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The Convent Inspection Act was passed by the Arkansas General Assembly and signed by Governor George Washington Hays in March 1915. The act was not unique to Arkansas, as states such as Georgia and Florida had similar laws. The Arkansas law allowed for sheriffs and constables to inspect convents, hospitals, asylums, seminaries, and rectories on a regular basis. The purpose, as stated in one section, was “to afford every person within the confines of said institutions, the fullest opportunity to divulge the truth to their detention therein.” If twelve citizens petitioned local authorities, law enforcement could enter these facilities day or night without notice. Whatever the stated intention of the legislation, one writer in the Arkansas Gazette on February 17, 1915, claimed that the real target was “the Roman Catholic institutions of the state.”
This bill was first introduced in 1913 in the state House of Representatives by Robert Randolph Posey from Sheridan (Grant County). The Posey Act passed the Arkansas House that year but died in the Senate. Two years later, Posey succeeded in passing the bill and getting it signed into law. Olivia B. Clarendon, a Catholic laywoman in Hot Springs (Garland County), wrote a long letter to Governor Hays asking why he did not veto it. She wrote that the new law was: “Anti-Catholic, concocted by anti-Catholics, sent to Arkansas by anti-Catholics, passed by many anti-Catholics in the legislature, backed by many anti-Catholics, especially anti-Catholic preachers.”
Passage of the Convent Inspection Act was part of a resurgent strain of anti-Catholicism that emerged from 1910 to 1930. Earlier versions of anti-Catholicism had appeared in America during the nineteenth century, yet that movement had been stronger in the northern states than in the South. For reasons historians have never totally discerned, anti-Catholicism arose again after 1910, this time based in the South, yet not confined to that region.
Nationally, an impetus for the growth of anti-Catholicism was the rhetoric of agrarian radical Tom Watson of Georgia (1856–1922). Beginning in August 1910, Watson published in his magazine a series of articles titled: “The Roman Catholic Hierarchy: The Deadliest Menace to Our Liberties and Civilization.” For the next several years, Watson’s articles contained stories of baby murders in convents and priests harassing and raping women in confessionals, together with claims that nuns were held against their will—hence the need for state inspection.
Watson’s anti-Catholic crusade soon had imitators. In November 1911, a national weekly called The Menace appeared, which contained lurid stories of convents and rectories while also portraying the Catholic laity as hapless dupes of the pope. By 1914, The Menace had a million subscribers. Another such paper appeared in Arkansas, published in Magnolia (Columbia County), in the fall of 1913. Called The Liberator, this four-page weekly was edited by the Reverend Joseph Addison Scarboro (1857–1932), a minister of the Landmark Baptist faith, a splinter group of the Southern Baptists. Scarboro’s small paper had much the same tone and content as these other publications. It is not clear how long this paper lasted, and only a few copies exist in the state archives.
How much the Posey act was enforced is hard to determine, yet Father Hugh Assenmacher, the historian of Subiaco Abbey, mentioned that the sheriff in Logan County usually came annually for his inspection. The law was quietly repealed in 1937.
For additional information:Acts of Arkansas, 1915. Little Rock, AR: Democrat Printing and Lithography Co., 1915.
Acts of Arkansas, 1937. Little Rock, AR: Democrat Printing and Lithography Co., 1937.
Assenmacher, Hugh, OSB. A Place Called Subiaco: A History of the Benedictine Monks in Arkansas. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1977.
Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Woods, James M. Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas. Little Rock: August House, 1993.
James M. Woods Georgia Southern University
Last Updated 12/15/2015
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