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  • Prejudice for ProfitEscaped Nun Stories and American Catholic Print Culture
  • Kara M. French (bio)

During the sweltering summer of 1834, a gang of working-class men—brickmakers, sailors, apprentices, and firemen—surrounded the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The crowd, acting on rumor that Sister Mary St. John Harrison "has been secreted or abducted" to Canada against her will, threatened to burn the convent to the ground unless she was released. When Harrison did not come forward, they set fire to the convent and school with "twelve nuns, and fifty-seven female scholars" inside. Newspapers from Maine to Maryland reported how the rioters stole the Mount Benedict ciborium, smashed the sisters' expensive musical instruments, and converted the personal library of Boston's Bishop Fenwick into fuel for a bonfire. As a final act of desecration, the mob "burst open the tomb, and ransacked the coffins" of dead nuns, searching for the bodies of Sister Harrison and the Ursulines' young Protestant pupils, rumored to have been murdered behind the convent walls.1

Tales of illicit sex and abused women rose from the ashes of the Charlestown riot. Just as the Charlestown rioters were being brought to [End Page 503] trial in 1835, ex-novice Rebecca Reed's autobiography, Six Months in a Convent, detailed a life of horrors. According to Reed, the sisters of Mount Benedict heaped slavish devotion on their Mother Superior and were subjected to bizarre and cruel penances. The convent was a place of unmentionable sexual deviance, where confession with the Bishop led to "various improper questions" regarding the novices' sexual habits and where Superior Mary St. George Moffat was inclined to "bestow presents and caress" the sisters who were her "great favorites."2

The burning of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts was and is a well-known tale, in its own time and in ours. For scholars of the early republic, the burning of the convent represents an object lesson in anti-Catholic prejudice, a perfect storm of religious intolerance, gender trouble, and class conflict. For citizens of the early republic, the event served to confirm their worst fears—either about the nefarious lives of nuns and priests or about the limits of religious toleration. For early republican publishers, it created an opportunity. With the riot at the Ursuline convent in 1834, the relationship between print and protest worked in reverse of what one might expect. Rather than the publication of an explosive text provoking an outbreak of violence, the burning of the convent was an occasion of violence that provoked an outbreak of print. The two anti-Catholic "escaped nun" narratives that became bestsellers in antebellum era, Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent and Maria Monk's Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu, would not be published until more than a year after the convent lay in ashes.

While the political, social, and gendered implications of the Charles-town riot have been explored, the way the burning of the convent was exploited by publishers for financial gain deserves closer examination. Though Reed's and Monk's narratives have the distinction of being the best-selling and most well-known "escaped nun" tales, the burning of the convent encouraged the flourishing of an anti-Catholic print genre that promised to expose the secret lives of nuns and priests. A feeding frenzy of anti-Catholic literature ensued at every level of the literary marketplace, from cheaply printed dime novels to ornate gift books. These "escaped nun" stories capitalized on the horror the perceived gender and sexual deviance of nuns provoked in the Protestant imagination. Antebellum publishers spent thousands manufacturing lithograph illustrations of novices cutting their hair to take the veil and mass-printed [End Page 504] stories that featured cross-dressing "female Jesuits" and Machiavellian lady superiors.3

Commercial print and the whims of the publishing marketplace not only drove a boom in anti-Catholic publishing but also sparked American Catholics to mount a vigorous defense in print. Given the ubiquity of print in the early republic, it is perhaps not surprising that a religious minority would develop their own print sphere. As the recent outpouring of scholarship on African American print culture has...


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pp. 503-535
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