Maria Monk, one of the most infamous names in American anti-Catholicism, was the author of Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), “probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” (Hofstadter, 77) Burns Library has a first edition copy, in which Monk detailed the years she spent in a Catholic convent in Montreal, Canada. While there, she suffered terrible treatment, was forced to do menial tasks, and tortured for the smallest rule infractions. The nunnery was connected underground to a nearby seminary, and priests would use the tunnel to travel between the buildings in order to have sexual relations with the nuns. If a baby were to be born from these relationships, it would be baptized and then immediately suffocated and thrown in a basement pit. Monk describes all of these things first hand, and admits to participating in them.
It is easy to understand why such a sensational story became almost an instant best seller. There was only one problem—the entire book was made up. The Bishop of Montreal immediately conducted an investigation, but the public was not satisfied with the results. After all, why would they trust an investigation by the very institution described as secretive and diabolical? In late 1836, Protestant William Stone, a New York newspaperman, traveled to the convent for his own investigation. He initially believed Monk’s story, but, based on her descriptions in the Awful Disclosures, concluded that Maria Monk had never set foot in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery. There was no pit in the basement or secret tunnels connecting the nunnery with the seminary. The publishing of Stone’s discovery didn’t seem to make a difference, and sales of the Awful Disclosures continued to rise, with an 1837 sequel, Further Disclosures by Maria Monk. Anti-Catholic sentiment was at a fever pitch in the United States, as demonstrated by the Ursuline convent fire in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1834, (see Burns Library’s related collection of materials) as well as Rebecca Reed’s 1835 anti-Catholic memoir. Audiences were willing to accept the outlandish claims of Maria Monk because it fit in with their prejudices against the Catholic Church.
The true story of Maria Monk, mostly gathered from interviews with her mother, is more mundane. When Monk was a child, she stuck a pencil into her ear, which could have caused brain damage. In 1834, when Monk was 18, her mother placed her in the Charitable Institution for Female Penitents. Expelled in March of 1835 and pregnant, Monk moved to the United States, where, in October 1835, a New York newspaper published a statement describing her stay in the nunnery. A few months later Awful Disclosures was published. Maria Monk never saw a penny from her book. Several of her associates seemed to have taken advantage of Monk—and the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time—to turn a quick profit, without regards to the truth. Monk ended up dying penniless in an almshouse in 1849, after being arrested for stealing.
One of the most incredible aspects about the Awful Disclosures is that people still believed it, even decades after the book was proven to be a complete fabrication. There are those who believe every detail of Maria Monk’s account, even after Stone had published his refutation, and after Maria Monk’s daughter published her own autobiography in 1874 stating explicitly that the whole thing had been made up by her mother and her handlers in order to make money. For example, Burns Library has a pamphlet from 1943 titled The True History of Maria Monk that, after a short introduction, republishes an 1836 article from the Dublin Review disproving the Awful Disclosures as well as excerpts from Stone’s investigation, mentioned above. Over 100 years later, there was still a need to publish the true account of Maria Monk.
-Andrew Isidoro, Public Services Specialist, Burns Library
Richard J. Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Harper’s Magazine, November 16, 1964, 77-86, 77.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=3569&interval=15&&PHPSESSID=3olv9nv061uanvjlpj1h7k4h45 Accessed December 4, 2018.