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Posted September 19, 2003
These excerpts from the review by Kevin Baker say it for me. 'Awful Disclosures, by the pseudonymous Maria Monk, is not simply another sweaty piece of contemporary pornography¿but a book that figured in some of the worst episodes of religious persecution this country has ever witnessed. 'Maria' and her book burst upon the American scene in 1836. At the time, the nation was enduring a wave of nativist, 'Know-Nothing' feeling. Just two years earlier, a mob of disgruntled Boston workingmen had marched on a convent of Ursuline nuns in nearby Charlestown and burned it to the ground. Worse was yet to come¿thanks in good part to Miss Monk. Awful Disclosures purported to be the memoir of how, as a young girl growing up in Montreal, she converted to Catholicism, joined a local nunnery¿and found herself in a convent that sounds more like a road company of Marat/Sade than anything ever sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. For any of you tempted to carnal sin ... Awful Disclosures will prove disappointing. More disturbing are Maria's 'revelations' about how nuns from wealthy families would be secretly murdered or imprisoned if they tried to leave the convent¿or how all nuns were forced to have sex with Catholic priests. Awful Disclosures became an instant bestseller. This is not too surprising, since it was ghost-written by some professional hack. Just how many of its calumnies were invented by Maria is unclear, but they conveniently echoed the most widespread anti-Catholic slanders. For lending her name and person to this propaganda, Maria was lionized for a time by a group of Protestant clerics, and sent out on a series of speaking tours. Then the inevitable shoe fell. Maria's mother revealed that she had never been a nun at all, but the runaway inmate of a Catholic asylum for delinquent girls. The father of her child had not been a priest at all, but the boyfriend who helped her escape. Her clerical champions¿and her publishers¿quietly fell away, leaving her nearly as penniless as when she had first arrived in New York. 'When she gave birth to a second fatherless child, she did not bother to name him after a priest,' William V. Shannon wrote pointedly in his excellent history, The American Irish. 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. A similar orgy of violence was narrowly avoided in New York the same year, when Bishop 'Dagger John' Hughes summoned armed volunteers to defend the Old St. Patrick's Church, and warned the city's Know-Nothing mayor that he would turn New York into 'a second Moscow' if any Catholics or their houses of worship were attacked. Bishop Hughes was referring to Czar Alexander I's decision to burn down Moscow rather than let it fall into the hands of Napoleon, and the force of his threat was enough to keep New York at peace for a change. Yet through the mid-1850's, 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 presidWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.