The Know Nothing Party first manifested itself in Massachusetts in 1834 with the burning and pillaging of a convent in Charlestown. It happened well before the nativist movement reached its peak in America two decades later.
Massachusetts had a receptive audience for the Know Nothing message. A flood of Irish-Catholic immigrants worked for low wages. And the rising tide of evangelism halted the declining membership of the Congregational Church.
For the most part, Know Nothing sentiments simmered below the surface, confined to mundane displays of anti-Catholicism and fire-breathing Sunday sermons by anti-Catholic preachers such as Lyman Beecher.
In August of 1834, however, the Know Nothing 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. Then they converted the property from scrub land into a marvel of manicured gardens and handsome brick structures.
But the Ursuline convent also had a strict, demanding environment. The mother superior required much deprivation of the sisters in the course of their worship.
Elizabeth Harrison disliked the convent and girls boarding school she had called home for 13 years. She decided to leave. For 24 hours, she 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, she said, result from a temporary bout of insanity that drove her to the outside world.
There was nothing terribly unusual about Elizabeth Harrison, a music teacher who managed a heavy workload at the school.
Know Nothing Suspicions Aroused
Her departure from and return to the school incited gossip among Know Nothing sympathizers, however. Suspicions and dislike of Irish Catholics were already well established. Anti-Catholic tales included a rumor that the 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.
Reed fled, she wrote, when she learned of a plot to kidnap her and ship her to a convent in Canada. Though it wasn’t published until after the fire, the story circulated 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. Monk fabricated an account of a Montreal convent 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 the nuns held her against her will, or even killed her.
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. 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. They even inspected the mausoleum to ensure no one had died recently or suspiciously.
Satisfied that Harrison remained at the convent of her own free will, the selectmen left. But it wouldn’t satisfy the anger building among the Know Nothing Party.
At 9 o’clock on the night of August 11, 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 selectmen’s inspection and sent them away. Perhaps she didn’t seem too concerned because many of her students belonged to Protestant religions.
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 grew more violent. One of the selectmen turned up. At the mother superior’s urging, he tried to dissuade the crowd from attacking, but failed.
Soon, the crowd had built a bonfire outside and started to force its way into the convent. With hundreds in the menacing crowd, 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, one of the leaders of the mob told what happened next. John Buzzell, a New Hampshire-born brickmaker, said:
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. … getting out the Bishop’s robe, [I] 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.
Buzzell then told a whopper of a lie:
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 he lied, since Sister Mary St. John testified against him – to his face – in court.
The rioting continued the following day, with an armed Know Nothing mob advancing on Faneuil Hall and the Catholic Church in Charlestown. 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, officials made the expected response. 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. Massachusetts Gov. John Davis offered up a $500 reward for information leading to the conviction of the rioters.
And the finger pointing began. Why had the firefighters not aggressively put it out? Did they fear the violent Know Nothing 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 did the Know Nothing rioters freely parade the day after the fire in celebration of their actions?
With such an open and well-attended crime, police soon arrested eight men. The defendants came from Charlestown, Boston and Cambridge. John Buzzell was the lead defendant.
The trial brought to the surface the Know Nothing sentiments — for and against — of the time.
For example, when selectmen warned the pugnacious mother superior of the danger to her property, 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.
Mother Superior Moffatt repeatedly tried to avoid testifying because she 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. He dwelt at times on the relationship between the bishop and the nuns, and focused on the nuns’ happiness and role within the church.
Rebecca Reed gave 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 tore into the building, he shouted: “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 in his Know Nothing beliefs. Despite what he himself described as overwhelming evidence against him, various witnesses placed him elsewhere during the attack. Others questioned about the identification of him based on descriptions of the length of his beard.
The testimony muddied the waters enough to let the jury acquit.
The Ursulines never rebuilt Charlestown convent. Bishop Fenwick maintained the property for many years. Eventually the soil from Mt. Benedict filled in the Middlesex Canal. The Ursulines returned to Boston in 1946 when they founded the Ursuline Academy, at that time on Arlington Street.
Mother Superior Moffatt then returned to Quebec, frustrated and exasperated by the destruction of her life’s work and her failure to restart the convent. She later received permission to join the Ursuline convent in New Orleans. It seems likely, though, she left the church instead.
Rebecca Reed, whose bestselling book fueled Know Nothing sentiment, died of tuberculosis shortly after publication.
Know Nothing Joseph Buzzell returned to live out his days in New Hampshire. Only one man, Marvin Marcy of Cambridge, went to jail for his part in the burning of the convent. Marcy, a Know Nothing, collected and burned many of the convent’s books.
Music teacher Elizabeth Harrison stayed with the order and joined the Ursuline Convent in Quebec.
Many debates then erupted on a national and state level about whether the Church should receive compensation for the damages caused in the Know Nothing riot. The most recent took place in 1962 in the Massachusetts General Court, and the proposal failed.
Hidden History of the Boston Irish by Peter F. Stevens.
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.
If you enjoyed this story about the Know Nothing party, you may also want to read how another Know Nothing mob tarred and feathered a Jesuit priest in Ellsworth, Maine, here.
This story about the burning of a convent by a Know Nothing mob was updated in 2021.