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Authors: Melissa Katsoulis

Telling Tales (6 page)

Finally, William decided to confess his crime to his family. First he told Mrs Freeman and his sisters, then his father. All of them flatly refused to believe him. It was beyond their comprehension that the intellectually puny black sheep of their family could pull off such a stunt, and it would take months of persuasion for them even to start to believe that maybe this Mr H was the hoaxer. As long as he lived, which was not to be very long, Samuel never accepted his son had perpetrated the scam.

William would go on to marry, travel, set up a private lending library in Kensington and write many books and poems, not all bad, of his own. But his most fascinating work is his
Confession
, published some time after the event, in which he describes his duplicitous acts as those of a foolish boy who only wanted to please his father. And in 1832 he would publish
Vortigern
as his own work of fiction – a final publicity-hungry move which prefigures the twentieth-century literary hoaxer’s vogue for selling as fiction what he was once vilified for trying to ply as fact.

2
T
HE
N
INETEENTH
C
ENTURY

MARIA MONK

R
IGHT-WING AMERICA
in the 1830s was in the grip of a religious hatred far greater than that felt by some for Islam or Judaism today. It was the conviction of Protestant groups that the increasing numbers of Irish Catholics who were arriving on the East Coast had been instructed by their pope to eradicate America’s precious Protestantism by overrunning the population with their people. So serious was this perceived threat, and the notion that the Democratic party was in cahoots with it due to its many Irish supporters, that new political groups were being founded on anti-Catholic principles which would eventually combine to become the Republican party.

But the Grand Old Protestants who would eventually take control of the States were, at the time of the great hoax of Maria Monk, only getting started. Monk – her real name – was born to Scottish–English parents in Canada in 1816 or 1817. By the time she was grown up (and she grew up before her time) North America would be rife with propaganda and even riots and arson attacks against Catholic institutions, and the seeds of this unrest were already sown when the young Maria was sent to the Magdalen Asylum for Wayward Girls in Quebec. Maria was barely educated and entirely despaired of by her parents by the time she was sent away from home: her unpredictable behaviour, lack of academic ability and refusal to adhere to rules was, it seems, brought on by a childhood head injury in which a pencil got stuck in her ear. It cannot have been an easy decision for her family to send her into the arms of Papists, but they were convinced no other charitable institution could help their uncontrollable daughter, especially as one aspect of her shameful behaviour seems to have been sexual, and there is some evidence that she earned money from prostitution while she was at the asylum, which also functioned as a school.

By the time she was eighteen and had been there for seven years the nuns had her expelled for just about the worst crime a Catholic or pseudo-Catholic can commit: unmarried pregnancy. Destitute and outcast, wandering the streets of Quebec, she sought help at the Canadian Benevolent Society and somehow managed to become acquainted with its director, a man called William K. Hoyte. Hoyte’s Protestant missionary work was fuelled by a passionate hatred of Catholicism, and clearly he saw poor, pregnant Maria as an example of just how damaging a spell living in a convent could be. He also fell in love with her. He took her as his live-in mistress and promptly moved her to New York to assist him in the various Catholic-bating projects which would result in the most explosive autobiographical book of the decade.

In New York he and Maria gathered round them a group of educated friends who shared Hoyte’s religious and political views. Among them were the Reverend John Slocum, Reverend George Bourne and Theodore Wight, all members of the nativist movement which campaigned for new laws to halt immigration by Irish Catholics. Slocum fancied himself as a writer and, as it turned out, he rather fancied Maria too.

It was decided that the group would collaborate on a book based on Maria’s experiences in the Magdalen Asylum which would bring their cause the attention and money it required if it was to rid America of the Irish scourge. Mostly written by Slocum, with Hoyte and Bourne as advisors,
The Awful Disclosures
began to take shape as the story of an innocent girl who was plucked from her Godfearing Protestant home and flung into a den of terrible sin masquerading as a religious order. Clearly, Maria had told some tall tales to her lover-rescuer, Hoyte, and given her likely history of brain damage it may have been unclear even to her which aspects of her story were true and which were made-up. But she – and they – had nous enough to know that the more lurid the revelations about sex and violence behind the closed doors of the Hôtel Dieu, the more successful the book would be.

The Hôtel Dieu was a real institution and in the aftermath of publication it maintained a dignified silence on the subject of Maria’s supposed revelations. And what revelations they were: the book reads like the spiciest kind of gothic novel. Beginning with the arrival of the optimistic young Maria as a novice, she is surprised to find that when she goes to her first confession, which is taken by priests from the monastery next door, the man on the other side of the wooden grille ‘put questions to me, which were often of the most improper and even revolting nature, naming crimes both unthought of and inhuman’ and using any number of ‘corrupt and licentious expressions’.

She is further surprised to hear from another inmate a story about a young Indian girl who used to visit a particular priest and whose dead body was found soon after, along with a knife bearing that priest’s name. The violent punishments inflicted by the nuns – including the use of archaic instruments such as leather gags – become commonplace, and other than needlework, it seems that the academic side of life is completely ignored. But it is when she finally takes holy orders herself, moving from the state of novice to Sister of the Hôtel Dieu, that the full horror of the institution is matter-of-factly revealed to her. After a ceremony involving her lying half-smothered in an incense-scented coffin bearing her name (a detail likely to appeal to Protestant readers), the mother superior makes it clear to her that as well as serving God she will now be expected to service the priests next door. And should she become pregnant from one of these liaisons, her offspring will go the way of all the convents’ illegitimate children: ‘baptized and immediately strangled’.

So, aside from the fact that these Catholics talked rude in the confessional and gagged or murdered their wayward charges, they were fornicating baby-killers to boot. Just as the authors suspected, the public lapped it up.

Coming hot on the heels of two similar bestselling exposés,
The Nun
by Mrs Sherwood and
Six Months in a Convent
by Rebecca Reed, the first print run in 1836 sold out immediately, bringing exactly the combination of revenue and scandal that Maria’s keepers had hoped for. Despite the book not containing any sexually explicit language, its content was considered so inflammatory that the publishing house Harper Bros went so far as to set up an imprint especially for it in the name of two of its workers, Howe and Bates.

The 1836 Howe & Bates edition – which would be followed by several others that year alone and dozens more for well over a century afterwards – was well received not only by readers but by the anti-Catholic periodicals popular in New England at the time:
The American Protestant Vindicator
welcomed the book, as did the even more powerfully named periodical
The Downfall of Babylon
.

But as with all such extreme literary hoaxes, there were one or two people clear-sighted enough to question the content of the book from the outset. One such man was William Leete Stone, a Protestant and indeed an adherent to Hoyte’s nativist ideology, but one who happened to be staying amongst Catholics in Canada in the year of the book’s publication and who heard and saw evidence that no such salacious horrors had ever existed in the region’s religious communities. He proposed to visit the Hôtel Dieu and investigate whether there were indeed mass graves of murdered babies, underground prison cells containing recalcitrant novices and a secret passage connecting the priests’ house next door with the women’s quarters. At first the nuns admitted him only into the public areas of the convent, but he saw enough of life there to feel sure that Maria’s testimony was made-up. He returned to New York to interview her and then took the trouble of journeying back to Montreal for one last decisive tour of the nunnery. This time the nuns – seeing that he was in serious pursuit of the truth and not a mere scandal-obsessed tourist – let him see everything. It was abundantly clear that
The Awful Disclosures
bore no relation to reality.

If Maria was undone by these revelations, her male handlers undid themselves by becoming embroiled in a series of angry legal disputes over who owned the rights to the book they had created. The fact that Maria had recently ceased being the mistress of Hoyte and gone over to the charms of Slocum only made their wrangling more bitter. Amidst the legal furore over authorship, money and romantic affiliation, Maria did what she had done last time things got tricky: she ran off with a new man to a new city. She arrived in Philadelphia the year after publication and when the brief liaison that had taken her there ended, she found lodgings with a local physician called William Sleigh. At first her charms worked on him sufficiently well that he believed her story that she had been kidnapped by a group of priests who were trying to cart her back to Montreal to be punished by the evil inmates of Hôtel Dieu. If he felt let down by her eventual admission that this story was not entirely true, he was at least able to cash in on the Monk mania sweeping the American media by publishing his account of his time with the now infamous woman,
An exposure of Maria Monk’s pretended abduction and conveyance to the Catholic asylum, Philadelphia by six priests on the night of August 15, 1837: with numerous extraordinary incidents during her residence of six days in this city
.

The hoax now having reached that point where irrespective of its veracity it had taken on a life of its own, Maria was able to publish a follow-up to the original book, despite the fact that she had been discredited quite comprehensively as a reliable memoirist and that this second book,
Further Disclosures by Maria Monk concerning the Hôtel Dieu nunnery of Montreal
, contained little new information. It did not net her much money.

Maria was a chaotic, restless and psychologically if not neurologically damaged young woman. She was itinerant. She was excluded from her family. And she was never to find peace or enough of an income to thrive for the rest of her short life. Publishing rights having being wrested from her by greedy ideologues and her name having been tarnished irrevocably by whichever religious group she moved among, she bore another illegitimate child in 1838 and lived out the remaining decade of her life on the edge of destitution. In 1849 she was arrested for stealing money from one of her lovers and that same year she died, aged only thirty-three.

In a telling postscript to Maria Monk’s life as a character in someone else’s story, a woman came forward decades later claiming to be her daughter, and auctioning a tell-all book about Maria’s final years to the highest bidder. But by that time few people had any interest in the putative author herself. Her story – with its rampant padres, sadistic nuns and gothic
mise en scène
– had a life of its own by now, and well into the twentieth century it was still being published and peddled to feed the flames of anti-Catholic sentiment across the English-speaking world. After all, how much more exciting it is than the tale of yet another subjugated woman, fighting against men, money and religious morality to escape from the margins of history; than the real story of Maria Monk.

THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION

A
RE YOU A
raging anti-Semite obsessed with the idea of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world by infiltrating its media and financial institutions? Hopefully not. But if you are, you’ll know all about
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
already. If not, you may well have heard of this infamous
fin de siècle
literary hoax anyway, because not only did it spread across its author’s native Russia like wildfire, but it served as one of the founding documents of Hitler’s plan. And it is a sobering example of how, even after a hoax has been given an incontrovertible debunking, those who really want to believe in its truth will stubbornly continue to do so.

The Russian word ‘protocols’ might literally be translated as ‘minutes’, as in the minutes of a meeting, and that is exactly what this spurious text proposes to be. It is the imaginary proceedings of a summit of Jewish leaders in which they hatch a plan for world domination, focusing on such wily corrupting tactics as banning alcohol, propagating pornography and encouraging anarchism. There are twenty-five items on this ambitious list of Things To Do, and aside from advice to the would-be King of the Jews (not, critics point out, a phrase which real Jewish elders are particularly keen on) guidance is given on such matters as the destruction of Christianity and Islam, the promulgation of Darwinism, arranging for terrible things to happen to Jews and using this as an excuse for their unreasonable acts, creating a system which appears to be free and fair but is in fact secretly oppressive, and promising adherents a wonderful new-age of liberty and riches.

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