Segment from Catholics in America

A Cloistered Lie

Scholar Nancy Schultz has the story of some of the most popular literature in the 19th century U.S.: exposes of the debauchery supposedly taking place behind convent walls.


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ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.


PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf.


BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today, we’re marking Pope Francis’s historic trip to the US with stories of Catholics in American history.


Throughout the early 19th century, large numbers of Catholics immigrated to the US. They came from Germany and Ireland, with a huge uptick of Irish in the 1840s. The Protestant presence across the United States often meant any Catholics were met with staunch resistance, in the form of everything from the written word to mob violence. Let’s take a moment to explore an example of both.


PETER: In the early 1830s, a young woman named Rebecca Reed hit the lecture circuit in New England, regaling crowds with her strange tales. The topic? Her six months as a Roman Catholic nun. Reed had lived in a nursery and convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, before she ran away. The elegant brick building sat on the top of a hill– a tiny island of Catholicism in a Protestant sea.


ED: Reed’s lectures were basically horror stories. Her Protestant audiences devoured details of abusive nuns and bizarre Catholic rituals. The stories reinforced deeply held prejudices against Catholics that stretched back decades in New England. But they also fed local resentment of the pristine convent overlooking the town. And when rumors started circulating that another nun had escaped and then was forcibly returned, a Protestant mob decided that it had heard enough.


NANCY SCHULTZ: On the night of August 11, 1834 a crowd of men gathered in front of the gates of the convent.


ED: This is historian Nancy Schultz.


NANCY SCHULTZ: And they broke down the door of the convent. And they streamed in. They had torches. And they threw pianos out the window. They threw the furniture out the window. They took torches to the curtains. And they set the place on fire.


ED: So I’m taking that there were not police there to stop this.


NANCY SCHULTZ: No. In fact, the fire department showed up the night that the convent was attacked. They estimate that there were 2,000 to 4,000 people outside of the convent. And none of the fireman made any move to spray water or to try to stop the fire.


ED: The horror of the convent’s burning did nothing to temper the anti-Catholic mood in New England. In the wake of the destruction, Rebecca Reed actually gained an even larger audience by publishing a memoir about her convent life. Her book was an instant hit, and inspired a host of imitators. Schultz says that Reed launched a new genre of 19th-century American literature– the convent exposé.


NANCY SCHULTZ: This was a very popular genre throughout the 19th century. They were the supermarket literature of the day. And there were several– I would say almost a dozen– anti-Catholic convent captivity narratives published in the 19th century.


ED: But Rebecca Read was the first of these.


NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. Her book is called Six Months in a Convent. And it was published in 1835. And it was most likely ghostwritten by a group of male supporters. A lot of these convent captivity narratives, the women were not literate enough to put a book together. So these were pretty much books written by male committees.


ED: And what defined her book and the others in the genre that followed? What would we expect to find if we opened this up at the supermarket?


NANCY SCHULTZ: By standards of popular literature, Rebecca Reed’s book is fairly tame. She details Catholic ritual, such as licking the floor for penance, or having to kneel for several hours a day. And it’s really focused on rituals of the mass and what actually happens inside a convent, because this was really a subject of a fascination for people. The closed Catholic convent and the confessional, those were secret spaces that, to the Protestant mind, were foreign.


ED: So were people satisfied by her account? Did they find it exciting and titillating?


NANCY SCHULTZ: The book sold a lot of copies. 10,000 in the first week. Over 200,000 altogether. 200,000 copies.


ED: 200,000 copies would have made it one of the best-selling books by a woman in 19th-century America, right?




ED: Yeah. But it was not the best-selling book, because it was followed very quickly by another book in the genre, which turns up the lurid aspects of things quite a bit. Can you tell us about that book?


NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. This one is called The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. And that was published in 1836. And Maria Monk wrote a very steamy exposé of a convent, with tunnels dug underneath between the convent and the rectory, where priests can have easy access to the women in the convent. She describes the murder of a nun who refused the advances of a priest. All the nuns in the convent put a mattress on top of her, and got on top of it, and jumped on the mattress until she suffocated. She described a pit in the basement of the convent, a lime pit where they would baptize the babies born to the women, and then murder them and throw them in the lime pit.


ED: Wow. Was this also ghostwritten?


NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. This was written by a committee.


ED: And these were men who were writing this.


NANCY SCHULTZ: Yes. Most of the evidence points to the fact that she was never a nun at all, that she had been a prostitute. And the baby that she purported had been fathered by a Catholic priest, which she said motivated her escape– she wanted to save the life of her child– most evidence suggests that that baby had been the offspring of a Montreal policeman.


ED: Oh, gosh. But in the meantime, people are snatching these things up and believing them, right? So what was the effect of these books, other than selling a lot? Did they have social consequences?


NANCY SCHULTZ: Well, they did have social consequences, because what we see through the beginning of the 19th century is a mounting current of anti-Catholicism. And so the convent burning in 1834 and these two convent captivity narratives fertilize the soil for even more anti-Catholicism. And you see in the 1840s dozens of anti-Catholic newspapers being founded and widely read.


And what this anti-Catholicism shows is that even as we extend welcome, we often deeply fear the other. And this idea of how do we assimilate, how do we assimilate difference, I think this is still the essential question of American culture. And we struggle with this today.


ED: Nancy Schultz teaches at Salem State University, and is the author of Fire and Roses– the Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834.

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Note to Teachers:

This lesson focuses on the work of anti-Catholic groups to ensure Protestant domination. Understanding the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity is key. Neither the Know Nothings nor the Ku Klux Klan could prevent participation by Catholics in American government. Despite tolerant attitudes expressed by American leaders, individual heroes seem to be lacking in this story. Change seems to have come about largely through the collective energies of Catholics in America who proved themselves to be American and Catholic.

There are a number of primary and secondary sources included in this lesson for students to analyze. Students will interrogate texts and artifacts and pose questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. As they do so, they are asked to reach an understanding of the times that produced the sources and use the information gathered to formulate statements about the issues based on the evidence they have examined.

These lessons contain an abundance of information about the difficulties experienced by Catholics in America over three centuries. Used in their entirety, they show progress in America towards a more tolerant, inclusive nation, and at the same time, the lessons illustrate the difficulty of bringing about social change.