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Fire & Roses

Fire & Roses

The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834

In the midst of a deadly heat wave during the summer of 1834, a woman clawed her way over the wall of a Roman Catholic convent near Boston, Massachusetts and escaped to the home of a neighbor, pleading for protection. When the bishop, Benedict Fenwick, persuaded her to return, rumors began swirling through the Yankee community and in the press that she was being held at the convent against her will, and had even been murdered. The imagined fate of the "Mysterious Lady," as she became popularly known, ultimately led to the destruction of the Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts on the night of August 11, 1834 by a mob of Protestant men.
After battering down the front door, the men destroyed icons, smashed pianos, hurled the bishop's library into a bonfire, ransacked the possessions of both sisters and students, and finally burned the imposing building to the ground. Not satisfied with this orgy of vandalism, they returned the following night and tore the lovely gardens up by the roots. The ruins sat on Mount Benedict, a hill overlooking Boston Harbor, for the next fifty years. The arsonists' ringleader, a brawny bricklayer named John Buzzell, became a folk hero. The nuns scattered, and their proud and feisty mother superior, Mary Anne Moffatt, who battled the working-class rioters and Church authorities, faded mysteriously into history.
Nancy Schultz brings alive this forgotten moment in the American story, shedding light on one of the darkest incidents of religious persecution to be recorded in the New World. The result of painstaking archival research, Fire & Roses offers a rare lens on a time when independent, educated women were feared as much as immigrants and Catholics, and anti-Papist diatribes were the stuff of bestsellers and standing-room-only lectures. Schultz examines the imagined secrets that led to the riot and uncovers the real secrets in a cloistered community whose life was completely hidden from the world. She provides a glimpse into nineteenth-century Boston and into an elite boarding school for young women, mostly the daughters of wealthy Protestants, vividly dissecting the period's roiling tensions over class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and education. Although the roots of these conflicts were in the Puritan migration to America, it was ultimately the mob's perverse fantasies about cloistered women -- in an independent community -- that erupted in a combustible night of violence.
By unearthing the buried truth and bringing alive these fascinating characters, Nancy Schultz tells a gripping story of prejudice and pride, courage and cowardice in early nineteenth-century America that not only restores a clouded chapter in the country's history but also has a poignant resonance for our own times.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 336 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743212564 | 
  • October 2000
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Seed Is Planted
All the brick-kilns had been set burning, and as night concealed the ugly brickyards and clay-fields in which they were erected, nothing was visible but the magic circle of fire that seemed to be drawn around the Convent.
-- LOUISA WHITNEY, The Burning of the Convent, 1877
In the twilight of a sweltering August evening in 1834, groups of men are gathering on the Winter Hill Road in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, near the main gate of a Roman Catholic convent. It is Monday, and they have come here after rounds of drinks at the local tavern, following another backbreaking day's work.... see more

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