Monk, Maria (1816–1849)

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Monk, Maria (1816–1849)

Canadian woman who was the nominal author of a lurid and controversial anti-Catholic book. Born on June 1, 1816 (some sources cite 1817), probably in St. John's, Quebec, Canada; died on September 4, 1849 (some sources cite 1850), in New York City; daughter of William Monk (an army barracks yard orderly) and Isabella (Mills) Monk; may have married twice; children: two daughters.

Published Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, As Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings during a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal.

Maria Monk was born on June 1, 1816, probably in St. John's, Quebec, Canada, the only daughter among five children of William Monk, an army barracks yard orderly, and Isabella Mills Monk . Subject to strange fantasies as a result of a childhood head injury, Monk had a troubled adolescence and was soon notorious for her promiscuity. She was confined for a time at a Catholic institution for prostitutes, located near Montreal's Hôtel Dieu Hospital and Convent and run by Hôtel Dieu nuns; it was presumably this familiarity with the organization which formed the basis for her later tales. In 1834, at age 18, she was discovered to be pregnant and forced to leave. Upon her exit from the institution, Monk met and presumably became the mistress of the Reverend William K. Hoyt, an anti-Catholic zealot. She went with him to New York City, where her first daughter was born in July 1835.

Prejudice against Catholics was running high in American cities at the time, fed by the waves of European Catholic immigrants arriving in the country; an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, had been burned to the ground by a mob in 1834. In New York, Hoyt enlisted the aid of several fomenters associated with the American Protestant Vindicator, an anti-Catholic newspaper, and together these men wrote Monk's "autobiography." They may have been inspired as much by Six Months in a Convent, a recently published book by an exservant and so-called "escaped nun" named Rebecca Theresa Reed , as by Monk. Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, As Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings during a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal, possibly based on fantasies or exaggerations Monk related to the men, and definitely further exaggerated by them, was first serialized in the American Protestant Vindicator in late 1835. Alleging

that Hôtel Dieu nuns were routinely forced to submit to lustful priests, and that any who balked at this unsavory duty were summarily murdered, as were all resultant babies (Monk, or her ghostwriters, claimed that she had fled for her life with her baby, who had allegedly been sired by a priest), it appeared in book form in January 1836, and was a resounding success. A number of recent commentators have noted that the book's pornographic elements may have been as popular with the reading public as its anti-Catholic sentiments.

Awful Disclosures caused an immediate controversy, inflaming already hot anti-Catholic sentiment in some quarters, and sparking debate in others. Many prominent Catholics and Protestants stepped forward to denounce the book and the fraudulent smear on the nuns and priests of the Hôtel Dieu. Monk's own mother testified that her daughter had never been a practicing Catholic, nor had she spent seven years in a nunnery. Following a complete investigation, New York editor William L. Stone pronounced the story a hoax, which merely boosted sales even further. In 1837, Monk left Hoyt for the Reverend John J.L. Slocum, one of the collaborators on Awful Disclosures, and that year Slocum produced Further Disclosures by Maria Monk. Although this second book did not contain any new material, it served to keep the controversy alive, and Awful Disclosures continued to sell well. Monk received no money from the sales of either book.

Maria Monk dropped Slocum late in 1837 and gave birth to a second daughter in 1838. In 1849, while a resident in a house of prostitution in New York's seamy Five Points section, she was arrested for theft and was sent to the poorhouse on New York's Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island). She died soon after her arrival, at age 33. Some 300,000 copies of Awful Disclosures were sold before the Civil War. A facsimile edition was reprinted in 1962.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California

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