Narrative of the Destruction by a Mob of the Ursuline School on Mount Benedict

Author: Louisa Goddard  | Date: 1877

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Louisa Goddard Cambridge, Mass. 1877

Burning of a Convent

[1834]

The breeze was so cooling, so refreshing, the distant sounds so soothing, that insensibly I grew sleepy and my head dropped lower and lower, till my cheek touched my folded arm. I made an effort to waken myself and to hold up my heavy head, and opened my eyes to their full width, for which I was rewarded by seeing a bright falling star down to the horizon.

For one instant I watched it; the next was the first moment in my life when I realized the meaning of the word appalled. I heard—what shall I call it?—a shout, a cry, a howl, a yell? It was the sound of a mob, a voice of the night, indeed, that made it hideous. Child as I was, I knew at once the meaning of the sound,—it came from more than a mile away, for, as we heard afterwards, the mob gave one roar as it crossed Charlestown bridge, and then observed profound silence till it reached the Convent grounds. My heart beat thick and fast, my hands clasped themselves together, and there was a rushing and ringing in my ears, as if the mob was surging around me already.

Perhaps I dreamed it; that would be natural enough when my head was full of mobs, and the girls had talked of nothing else—today? yesterday? which was it? Ah!—A horrible yell suddenly rent the air within a few yards of the window at which I was standing, and a host of dark figures rushed into view. I flew across the room to Elizabeth Williams’s bed, shaking her and crying out, "Wake up, wake up, the mob has really come!" She started up screaming. All the girls in the dormitory suddenly wakened, screamed in concert with Elizabeth, and many of them sprang out of bed in affright. Suddenly the door opened, and Sister Mary Austin appeared. By the light of a lantern swinging from the hall ceiling opposite the door I could see that she was shaking all over, but she tried to control the trembling of her voice, as she called out,

"Girls, don’t be frightened! There can’t be any danger, but you had better dress yourselves."

The younger girls ran up to her, and clung to her screaming, "O, the mob, the mob,—we shall all be killed. O, what shall we do, what will become of us?" The older ones wept and wailed and wrong their hands, and those who were intimate friends threw their arms about each other, and vowed to keep together whatever happened. [The girls dressed frantically.]

And now we heard two gunshots fired in rapid succession outside the Convent, and simultaneously loud screams issued from every dormitory where the scholars were collected. Some rushed into our dormitory, crying out,

"They have shot the Superior. She went to the top of the high steps to speak with them, and they wouldn’t listen, and they shot her."

Poor Sister Mary Austin sank back on her chair in strong hysterics at this word, and a sense of great confusion ensued. Another messenger entered and shook Sister Mary Austin by the shoulder.

"Do you hear me?" she said. "The Superior is not hurt. They shot at her but they did not hit her."

Now we heard a quick, firm step coming through the hall, attended by a patter of little feet; and in a moment the Superior herself was among us, surrounded by a crowd of Juniors, trembling little things who had forgotten their awe of her and clung to her desperately. It seems that the mob had never ceased to call upon her name, from the moment they reached the front of the building, ordering her, with oaths and savage outcries, to come forth, and bring with her the miserable victims whom she kept imprisoned in her dungeons. She had the courage of a man, and the taunts and jeers of the mob stung her to recklessness, and she at last tore herself from the arms of the Sisters, and rushed out upon the landing of the high flight of steps that gave access to the main door of the building. The mob saluted her with a storm of objurgation, which she bore without flinching, interrupting them at last in her clear, loud voice, with some word that intimated her desire to speak.

"Disperse immediately," she said to the rioters, "for if yon don’t, the Bishop has twenty thousand Irishmen at his command in Boston, and they will whip you all into the sea!"

Think of the effect of such a speech as that on a body of American truckmen and mechanics! It was immediately after she had launched this threat at the rioters that, breaking their silence with fierce yells, they fired at the Superior twice, and the affrighted Nuns, hovering in the shadow of the door behind her, pulled her back by force, and barred the door in the face of the mob. . . .

I ventured to put my head over the window-sill, and I saw below me a crowd of men and a few lanterns, moving together confusedly, and I heard a jargon of voices, though I could not distinguish much that was said. One sentence only I dearly remember; for it was spoken right beneath us, and so distinctly uttered that I think it was said to frighten us, by some one who saw us at the window.

"Sad enough for the poor girls," said the voice, "but there is no help for it,—we must blow up this cursed building with gunpowder."

Suddenly the calm into which we had fallen was broken by a joyful cry:

"They are going off! The mob is really going off! They have left the Convent, and they are all moving in a body towards Charlestown!"

We could see the black cloud of figures rolling along the terrace-walks leading to the main avenue that wound its way down the hill to Charlestown. I heard the laughing and chartering of the girls, so suddenly relieved from apprehension, in the neighboring rooms, but I could not say one word. I confess to a horrible feeling of disappointment. I had so hoped that the mob might do something that would lead to my going home and to the breaking up of the school. "You are mistaken," said Suzanne, quietly. "Tu te trompes," she muttered, forgetting her English in the earnestness with which she watched the proceedings of the mob. "Look here!" she exclaimed aloud, and I looked with all my eyes.

At the end of the terrace-walks, and before descending the hill, the black cloud wavered and stopped. Then it rolled back and forth in various uncertain directions, then it settled, and, after what seemed a long time, the light from a couple of bonfires began to illumine the scene. These were fed with boards and pickets from the fences at the bottom of the walks. We could see men pulling and tearing them away, and throwing them upon the bonfires, which then emitted great showers of sparks. I thought the light was already growing very brilliant, when suddenly the flames from some burning tar barrels blazed out fiercely, streaming high up in the air, putting out the light of the fainter bonfires and making the place as light as day. The black cloud resolved itself entirely into the figures of men, which moved irregularly about the fires.

Soon we heard a faint tinkling sound, and we saw a speck of dim light like that of a lantern hung high on a frail support, come moving and creeping up the hill from the main road to Charlestown.

"Suzanne, what is it?" I whispered.

"It is the fire-engine from Charles-town," she answered. "They have seen the blaze. They thought it must be from the Convent, that it was on fire, and they have come to put it out."

"Then they will certainly help us, those firemen," I whispered again. . . . "They certainly will drive the mob off."

"Now look again," said Suzanne, in her quiet tone.

The lantern, swinging high above the engine, turned round slowly, drew off from the rioters, began to descend the hill. Down, down, down it went, swaying from side to side, while the engine bell tinkled, tinkled ever more faintly, and slowly the machine disappeared from our straining eyes.

The rioters leaped and danced about the blazing tar barrel, yelling, singing, throwing their arms about in wild gestures, so that their figures, seen against the brilliant light of the flames, looked like a confusion of black whirling wheels, whose spokes were legs and arms. Suddenly some of the number ran to the bonfires, snatched from them burning firebrands, which they whirled aloft, and, loudly calling on the rest to follow, they placed themselves at the head of the dreadful returning tide of rioters, which now surged back towards the Convent with a horse roar like a great wave rising to ingulf it.

Now, indeed, there was no mistaking the purpose of the rioters. A great cry arose, and then an agonized and confused screaming from the [children]. I found the Superior trying to rally the children, who were wildly running about here and there. To each [of the older girls] she intrusted one of the smallest of the children at her knees. Suddenly her eye fell on me, and she almost smiled.

"Why, you are as brave as a little lion!" she said, and drawing me up to her with one hand, she brought forward with the other a small, sickly, thin child, whose pink frock was drooping off her skeleton shoulders. The poor little creature was perfectly dazed with terror and bewilderment, and the Superior looked at her keenly, as she put her helpless hand into mine. "Her mind is gone tonight entirely," said she, "and I give her in charge of you."

I shall never cease to wonder at the Personal coolness and courage of the Superior in this fearful crisis. For the mob, brutalized with drink, rending the air with hoarse outcries, were already endeavoring to force the heavy outer doors with violent blows, which resounded through the building, and shook it to its foundation. Suddenly a black body of Nuns came flying through the whole length of the passage from the Superior’s room, and threw themselves upon her, pushing her forward, and crying, "O Madame, O ma Mère, they have entered your room, they are climbing in through the window, it is full of men already. O, fly, fly! O, where shall we go?" And they wept and groaned frantically.

"Silence!" cried the Superior. "Mes Soeurs, follow me! and you girls, if any of you are willing to run the risk of coming with me, do you keep close beside me."

[As the Superior ran forward through the hall, followed by the Nuns and many of the girls, well-directed volleys of stones crashed through the lower front windows. The Superior conducted the group into a small paved court sunk between two projecting wings of the main building. There the fugitives took refuge.]

The mob, after forcing their way into the Convent, quickly overran it from garret to cellar, and the work of its destruction proceeded rapidly. With fascinated eyes I watched its progress, for I sat where I could see the building from top to bottom; The rioters began their work by ransacking the cellars and basements, probably looking for those dungeons and cells of which they had heard, and which they chose to believe were used by the Superior as places of punishment for such Nuns among the Community as fell under her displeasure, and their voices, underground, sounded like the hoarse growling of a pent-up sea. And now the windows of the Convent began to be illuminated, one after the other. They were firing the Convent. I could see men going from room to room heaping all sorts of combustible materials, bedding, curtains, clothing, in the middle of the floors and even flinging schoolbooks upon the piles. After an ominous pause I saw the fire burst from these combustible heaps, at first feebly, and then, as it were, stretching its arms higher and higher toward the ceiling, palpitating and brightening as if breathing in a new life.

I was beginning to feel very much cramped by long sitting on the grass. I held my breath to listen. There could be no mistake this time. No rustling of foliage or fluttering of leaves ever produced such sounds. And there were several footsteps audible together, as if a number of men were creeping along towards us, one after another. We all heard them plainly. For a moment the terrified children sat paralyzed with new fear, and then, starting up, they rushed toward the Superior, huddling together about her, and trying to repress their screams, lest they should be overheard. But it was too late. The footsteps stopped suddenly. Strong hands began to tear down the fence close behind us, and the deep breathing of men intent on hard work was plainly audible.

I looked at the Superior anxiously. Brought to bay at last, she opened her mouth to call out, "Who is there?" I hastily interrupted her, not knowing what might happen if her voice was heard, and, taking the word from her lips,—with a desperate effort of courage, I confess,— I called out, "Who is there? What do you want?"

A horrible moment of suspense followed, and then a suppressed voice answered,

"We are friends. Don’t be afraid. We have come to save you."

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Chicago: Louisa Goddard, Narrative of the Destruction by a Mob of the Ursuline School on Mount Benedict, ed. Louisa Goddard in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed May 25, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WG2Y81IHXUWEJSQ.

MLA: Goddard, Louisa. Narrative of the Destruction by a Mob of the Ursuline School on Mount Benedict, edited by Louisa Goddard, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 25 May. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WG2Y81IHXUWEJSQ.

Harvard: Goddard, L, Narrative of the Destruction by a Mob of the Ursuline School on Mount Benedict, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 25 May 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WG2Y81IHXUWEJSQ.