In June 1889, an American woman called Edith O’Gorman (her married name was Auffray) visited Launceston while on a world lecture tour. She professed to be an ‘escaped nun’, who had fled a New Jersey convent in 1868 and converted to the Protestant faith. The most colourful of her complaints about the convent was that she had been forced to eat worms after committing minor misdemeanors.😎 A more serious charge was that a priest had attempted to rape her. Contrary to the perception of strait laced prudes, the Victorians had quite an appetite for anything salacious and her lectures were invariably sell-outs.
For the most part O’Gorman’s audiences were the already rabidly anti Roman Catholic Protestants. I’m afraid one of those would have been my great-great grandfather George Shadbolt, from Sassafras. George was an Anglican raised convict, who found God (and strict Protestantism) as a ticket-of-leave man. In 1867 he protested about Catholics attending Sassafras’s public school. It prompted one Edward Monkitrick to write;
This George Shadbolt is one of a party who most shamelessly say they would like to see all religions prosper but the Roman Catholics. Had such uncharitable persons the power, as they have the will, they would bring back the days of religious persecution.
Oh dear George, how unchristian of you It’s easier to forgive your robbing of a widow’s drapery shop than this. George’s granddaughter made sure I attended a Methodist Sunday School, but I now profess no religion whatsoever. My interest in this story is purely as a social historian.
One man who hung on the Escaped Nun’s every word was the Rev. Charles Price, minister of the Protestant Independent Chapel in Launceston’s Tamar Street.
Subsequently Price put his name to an article so awful that I cannot bring myself to reproduce it in full. In essence, he contended (as had the Escaped Nun) that young women were being held in convents against their will, and that police should be able to inspect what were actually dens of iniquity. Here is a brief excerpt;
Police can visit public-houses and brothels, but not places which have been notorious for licentiousness and murder since their commencement. Is this consistent in our enlightened age with our advanced civilisation?
Now at the time Launceston had a Catholic Institution known as the Presentation Convent. The Mother Superior was Ellen Beechinor (religious name Francis Xavier). Not surprisingly, she was incensed by the imputations of Charles Price and Edith O’Gorman and took the extraordinary step of having Price charged with libel.
At the trial the nuns presented an affidavit;
And what was the outcome? Well, Charles Price declared that he had not directed his allegations towards the Launceston Convent or to any other convent in Tasmania.
‘And I further absolutely deny that I intended by the said letter signed ‘C. Price’ to excite hatred, ill-will, or contempt towards the said Convent of the Presentation or its nuns, or the pupils taught by such nuns, nor did I impute….that there had been in said convent and instances of impurity or laxity….’ And so on and so on.
So with that ludicrous backdown the wretched fellow escaped. Of course the damage was done, and no doubt inflamed the ill-feeling between Catholics and Protestants that was evident even when I was growing up in Tasmania in the 1960s.
NOTE – Two years earlier Miss O’Gorman had provoked serious riots when lecturing at Lismore in New South Wales. She had been forced to escape one meeting through a window. The Catholics paid a heavy penalty when the matter came to court. A report in Freeman’s Journal (April 30 1887) noted;
‘One fails to understand why the Catholics of Lismore should have been more thin-skinned than their co-religionists elsewhere – more rash and foolish……However, as the chief promotors of the riots will have to pay the price of their rashness, it will, with reference to these unfortunate occurrences, perhaps suffice to add – and in the interests of the entire community – the hope that such questionable evangelists as the ‘Escaped Nun’, may be rarely heard of in our midst.‘
But as we know, she was not to be silenced.
Edith O’Gorman died in 1929, aged 86. She was buried with her husband in London’s Norwood Cemetery.
I should point out that of course intolerance was not restricted to Protestants and that, as we know all too well, abuse is still a huge problem in faith based institutions regardless of denomination.
NEARLY TWENTY YEARS BEFORE THE LAUNCESTON LECTURE A PUBLICATION IN THE US CLAIMED TO HAVE EXPOSED THE FORMER NUN AS A FRAUD, OUT TO MAKE MONEY FROM FALSE CLAIMS. I HAVE NO IDEA WHETHER WHAT THEY WROTE WAS CORRECT, BUT IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ IT CLICK HERE.