was arrested in New York for theft; she died, insane, in Blackwell’s Island Prison two months later.
1. It should be noted that in 1816 “enthusiasm” did not have the entirely positive connotation that it has today. ↩
2. Susan M. Griffin finds that 300,000 copies of Monk’s memoirs had been sold by 1860. “Awful Disclosures: Women’s Evidence in the Escaped Nun’s Tale.” PMLA 111.1 (1996): 93–107. 93. ↩
3. A fascinating discussion of how anti-Catholic authors grounded the devious character of the priest in his celibacy and rejection of “family” can be found in Marie Anne Pagliarini’s “The Pure Woman and the Wicked Catholic Priest: An Analysis of Anti-Catholic Literature in Antebellum America.” Religion and American Culture 9.1 (1999): 97–128. See also Sandra Frink’s “Women, the Family, and the Fate of the Nation in American Anti-Catholic Narratives, 1830–1860.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18.2 (2009), 237–264. ↩
4. On Slocum’s admission of his involvement, see Frink, 238. ↩
5. A book by this title does exist, but it appears to be a satire in verse of two rival British political publications early in the previous century. ↩
6. A great deal of collected published matter related to the Monk affair appeared in an edition of the complete works of the first bishop of Charleston, SC, John Englund, titled The Works of the Right Rev. John Englund, vol 5. 5 vols. Ed. Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds. Baltimore: John Murphy and Co., 1849. Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations about the investigations into the convent and Monk’s “catchpenny libel” (347) come from this. ↩
8. It also shares a number of conventions with the escaped slave narrative, a popular form of abolitionist literature at the time. It is interesting to note that often the same people who are crusading against slavery during this period are the ones who are crusading against popery. See Griffin. ↩
9. Barkun, Michael. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. 31–32. ↩
Adams, John. 1856. “To Thomas Jefferson, 6 May 1816.” The Works of John Adams, volume 10. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 216–219.
“Maria Monk; Affidavit of Madame D.C. McDonnell, Matron of the Montreal Magdalen Asylum, Ste. Genevieve Street.” 1836. Republished on Early Canadiana Online. <http://www.canadiana.org/view/50665/0002>. 5 Feb 2012.
Barkun, Michael. 2003. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Englund, John. 1849. The Works of the Right Rev. John Englund, volume 5. Ed. Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds. Baltimore: John Murphy and Co.
Frink, Sandra. 2009. “Women, the Family, and the Fate of the Nation in American Anti-Catholic Narratives, 1830–1860.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18.2, 237–264.
Griffin, Susan M. 1996. “Awful Disclosures: Women’s Evidence in the Escaped Nun’s Tale.” PMLA 111.1: 93–107. 93.
Jefferson, Thomas. “To John Adams, 1 Aug 1816.” In Adams. 222–223.
Monk, Maria. 1836. Awful Disclosures, by Maria Monk, of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. New York: Francis F. Ripley.
---. 1878. Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings. New York: D. M. Bennett.
Pagliarini, Marie Anne. 1999. “The Pure Woman and the Wicked Catholic Priest: An Analysis of Anti-Catholic Literature in Antebellum America.” Religion and American Culture 9.1: 97–128.