Burning of the Charlestown Convent

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXII (3) start of chapter

There are in Charlestown—a little outside the City of Boston, which boasts, perhaps with justice, of being the Athens of America—two monuments. One is a monument of glory. The other is a monument of shame. On Bunker's Hill is reared aloft a noble pillar, on which is recorded the triumph of a young nation in the proud assertion of its right to govern itself; and among the names of the heroes who fought and bled in the cause of human liberty are those of Catholics, foreigners and natives. On Mount Benedict, from which the tower of liberty was every day beheld, there remain to this hour the blackened ruins of the Ursuline Convent, destroyed on the night of the 11th of August, 1834, by a ferocious mob, to whose lawless violence neither check nor impediment of any kind was offered. Deceived by reckless falsehood, blinded by the foulest calumnies, their passions infuriated by the harangues of clerical incendiaries, a savage multitude flung themselves upon the dwelling of helpless women and innocent children, and after plundering whatever was portable, and destroying what they could not take away, set fire to it amidst fiendish rejoicings, and with the most complete impunity. What was the origin of this infamous exhibition of ferocity and cowardice? A lie—a fiction—an invention—the coinage of a wicked or a foolish brain. It was the old story, so grateful to the ear of bigotry. A nun was said to be detained in the convent against her will, and was there pining in a subterranean dungeon! The old story, but of marvellous vitality and eternal freshness—told in Boston thirty-three years since—told in Montreal in a few months after—told yesterday or to-day of any convent in England. To this story, old and yet ever new, was added the usual imputation of the systematic infamy of women whose lives were devoted to God's service. On Sunday—the Lord's Day!—the trumpet-note of hate was sounded from more than one pulpit; and on Monday night the fine institution, erected at great cost, was given to destruction.

It would be a malignant slander on the fair fame of Boston to assert that this disgraceful outrage, which sent a thrill of horror and disgust through the civilised world, was sympathised with by any considerable portion of thecitizens of that enlightened community. So far from sympathising with a deed which was in the last degree dishonouring to the reputation of their city, a number of Protestant gentlemen, of position and influence, were appointed at a meeting, publicly held the day after in Faneuil Hall, to investigate the circumstances of the outrage, and assist in bringing the perpetrators to justice. A report was presented by that committee, with the signatures of thirty-eight eminent citizens attached to it. Drawn up with singular ability, it put to shame the miserable bigots to whose malice or fanatical credulity the national scandal was entirely owing. The Committee, after describing the Order of Ursulines, their objects, and their institution—of which they state that of sixty pupils, 'for the most part children of those among the most respectable families in the country, of various religious denominations,' not more than ten of whom at any time were Catholics—they present a striking picture of the outrage, which they indignantly denounce. Even at this day—for calumny is still rife, and fanaticism never dies—it may be useful as well as instructive to reproduce this startling description of what men will do when impelled by a blind savage impulse of unchristian hate.

At the time of this attack upon the convent (say the Committee of Protestant gentlemen) there were within its walls about sixty female children and ten adults, one of whom was in the last stage of pulmonary consumption, another suffering under convulsion fits, and the unhappy female who had been the immediate cause of the excitement was, by the agitation of this night, in raving delirium. No warning was given of the intended assault, nor could the miscreants by whom it was made have known whether their missiles might not kill or wound the helpless inmates of this devoted dwelling. Fortunately for them, cowardice prompted what mercy and manhood denied: after the first attack the assailants paused awhile, from the fear that some secret force was concealed in the convent, or in ambush to surprise them; and in the interval the governess was enabled to secure the retreat of her little flock and terrified sisters into the garden. But before this was fully effected, the rioters, finding they had nothing but women and children against them, regained their courage, and, ere all the inmates could escape, entered the building. . .

Three or four torches, which were, or precisely resembled, engine torches, were then brought up from the road; and immediately upon their arrival the rioters proceeded into every room in the building, rifling every drawer, desk, and trunk which they found, and breaking up and destroying all the furniture, and casting much of it from the windows; sacrificing in their brutal fury costly pianofortes, and harps, and other valuable instruments, the little treasures of the children, abandoned in the hasty flight, and even the vessels and symbols of Christian worship.

After having thus ransacked every room in the building, they proceeded, with great deliberation, about one o'clock, to make preparations for setting fire to it. For this purpose, broken furniture, books, curtains, and other combustible materials, were placed in the centre of several of the rooms; and, as if in mockery of God as well as of man, the Bible was cast, with shouts of exultation, upon the pile first kindled; and as upon this were subsequently thrown the vestments used in religious service, and the ornaments of the altar, those shouts and yells were repeated. Nor did they cease until the cross was wrenched from its place, as the final triumph of this fiendish enterprise.

But the work of destruction did not end here; for after burning down the Bishop's Lodge, in which there was a valuable library, the rioters proceeded to the farm-house, and gave it also to the flames, and then reduced an extensive barn to ashes. 'And not content with all this,' say the Committee of Protestant gentlemen, 'they burst open the tomb of the establishment, rifled it of the sacred vessels there deposited, wrested the plates from the coffins, and exposed to view the mouldering remains of their tenants!'

Nor (say they) is it the least humiliating feature in this scene of cowardly and audacious violation of all that man ought to hold sacred and dear, that it was perpetrated in the presence of men vested with authority, and of multitudes of our fellow-citizens, while not one arm was lifted in defence of helpless women and children, or in vindication of the violated laws of God and man. The spirit of violence, sacrilege, and plunder reigned triumphant. Crime alone seemed to confer courage, while humanity, manhood, and patriotism quailed, or stood irresolute and confounded in its presence.

The report, able and searching, thus stingingly concludes: 'And if this cruel and unprovoked injury, perpetrated in the heart of the commonwealth, be permitted to pass unrepaired, our boasted toleration and love of order, our vaunted obedience to law, and our ostentatious proffers of an asylum to the persecuted of all sects and nations, may well be accounted vainglorious pretensions, or yet more wretched hypocrisy.'

There were trials, no doubt; but, save in one instance, they ended in the acquittal of the accused, of whom the leader was a ferocious savage, who thus addressed his sympathising friends through the public press:—

A CARD.—John R. Buzzell begs leave, through your paper, to tender his sincere thanks to the citizens of Charlestown, Boston, and Cambridge, for the expressions of kindness and philanthropy manifested towards him on his acquittal of the charge of aiding in the destruction of the convent; also would gratefully remember the gentlemanly deportment of Mr. Watson, while imprisoned in Cambridge Gaol.

The reader may be pardoned for not knowing whether it was the individual complimented for his gentlemanly deportment, or the author of this card—this ludicrous and shameful commentary on the whole proceedings—that was imprisoned. We must assume that Mr. John E. Buzzell, the gallant leader in the outrage on women and children, was the unwilling tenant of the gaol of which Mr. Watson was the custodian of 'gentlemanly deportment.' Before this wretched man Buzzell died, he admitted, what his jury would not, that he was one of the perpetrators of the outrage. And from the day that Mr. Buzzell returned his thanks for the 'kindness and philanthropy' of those who stamped, and yelled, and clapped their hands at his acquittal, and for Mr. Watson's 'gentlemanly deportment' to him while in gaol, that atrocious violation of the laws of God and man is, we shall not say unavenged, but yet unredressed; to this hour, and as it were within the very shadow of the proud record of Boston's glory, lie the blackened evidences of Boston's shame.

Bigotry is the most contagious of all diseases of the human mind, nor is there any moral epidemic whose poison travels more swiftly, or affects more readily or more fatally the sobriety of communities. From Charlestown, Massachusetts, to Charleston, South Carolina, the malignant influence was borne; but had the John K. Buzzells of the latter city attempted to carry their intentions into execution, they would have experienced something less pleasant than 'kindness and philanthropy' and 'gentlemanly deportment;' for at the first hint of danger, a gallant band of Irishmen rallied in defence of the menaced convent of Charleston, and its Irish Bishop coolly examined the flints of their rifles, to satisfy himself that there should be no missing fire—no failure of summary justice. The John E. Buzzells are brave against women; but they care less to see a man's eye gleaming along a musket-barrel, if the ominous-looking tube be pointed at their precious persons. So in South Carolina and in other States, the resolute attitude of those who would have willingly died in defence of the best and noblest of humanity, saved the country at that time from still deeper disgrace.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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