Old Anti-Catholic Hoax Continues

November 14, 2012

Recently, I bought an intriguing book in an antique shop: Maria Monk: Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed. It was undated but was obviously a reprint of an older volume. Purportedly, in the 1830s, the author escaped from a Montreal convent where priests entered through a secret tunnel to have sexual relations with the defenseless nuns. If a child resulted, the infant was baptized, strangled, and thrown into a basement lime pit (Monk n.d., 130–31). Pregnant herself, Monk escaped to have her baby and pen the tell-all tale. Or so she claimed.

I had not read far into the book before I found suspicious elements. For example, the descriptions of Catholic practices seemed those an outsider would make, and they are often criticized from a Protestant viewpoint. Also, the language is too rhetorically inflated for the “uneducated” female who allegedly wrote it. In fact, the language is suspiciously like that of the anonymous person who wrote the preface.

One might suspect the narrative was simply ghostwritten—as by her companion and de facto manager, Rev. W.K. Hoyt, a strongly anti-Catholic Protestant, who was also suspected of fathering her child. However, the preface claims her tale was “carefully written down from her lips” (xiii)—which not only cannot be true but tacitly admits the young woman was unable to write such a text.

As it happens, the book was a hoax. As related in my late friend Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of Hoaxes (1993; 224–26), the fantastic assertions of the book were thoroughly investigated at the time by Protestant clergymen. They inspected the convent in question and discovered its interior was incompatible with Maria Monk’s descriptions. Much other evidence of fakery followed.

Nevertheless the book saw many editions, and by the 1920s reportedly sold over 300,000 copies. Over four decades later, states Stein, it “was still going strong.” Copies, like the one I picked up, are still lying in wait for unsuspecting readers, and so the hoax must be exposed again and again.

As to Maria Monk, she lived on until 1949, when she died in a prison on New York City’s Welfare Island. She had been arrested for having picked the pocket of a man who apparently paid for her sexual services.