The Chicago Police attending to a riot.

Saddle-up! ‘The Slatterys in America’

In historian Jonathan Smyth's concluding Times Past column on the Slatterys, we continue the story of the ex-priest and the bogus nun who claimed a Cavan connection.

In 1895, William Cowper Brann, the famous ‘free-thinking’ editor of The Texas Iconoclast newspaper, said of Fr Slattery that: ‘There are three kinds of liars at large in the land (America), the harmless Munchausen who romances for amusement, and his falsehoods do no harm; the Machiavellian liar, whose mendacity bears the stamp of original genius; and the stupid prevaricator, who rechews the fetid vomit of other villains simply because he lacks a fecund brain to breed falsehoods to which he may play the father’.

Brann’s editorial added that Mrs Slattery too, ‘lies boldly and fluently’ which was neither ‘entertainingly, nor cleverly nor consistently’. The flaming yellow handbills they distributed would, he said, have you believe she was talented and highly educated. Each of the pamphlets with its poor grammar, slippages into native slang and awful spelling, peppered in anti-Catholic sentiment were a crude penny dreadful, wrote Brann who himself was of Texan protestant stock.

The Slatterys’ game of stirring up strife between the religions of labouring American men was noted in the paper with Brann called Mrs Slattery’s ‘Convent Life Exposed’, a shocking book, notable for its ‘coarse and blasphemous references’ to the sacrament of the altar and concluded the article by calling her writing ‘nothing but vile literary garbage’.

At a lecture, Slattery openly challenged Brann’s condemnation of him in the Texas Iconoclast. Brann was present, and stood up telling the dodgy preacher that his paper was neither for nor against any religion, to which Slattery said that ‘Mr Brann was run from San Antonio by one-armed man with a whip’. Brann pointing his finger at Slattery stated, ‘you lie sir, and I refuse to say anything further to you’. The next night, Brann hired the same hall and gave a point-by-point correction of Slattery’s lies.

The Slatterys incited a riot in Savannah Georgia on February 27, 1895, but they were saved by the Mayor’s firm. The Catholic Truth Society noted the observations of Mr Samuel B. Adam’s City Attorney of Savannah, a board member of the Methodist Churches of Savannah, who wrote: ‘Before the lecture our town was flooded with handbills, which no Christian or gentleman could have gotten up, suggesting that Slattery and his wife proposed to make vile and filthy charges, not only against the Church, but against the priesthood and even the Sisters of Charity. This was not set in terms, but the handbills were certainly calculated to create the impression, and the impression was confirmatory of the reports that had reached here from other sections as to the character of these lectures… I do not hesitate to say that I cannot understand how a Christian or a gentleman, or a decent man, could have been, as Slattery was, the author of these handbills. Catholics were naturally and properly very much exasperated, and it seems to me that all fair-minded people ought to have been indignant’.

Meanwhile, Mary Slattery continued to bill herself as the Poor Clares nun from Cavan and, to support her lies in the face of negative news, Mrs Slattery produced a ‘witness’. John Stinson Wright, in his letter to the Manchester Courier, in England, on December 20, 1897 read: ‘Sir, in your issue of December 15th I see a letter from Father Lynch, and in it he claims that Mrs Slattery was never a nun. In the interest of truth, I feel I have to say something in reply. I knew Mrs Slattery when she was a child. I knew her before she went into a convent, and I remember the time she came out; and I am sure she was in a convent in Cavan. … Her father, James McCabe, was a graduate of Trinity College’.

In fact, there was no James McCabe fitting the description of any of the students who attended any of the three Trinity College, that is, Oxford, Cambridge, or Dublin. Mr Stinson Wright when forced to give his address gave it as care of the Rev. Joseph Slattery, Protestant Alliance Office, London, with the Courier suggesting it was Slattery’s own hand that produced these letters.

The fraudsters continued lecturing well into the early 20th century. According to the Jeffersonian on March 4, 1915, they hired a hall in the Square Jersey City, New Jersey. The city was on high alert, as two trucks of overripe eggs were shipped in from the Horseshoe district.

The Chief of Police announced: ‘I have reports showing that the pawn shops of the city have practically been emptied of revolvers and blackjacks, and I fear there will be blood’.

The days when the Slatterys could spew their hatred were no longer tolerated and they were opposed by many churches. For example, in January 1900, the New Zealand Tablet published a letter from the Anglican Church in Victoria, Australia, who issued a statement of condemnation: ‘They (the Slatterys) are a shameless couple, and the Baptist sect, in our opinion, discredited itself very much in taking them up and allowing them to give their suggestive lectures in its chapels’.

In April 1916, Joseph Slattery’s lecture at Boulevard Masonic Hall, Chicago, was invaded by a ‘Catholic mob’ reported the newspapers. In the book, ‘Perverting the Promised Land’ by Charles Wilcox, an account of this preaching engagement on April 6, 1915, recalls how a group, including the ‘Knights of Columbus’ entered the hall, calling Slattery ‘a liar’. A brawl broke-out and the ‘speaker and his wife’ managed to escape. It was later reported that the car they drove away in was riddled with bullet holes.

As to who Mary McCabe alias Mrs Slattery actually was, we may never know. Her claim to have come from Cootehill, may have had a grain of truth, even though her story as a former nun was proven false. It seems likely that the Slatterys made a large fortune as con-artists, even though I have not been able to discover what became of them in later life. It was suggested in one text, that they made Boston, Massachusetts their home.


The Slatterys: An ex-priest and a ‘bogus’ nun