In A Nutshell
In 1836, Maria Monk wrote a scathing, sordid expose on life in a Catholic nunnery. She told stories of murder, torture, abuse, and rape, of killing babies, of bizarre rituals, and of horrors so great she couldn’t even begin to write them down. Her book was a massive success, but there were a lot of people, her own mother included, that said she absolutely wasn’t a credible writer or witness to anything. The claims in the book were investigated, first by seeing if the descriptions in her book were an accurate representation of the convent. They weren’t accurate in terms of describing the convent, but they were an extremely accurate description of a local lunatic asylum.
The Whole Bushel
What happens in the confessional, stays in the confessional.
At least, that’s according to a book called Awful Disclosures. Published in 1836 and welcomed into an America that was fast fading away from the solidarity of the American Revolution and into suspicion of outsiders and immigrants, Awful Disclosures was written by a woman named Maria Monk. According to the story, Maria’s uncaring mother had sent her to a Catholic school in Montreal, and it was only after years witnessing horror after horror that she managed to escape. Awful Disclosures was written to be her tell-all book about what went on behind the closed doors of the Catholic church’s convents, nunneries, and holy sanctuaries. Pregnant with the child of a priest and not sure she would survive childbirth, she wanted to make sure her story was told.
Not only was it just as sordid as you might imagine, but it was a massive hit—it had a massive distribution and started a whole phenomenon of tell-all confessionals supposedly published by women who had endured horrible things at the hands of their church leaders.
Maria completely documents her time within the church. One of her first experiences is talking with a 13-year-old girl who shares with her the truth about what goes on in the confessionals. (Maria doesn’t go into details, that’s left up to the reader to imagine.) But she does go on to talk about another girl who was a frequent visitor to the confessional and who was also found murdered—there was absolutely no question as to who had done it, as the murder weapon, a knife, was engraved with the priest’s name.
Her list of horrors goes on and on. Children were born to the girls, baptized before being cast into a bottomless pit deep in the bowels of the convent. She joins the Black Nunnery, after going through an initiation in which she’s bid to lie in a coffin covered by a funeral shroud. Once a part of the convent, she tells of a fellow nun sentenced to death, crushed between two beds as other nuns and priests jump on her. They eat with nooses tied around their necks, and the smallest offense leads to the most grievous of punishments. She befriends a woman named Jane Ray, who tells her even more stories about even greater horrors.
Just as quickly as some parties were to take the opportunity to insist that every bit of the work was a complete fiction, Maria and her supporters tried to make it clear that she was telling the truth. Later versions of the work were printed with sworn and signed affidavits from physicians, ministers, and government officials, all testifying that to the best of their knowledge, it was true.
On the other hand, there were also testimonies from the other side—most notably Maria’s mother, who stated that the last time she had seen the girl, she was clearly “deranged in the head.” Her mother insists that part of her issue was an incident when she was young, in which a pencil became lodged in her head and interfered with any ability she might have had to think or act rationally.
Even at the time of its publication, there were some glaring issues that made it clear that something wasn’t quite honest about the tale. According to Maria, part of the mission of the Black Nunnery was as a hospital, but she makes little mention of some pretty important events that would have made a huge impact on life in the nunnery, like the cholera epidemic that gripped the city.
Eventually, the convent where she claimed to have been held was thoroughly investigated by a Presbyterian colonel and journalist, who found—not surprisingly—that all of her rather specific and graphic descriptions about the layout of the convent were completely wrong. In investigating the layout of the convent that Maria claimed to have studied and pledged in, the colonel discovered that it wasn’t like the church at all. Instead, it matched the layout of the area’s Catholic Magdalene asylum.
Further investigation revealed that Maria had been committed there, while pregnant, between November 1834 and March 1835. Also there was a woman named Jane Ray.
Maria tried a few more times to break back into other asylums, but it wasn’t until her arrest for theft in 1849 that she was finally committed to Blackwell’s Island Prison, where she would die only a few months later.