Historian Shultz (Veil of Fear, Fear Itself, not reviewed) reconstructs the cultural forces surrounding an 1834 riot that destroyed a convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
Between 1826 and 1834, the Charlestown Ursuline Academy was an elegant boarding school catering to the daughters of Boston’s Protestant aristocracy. In keeping with the Ursuline mandate to teach young women, the Academy offered an education that was unusually rigorous and creative for the time. The author documents the school’s curriculum in meticulous detail, emphasizing its innovative instructional techniques (which included collaborative learning, hands-on experimentation, and constructive rather than punitive disciplinary measures). Well-bred, elegant, and authoritative Ursuline sisters, led by the formidable Mary Ann Moffatt, offered refreshing role models for their students. But the Academy also provoked the ill will of its neighbors in the working-class Charlestown section of Boston, as much on account of the privilege it symbolized, and the intimidating independence of the women who directed it, as because of anti-Catholic prejudice. With painstaking scholarship and stylish, vivid description, Schultz traces the series of events that fanned the smoldering resentment into frenzy. The deadly cholera epidemic of 1832 exacerbated mistrust of the impoverished Irish population of Boston, and by extension, of the Catholic churches that they attended. More damaging still, a former student named Rebecca Reed penned a lurid expose, Six Months in a Convent, in which she claimed that students and novices were imprisoned and tormented by the nuns. Although an investigative committee that visited the Academy found no evidence of any coercion or abuse, the charismatic Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher embarked on a series of anti-Catholic lectures. On a hot night in August 1834, the hostility culminated in a series of riots in which mobs torched the school, leaving the building and its gardens in ruins. While Schultz does not quite succeed in substantiating her claim that “the story of this riot . . . remains the story of today’s America,” the timely resonances of the tale matter less than the author’s ability to bring the past to life.
A scholarly study that is also gripping drama.