It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Mar 2, 2012

Maria Monk Exposes Roman Catholic Church Crimes

Great dislike to the Bible was shown by those who conversed with me about it, and several have remarked to me, at different times, that if it were not for that book, Catholics would never be led to renounce their own faith.


I must be informed, that one of my great duties was, to obey the priests in all things; and this I soon learnt, to my utter astonishment and horror, was to live in the practice of criminal intercourse with them.

Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk

Publishing the book Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk; or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life Exposed! at time produced enormous effect on the readers and created so much controversy between non-religious and religious people of different nominations. When first appeared in press in January 1836, this very Gothic tale of horror, with its secret doors, underground tunnels and subterranean prisons, was presented to the public as real life story. Author Maria Monk, once a nun at the Hôtel-Dieu convent, had bravely stepped forward to expose the true nature of the Roman Catholic Church.

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Her story, as presented, is a simple one. The daughter of uncaring, non-observant Protestants, she chooses the Catholic faith and, after a failed marriage, takes the veil. That very afternoon, her horrors begin:

Father Dufresne called me out, saying he wished to speak with me. I feared what was his intention; but dared not disobey. In a private apartment, he treated me in a brutal manner; and from two other priests, I afterward received similar usage that evening. Father Dufresne afterward appeared again, and I was compelled to remain in company with him until morning.

In the supposedly real literary confession, Monk claimed that all nuns of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph of the Montreal convent of the Hôtel-Dieu, whom she called "the Black Nuns", were forced to have sex with the priests in the seminary next door. The priests secretly entered the convent through a secret tunnel. If the sexual union produced a baby, it was baptized and then strangled and dumped into a lime pit in the basement. Uncooperative nuns disappeared.

Historians are unanimous in their agreement that the whole account was false. But at first, Monk's book caused a public outcry. Protestants in Montreal, demanded an immediate investigation, and the local bishop arranged one. The inquiry found no evidence to support the claims, though many American Protestants refused to accept the conclusion and accused the bishop of dishonesty.

Colonel William Leet Stone, a Protestant newspaper editor from New York City, undertook his own investigation. In October 1836, his team entered the convent and found that the descriptions in the book did not match the convent interior. During their first visit, the investigators were denied entry to the basement and the nuns' personal quarters. Stone returned to New York, interviewed Monk, and concluded that she had never been in the convent. On a later visit, he was given total access to all quarters. Stone's team found no evidence that Maria Monk had ever lived in the convent.

By the way, Maria Monk’s mother told a different story, giving a different perspective on her daughter personality, claiming Monk's mental problems began when she stuck a pencil into her head as a child. By the time Monk was a teen, her mother could no longer control her wild outbreaks, and had her committed to a Catholic asylum in Montreal. She said the girl had never been a Catholic and had never been inside the Hotel Dieu.

But, many people were still unconvinced. It is hard to imagine now, but substantial mistrust—and downright hatred—of Catholics and Catholicism, was widespread in colonial America. The American Revolution helped calm much of it, primarily through the young nation's alliance with Catholic France. After the Revolution, a Catholic community numbering barely 30,000 souls would generally be left alone.

But in the 1820s, anti-Catholicism began to resurface. There was a reawakening of a fundamentalist Protestantism that replaced the more tolerant attitude popular among American leaders at the time of the Revolution. Coupled with it was a growing resentment against the poor immigrants who were starting to crowd Eastern cities, many of them coming from Catholic Ireland. The ever-increasing public presence of Catholics was helping re-ignite anti Catholic sentiments.

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Therefore, historical timing for the Monk’s memoirs was exactly right.  The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk popularized so many of the anti-Catholic stereotypes that would persist in the American consciousness well into the 20th Century. Monk painted a Catholic faith based on medieval superstition, inquisitorial tortures, crafty “Jesuitical” manipulation, suppression of the Bible and oppression of liberty. It was a Church foreign to democratic ideals eager to convert and undermine America. It would engage in any act, including murder, to pursue its nefarious ends. Soon and for decades to follow various state legislatures and local authorities would pass “convent inspection laws” in order to search for nuns held against their will. In the 1890s, the American Protective Association (APA) would claim that caches of weapons were hidden in convents and Catholic Church basements for an uprising on the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola.

And the real history of the book is far less dramatic. In reality, Monk had taken off from a Catholic asylum with the help of her former lover, who was the likely father of her child. In New York, she hooked up with a few clergymen who saw the opportunity to make an anti-Catholic statement —and a few bucks. Some researchers consider the Rev. J. J. Slocum of New York as the actual author of the "Awful Disclosures." However, many details of the story seem to have originated with Monk's legal guardian, William K. Hoyte, an anti-Catholic activist, and his associates. The writers later sued each other for a share of the considerable profits, while Monk was left destitute, returning to prostitution.

Like any successful franchise, there were illustrated editions, sequels and spin-offs. The most noteworthy was Further Disclosures of Maria Monk Concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal (1837), published the same year that she fled her Presbyterian minders. As might be expected, tracts were released by people on both sides attempting to get in on the game; among the first were Decisive Confirmation of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, Proving Her Residence in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, and the Existence of the Subterranean Passages and Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals Against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, Through the Intervention of Maria Monk. It was claimed that one book, The Escape of Saint Francis Patrick, Another Nun of the Hotel Dieu, was written by a nun whom Maria had known. The last in this sorry parade, Maria Monk's Daughter, purportedly the autobiography of her second child, was published in 1875, twenty-six years after Maria's death in a New York City prison. She'd been arrested in a brothel after robbing a john.

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In any case, the book had, and still has success among readers. In was sold in large numbers and had enormous influence. In his seminal essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," historian Richard Hofstadter called "Awful Disclosures" "probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' "

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