Maria Monk

Maria Monk

Maria Monk (1816–?1849) was the heroine and putative author of a mostly fictional but wildly popular book depicting the secret crimes that many Protestants were sure took place behind the closed doors of Catholic convents.

The book was first published in 1836 under the title The Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal. By some estimates, it was surpassed among antebellum best-sellers only by the Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two other favorites of the northern middle classes and the evangelical Protestant reformers whose causes relied on them.

Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk remains to this day one of the most influential of all anti-Catholic texts, illustrating the powerful role that exaggerated survivor/defector narratives have played in bolstering conspiracy fears.

Many facts of Maria Monk’s life are sketchy and disputed, but it’s generally agreed that she grew up near Montreal, the wayward daughter of a soldier’s widow who supported her family by cleaning houses for the army. Raised as a Protestant, by some means or another Maria ended up under the care of Catholic nuns, escaped from their institution, and left for New York City in 1835, pregnant and in the company of Rev. William K. Hoyt, an anti-Catholic activist.

Beyond those basic facts, the accounts differ dramatically. Her mother claimed that Maria had suffered brain damage in a grisly childhood accident involving a “slate pencil,” and became mentally unstable and sexually uncontrollable as a result.

According to Mrs. Monk, the Catholic institution from which her daughter escaped was a “Magdalen asylum” for the redemption of prostitutes, and William Hoyt had paid Maria to blame her conditions on priests, when Hoyt himself was likely the guilty party.

As described in Awful Disclosures, Maria’s own story was far more inspirational. She told of entering the Hotel Dieu convent for her education and converting to Catholicism. After a brief stint away from the convent, including an alleged marriage, Monk decided to become a nun herself. Upon taking the veil, she was initiated, if her account is to be believed, into a nightmare world of psychological manipulation, sexual exploitation, and mass murder.

Taken aside by the Mother Superior, Maria was informed that one of a nun’s “great duties was to obey the priests in all things,” which included servicing them sexually. When Maria virtuously objected, the Superior explained to her that priests needed nuns for this purpose because they were “not situated like other men, being forbidden to marry.”

Moreover, the Catholic clergy deserved some release, because they “lived secluded, laborious, self-denying lives for our salvation.” Finally, Maria was assured, priests could not sin, and whatever they wanted was both right and “pleasing in the sight of God”.

The sisters at Hotel Dieu also had to assist with the horrifying measures required to hide the priests’ activities. When babies were born in the convent, they were “always baptized, and immediately strangled,” which was actually good for the children since they would never be tempted to sin and got to enjoy “everlasting happiness” immediately.

In the Awful Disclosures, Maria reported her discovery of a pit in the convent cellar where the little bodies were thrown in and covered with lime to promote rapid decomposition. The same fate awaited any nuns who balked at their duties, or spoke openly of the crimes committed there.

Monk claimed to have witnessed a recalcitrant sister condemned to death, and then summarily executed—in the presence of the bishop—by means of smothering between two feather mattresses. Priests and nuns jumped on top and trampled her for good measure.

In its original form, the narrative ended with Maria, pregnant with the child of one “Father Phelan, Priest of the Parish Church of Montreal”, escaping from the convent and arriving, apparently unaided, at a New York almshouse.

Pursued by agents of the church and deathly ill, she finally unburdened herself to a hospital chaplain, who gave her a Bible and introduced her to the joys of Protestantism, depicted as a form of Christianity based exclusively on the reading of God’s word and “the free exercise of ... reason”.

Monk’s story (if indeed it was hers and not a tale invented by her promoters) dovetailed nicely with the accusations that Protestant extremists had been making in a then-current controversy over the alleged threat that convents posed to American girls, which was linked with a much broader anti-Catholic movement.

Awful Disclosures documented the charges much more sensationally than the recent Six Months in a Convent (1835), the rather mild narrative of “escaped” nun Rebecca Reed, who had been a sister at the Ursuline convent in Charles Town, Massachusetts, which anti-Catholic rioters had burned down in 1834.

Awful Disclosures had the juicy details that Reed’s book lacked, and while it was not explicit by modern standards, some scholars consider it the first work of pornography published in the United States, for its frank appeal to prurient interests.

It is unlikely that Maria Monk actually wrote the book that bears her name and it is difficult to know whether she concocted the tales within it, which became more extensive and detailed in subsequent editions that boasted numerous invented illustrations and even a floor plan of the convent.

In New York, she fell in with a circle of anti-Catholic activists including Rev. John Jay Slocum, Arthur Tappan, Rev. George Bourne, and Theodore Dwight, Jr. (some of whom were actively involved in other more worthy evangelical causes such as temperance and abolitionism). The narrative has been credited to several different members of the group, but it is certain that they were all heavily involved in publicizing the ex-nun’s story.

The Awful Disclosures first saw print in an anti-Catholic newspaper; New York’s leading publisher, Harper Brothers, working through a dummy corporation named after two of their employees, finally brought it out as a book in 1836. Immediately popular, it has remained in heavy circulation ever since.

Unsurprisingly, Maria Monk’s book was controversial as well as widely read. The Protestant religious press promoted it as an absolutely truthful account of Catholic corruption and superstition, and Maria herself became a popular figure.

At the same time, Catholics and other opponents of the evangelical activists responded vigorously. Posters denouncing Monk were distributed throughout New York, and a heavily documented book, Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, was published refuting her charges.

The Democratic and, like its party, generally pro-Catholic newspaper, the New York Herald, attacked Awful Disclosures repeatedly as a “gross and atrocious fabrication”. Rev. Slocum rushed out with another book rebutting the refutations, and a public meeting was held in which Monk and her critics confronted each other.

Inevitably the controversy produced calls for a public investigation of the Hotel Dieu convent, and the results of those investigations made it much more difficult for reasonable people to give Awful Disclosures any further credence.

Catholic officials denied requests to allow Maria herself to come back with an investigating committee, but finally did allow two American Protestant ministers to visit and inspect the convent. They reported finding nothing at all that substantiated Monk’s accusations; even the physical layout of the Hotel Dieu failed to match her description.

Not long after, New York editor and author William L. Stone conducted an even more thorough investigation. Combing through the convent almost inch by inch, even sniffing jars in the basement in search of dead babies, Stone grew to doubt that Maria Monk had ever lived there at all.

Though he had been active in the anti-Catholic movement and predisposed to believe Monk’s story, Stone came away impressed with the cheerfulness and tranquility of life at the Montreal convent, and wrote a report aiming to liberate his countrymen from “the bondage of prejudice” against these particular Catholics.

The hardcore anti-Catholic press denounced the investigations (along with another Monk pregnancy) as Jesuit plots, even suggesting the possibility that the convent had been rapidly remodeled simply to cast doubt on Maria Monk’s account.

Her public standing was nevertheless devastated by the investigation, and in 1837 she left New York and mostly dropped from view, her mental condition evidently deteriorating. She saw only a tiny fraction of the profits from her best-selling book, despite some lawsuits, and seemed to have drifted into petty crime, poverty, and possibly prostitution.

Most accounts have her arrested for stealing from a customer at the Five Points brothel where she probably worked toward the end of her life, and then dying in jail on Riker’s Island in 1849. Her Awful Disclosures lived on, and on.