Ph.D. Octopus

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Historical Story Completely Unrelated to Current Events

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by Wiz

In 1834 a mob of Protestants, enraged that a nunnery in Charlestown (now Somerville) Massachusetts was supposedly keeping a woman against her will, attacked and burnt a Ursuline nunnery. Here is a newspaper description of the aftermath:

The subject of universal interest in the city today has been the work of destruction accomplished by a mob, last night and this morning, at and about the Ursuline Convent, on Mount Benedict, in Charlestown—resulting in the complete sacking of the principal building itself—a four-story handsome brick edifice, with wings, and front about eighty feet—together with the farm house, cottage, and every other building upon the premises, and also with the demolition or consumption by fire of all the furniture and chattels of every description, appurtant to the whole.

The idea that Catholic institutions– nunneries, monasteries, etc…– were enslaving white women was a common trope/fantasy in anti-Catholic imagery. In this particular case, tensions had been stoked by two events (likely conflated in the minds of the rioters). First, a woman named Rebecca Reed (a convert to Catholicism) left the Ursuline convent after sixth months, alleging she had been held against her will and wrote a tell-all book. Six Months in a Convent portrayed the Church as superstitious, greedy, and hierarchal, all common Protestant critiques of Catholicism. The proximate cause, though, of the riot, was a rumor that one Sister Mary John was being held against her will, after she had supposedly tried to run away, but was forced back into the Convent.

Even more worrisome, though, was that the Convent was located on “holy ground,” near to the Bunker Hill Battlefield. One arsonist explained that the Revolutionary heroes “thought not that within site of Bunker Hill, where the blood of heroes flowed, a Convent would be established, and their granddaughters become its inmates.” As a historian writes of the riot: “Built, inconveniently enough, within sight of Bunker Hill, the Ursuline convent desecrated the terrain of revolutionary struggle. The wave of anticonvent propaganda that followed the convent burning often resorted to the twin appeal of seduction and revolution, violated woman and nation, as if to perfect a still incomplete American Revolution.” I can’t imagine a possible contemporary analog.

Anyways… on the night of August 11th, a mob of local Protestants gathered outside the convent:

A few moments after the signal was given, as above described, a gang of about fifty persons—as nearly as we can ascertain—but certainly at no time exceeding sixty—having gathered about the front door of the Convent, and made considerable noise by way of warning the inmates to flee, proceeded to affect a forcible entrance.The whole party, we should observe here, were disguised. All of them, so far as we can learn, had their faces painted—some after an Indian fashion, and others in other ways; and a part of the number employed devices and disguises of various other descriptions, adapted to conceal the individuals concerned in the outrage, from recognition, at the time of its execution, and of course from punishment hereafter….Of the destruction of all the buildings by fire, however, there is no doubt. The fire was set, in different parts of the Convent, probably about 12 o’clock, after considerable time had been spent in breaking up the furniture, including three pianos, an elegant costly harp, and other musical instruments. The whole establishment was in a blaze before one, and was reduced to ashes in the course of an hour or two.

Historians, as is their wont, point out that whatever the immediate causes of anti-Catholic rage in Boston, the Convent riot was a manifestation of much deeper social ills. Specifically, one historian argues, the social tensions of industrialization and the growing fears of Irish immigration:

The Scots-Presbyterian bricklayers who formed the core of the mob and who understood themselves as chivalric agents vented their anger over their own decline in status and decreasing wages on a convent community of leisured women, hidden from public view, supported by foreign capital—and, to the extent that the Ursulines garnered the allegiance of Protestant women, a community that disrupted masculine control of the family. Paradoxically, then, the convent emblematized not just reactionary Old World power but also fearsome economic inequities of American industrialization.

Deeper anxieties of class, religion, ethnicity, and nationalism were played out, in other words, in a fight over the ability for “outsiders” to build a religious building on ground claimed by a fearful group of “native” Americans. What could go wrong?


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

August 19, 2010 at 16:01

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