The Know Nothing Party first manifested itself in Massachusetts in 1834 with the burning and pillaging of a convent in Charlestown, well before the nativist movement reached its peak in America two decades later. There was a receptive audience for its message in Massachusetts then due to a flood of Irish Catholic immigrants willing to work for low wages and the rise of evangelism to halt the declining membership of the Congregational Church.
In August of 1834, however, the ideology took a giant step forward. The match that would touch off the fire was struck on July 28, 1834. On that day, Elizabeth Harrison, a Catholic nun known within the church as Sister Mary St. John of the Ursuline Order, had something of a crisis of faith.
The Ursuline Order, named for St. Ursula, has a 500-year history of pursuing its mission of educating girls. The Ursulines established their convent and school in Charlestown (now part of Somerville) in 1819 on a 27-acre estate. They renamed the site Mount Benedict, after the bishop, and converted the property from scrub land into a marvel of manicured gardens and handsome brick structures. But the Ursuline convent was also a strict, demanding place where the mother superior required much deprivation of the sisters in the course of their worship.
Harrison was unhappy with the convent and girls boarding school she had called home for 13 years. She decided to leave. For 24 hours, the music teacher stepped outside the reclusive life of the convent and went to visit the parents of one of her students in West Cambridge.
She left on Monday and returned the next day, persuaded by Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick and her brother to return to the Order. Her decision to leave the Order, she said, was the result of a temporary bout of insanity that drove her to the outside world. There was nothing terribly unusual about Harrison, who managed a heavy teaching load at the school where music instruction was one of the key offerings.
Know Nothing Suspicions Aroused
Her departure from and return to the school incited gossip, however. Suspicions and dislike of Irish Catholics were already well established. There was a bustling trade in anti-Catholic tales at the time, and one common rumor was that nuns were actually enslaved in their convents.
Rebecca Theresa Reed had written a tell-all about six months she spent at the Charlestown convent, Six Months in a Convent. The book highlighted the nuns’ unusual practices, such as punishing themselves with corsets, placing stones in their shoes and eating meager rations in poorly heated quarters. She fled, she said, when she learned there was a plot to kidnap her and ship her to a convent in Canada. Though it wasn’t published until after the fire, the story was circulating in Boston in 1834.
The book also spawned a raft of copycats, including the notorious Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, a fabricated account of a convent in Montreal whose sisters were forced into sex slavery with priests from the neighboring monastery.
In this overheated environment, Catholic-haters took note of anything they considered suspicious, such as Harrison’s departure and return to the convent. They suspected she was being held against her will or that she had been killed.
The Boston Truckmen, a quasi-police organization, posted a flyer directed at the selectmen of Charlestown: Gentlemen, it is currently reported that a mysterious affair has lately happened at the Nunnery in Charlestown. Now it is your duty gentlemen to have this affair investigated immediately, if not the Truckmen of Boston will demolish the nunnery Thursday night, August 14.
The notice did not fall on deaf ears, and the Charlestown selectmen sent a delegation to the convent to investigate on August 11. They insisted on seeing Harrison, and then accompanied her on a tour of the grounds that included inspecting the mausoleum to ensure there had been no recent or suspicious deaths.
Satisfied that Harrison was at the convent of her own free will, the selectmen left. But it would not be enough to satisfy the anger that was building.
At 9 o’clock on the night of the 11th, Mother Superior Mary Ann Ursula Moffatt confronted a small group of men who approached the convent demanding to see Harrison. She told them about the inspection by the selectmen and sent them away. One reason she was not overly concerned was because many of the students at the school were the children of Protestants.
The Mob Returns
Around midnight, however, the mob, grown larger, returned. With its leaders shouting “Down with the convent” and “Down with the nunnery,” the mob was growing more violent. One of the selectmen turned up and, at the mother superior’s urging, tried to dissuade the crowd from attacking, but he failed. Soon, the crowd had built a bonfire outside and started to force its way into the convent. With the crowd numbering in the hundreds and growing more menacing with every moment, eight nuns and 47 girl students evacuated the building and gathered in one corner of the property to watch.
Fifty-three years after the event, John Buzzell of Pittsfield, N.H., one of the leaders of the mob, told what happened next:
The first thing that was done, after getting in, was to throw the pianos, of which nine were found, out of the windows. The mob crowded in in such numbers that it was with great difficulty that I got upstairs to the chapel, which was located on the second floor. When I finally succeeded in forcing my way into the chapel I found a fire about the size of a bushel-basket blazing merrily in the middle of the floor. It was made of paper, old books, and such other inflammable stuff as they could lay their hands on, and soon spread in all directions. When the main building was enveloped in flames we went for the cook-house and ice-house, which were separate buildings, and set them on fire.
At a little distance from the main building stood what was called the Bishop's lodge, where he had a library, and where he used to keep his robes, etc. After the ice-house was fired I started for this lodge, and was the first to get in. I picked up a heavy desk and was giving it a swing to heave it out of the window, when the mob arrived, and not knowing I was within, smashed the glass. The broken pieces were thrown violently into my face, cutting many bad gashes, from which the blood flowed freely. However, I wiped my face, and getting out the Bishop's robe, put it on in a spirit of deviltry. The others stripped it off my back, and winding the remnants around poles, used them as torches, lighting them at the main building and firing the lodge with them. The farm-house and barn were burned next, after which the tomb was visited to see if the body of the music teacher Mary St. John was there.
The door of the tomb was broken open, and within was the body of a young girl who had evidently been dead but a day or two at most, and whom I religiously believe to this day to have been Mary St. John, although I had no positive proof of her identity. This finished the events on the hill, and after' watching the flames for a while, the immense mob slowly dispersed.
Buzzell certainly knew this last statement was a lie, since Sister Mary St. John was alive and well and testified against him – to his face – in court.
The rioting continued the following day, with an armed mob advancing on Faneuil Hall and the Catholic Church in Charlestown, but in both cases local militia prevented the rioters from causing damage. The mob revisited the scene of its work from the night before, and burned a dwelling that housed Irish-American workers. After that, its energy was spent.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire and riot, the official response was what you would expect. The mayor of Boston condemned the incident. Officials in Charlestown tried to deflect blame on the neighboring city of Boston, whose inhabitants had certainly taken part in the rampage. The governor of Massachusetts offered up a $500 reward for information leading to the conviction of the rioters.
And the finger pointing began. Why had the firefighters who showed up at the fire not aggressively put it out? Was it because of the violent mob flinging furniture out of windows at anyone below, or had firefighters actually participated in sacking the convent, as many said? Why had the selectmen not done more to extinguish the rumors? And why were the rioters free to parade the day after the fire in celebration of their actions?
With such an open and well-attended crime, it wasn’t long before eight men were arrested. The defendants came from Charlestown, Boston and Cambridge. John Buzzell, the New Hampshire-born brick maker, was the lead defendant.
Trial and Aftermath
The trial was interesting for the way it brought to the surface the sentiments of the time.
For example, when selectmen warned the pugnacious Moffatt that her property was in danger, she retorted with a threat. The bishop, she said, had 10,000 Irish at his command, and they would avenge anyone who damaged the convent.
Moffatt herself repeatedly tried to avoid testifying, and didn’t want the nuns involved in the case for fear of reprisal.
The trial judge allowed extensive questioning about the religious practices within the convent, dwelling at times on the relationship between the bishop and the nuns, and focusing on the nuns’ happiness and role within the church.
Rebecca Reed was allowed to give some brief testimony about her negative experiences in the convent, featured in her book, until the judge finally ruled them irrelevant.
And the court heard testimony that, as Buzzell was tearing into the building, he was heard to shout: “If the Catholics get the upper hand of us, they will crush us into the earth.”
At the conclusion of the trial, Buzzell went free and continued his Know Nothing beliefs. Despite what he himself described as overwhelming evidence against him, various witnesses placed him elsewhere during the attack on the convent. Others raised questions about the identification made of him based on the descriptions of the length of his beard.
The muddying of the waters was enough to let the jury acquit.
The Charlestown convent was never rebuilt. The property was maintained by Fenwick for many years, and eventually the soil from Mt. Benedict was used to fill in the Middlesex Canal. The Ursulines returned to Boston in 1946 when they founded the Ursuline Academy, at that time on Arlington Street.
Frustrated and exasperated by the destruction of her life’s work and her inability to restart the school and convent at Charlestown, Moffatt returned to Quebec and later received permission to join the Ursuline convent in New Orleans, though it seems she likely left the church instead.
Rebecca Reed, whose book was a bestseller, died of tuberculosis shortly after publication.
Buzzell returned to live out his days in New Hampshire. Only one man, Marvin Marcy of Cambridge, was convicted for his part in the burning of the convent. Marcy was the individual who collected and burned many of the convent’s books.
Music teacher Elizabeth Harrison stayed with the order and joined the Ursuline Convent in Quebec.
Numerous debates took place on a national and state level about whether the Church was due compensation from the state for the damages caused in the riot. The most recent was in 1962 in the Massachusetts General Court, and the proposal failed.
Hidden History of the Boston Irish by Peter F. Stevens. You can buy it at the New England Historical Society bookstore. Just click here.
An Account of the Conflagration of the Ursuline Convent written by “a friend of religious toleration.
The Charleston Convent; Its Destruction by a Mob on the Night of August 11, 1834, a compendium of official documents surrounding the incident.
The Burning of the Convent, an account of the incident written by one of the students of the school.
This story was updated from the 2013 version.