Regardless of its particular goals, every publication ultimately has to give its readers what they want. And about a century ago, the thing many U.S. readers wanted most was anti-Catholic content. In that era, anti-Catholicism was so readily embraced by millions of ordinary Americans that there were several large-circulation newspapers devoted exclusively to bashing the Church of Rome and its adherents.
“Denominational publications and religious newspapers were also sometimes seen as a source of anti-Catholic messaging,” says Thomas Rzeznik, a history professor at Seton Hall University who co-edited The Cambridge Companion to American Catholicism. “But,” he adds, “the theological sparring that we find in those religious publications was vastly different from the rabid, sensationalized anti-Catholicism we find in papers like the Menace.”
Established in 1911, the Menace’s circulation rocketed to 1 million within 3 years. At its peak popularity, the Menace – which operated out of an old opera house in Aurora, Missouri – enjoyed a circulation of 1.5 million, a figure far surpassing any newspaper in New York City. Indeed, this publication was so successful that the nearby railroad had to plant extra tracks just to accommodate all the anti-Catholic papers rolling out of town.
Such a level of success gave way to extreme vanity, as the Menace began billing itself as “The World’s Headquarters for Anti-Papal Literature.”
Among many messages, the Menace exhorted all its readers to vote against any Catholic running for political office, regardless of the size of that office or the political party of the candidate. The important thing was thwarting the Catholic plot to take over the country.
For an annual subscription fee of 50 cents, Menace readers could have their worst fears about Catholics confirmed each week, and also find titillating stories about convents holding children hostage, priests brainwashing their parishioners, and Catholic infiltration of political office leading up to an eventual armed takeover on behalf of Rome.
So virulent and salacious was the Menace in its accusations of Catholic misbehavior that the paper met with a federal indictment for mailing obscene materials. At the ensuing trial, however, the Menace was victorious.
In December 1919, the Menace’s printing headquarters burned down under suspicious circumstances. The publication relocated to a different Missouri town and re-christened itself as the New Menace, before moving back to its hometown of Aurora. There, under one name or another, the paper continued publishing until December 1942.
Established in the first decade of the 20th century, this elegant-sounding publication was the enterprise of Thomas E. Watson, a Georgia criminal defense lawyer who became a publishing mogul. He also produced a literary monthly called Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine.
Printing such stories as “How the Confessional is Used by Priests to Ruin Women,” Watson was sure to attract a lot of readers – and controversy. In 1912, he faced a federal obscenity indictment for having published a highly salacious Latin quote purporting to convey the nature of questions that priests asked female parishioners inside the confessional booth.
As a battle-tested attorney, Watson conducted his own defense and – following four years of legal maneuverings – he won. Not long after the victory, though, he met with an insurmountable adversary when he attacked then-President Woodrow Wilson’s policies pertaining to U.S. involvement in World War I.
The Wilson administration responded by citing the Espionage Act. Watson was lucky not to end up in prison, but his publishing enterprise was sunk into eternal silence.
Watson “amplified beliefs that were already widely held,” says Seth Smith, a history professor and associate dean at The Catholic University of America whose research has focused on the Church in the twentieth-century rural South.
Smith relates that, for a brief postbellum period, Southerners viewed Catholics in a “relatively positive way.” Indeed, many Catholics had served the Confederacy as soldiers, nurses, or clergy.
The South’s view of Catholicism began to deteriorate “as a result of the wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,” says Smith, who adds how “Southerners feared the cultural and political implications of this immigration.”
Into this cauldron of angst, Watson, through his publishing endeavors, essentially dumped a flaming cross and bucket of kerosene.
Though Watson was “certainly not the only public figure in the South” to incite anti-Catholic sentiment, “he did contribute significantly to creating an atmosphere in which anti-Catholic organizations like the second Ku Klux Klan could flourish,” points out Smith.
The Good Citizen and The Fellowship Forum
Based in Zarephath, New Jersey, The Good Citizen was a 16-page monthly that saw a two-decade tenure beginning in 1913. Headed by Alma White, a pioneering female publisher and Methodist bishop, this publication featured a curious mix of white supremacist, feminist, and anti-Catholic themes.
White regarded her publication as “God’s mouthpiece for exposing political Romanism in its efforts to gain the ascendancy in the United States.”
In 1918, a group of 500 Catholics in New York City appealed to the United States Postal Service to deny service to The Good Citizen. The appeal was unsuccessful, and so ‘God’s mouthpiece’ saw widespread distribution for another 15 years.
Launched in 1921, the Fellowship Forum started with a modest circulation of 1,000 and soared to 1 million in its first six years. Promoted as “The World’s Greatest Fraternal Newspaper,” the Forum’s core readership were members of Protestant fraternal organizations.
Additionally, this paper received mention for playing a significant role in the 1920s revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The impact of anti-Catholic periodicals
Aside from the once-prominent publications mentioned above, the U.S. saw many other smaller circulation publications that had toxic amounts of anti-Church venom.
Writing for The Journal of American History, Samuel J. Thomas relates that “numerous publications, especially in the upper South and Midwest, deluged readers with largely fabricated or distorted information to prove the old charge that Catholicism was incompatible with American democracy.”
Many of these avid subscribers didn’t know any Catholics personally. And, given the insular rural nature of their surroundings, many subscribers had never seen a Catholic in the flesh. The anti-Church ideology resonated deeply nonetheless.
“Myths and misconceptions about Catholicism were free to spread unchecked in those areas,” says Rzeznik. Anti-Catholic sentiment, however, extended far beyond the backwoods. Rzeznik points out how such periodicals also had a “large circulation in Catholic strongholds in the industrial north, including cities like Buffalo and Pittsburgh and smaller industrial towns in places like Ohio and Illinois.” He adds, “Looking at the letters to the editor, we see that these newspapers enjoyed a national readership.”
Writing for The Catholic Historical Review, David L. Salvaterra relates how these types of periodicals sought to portray Catholics as “secretive, possibly disloyal, manipulative, and corrupt.” He adds that “Catholic philanthropy and social services were attacked as screens for greed or ways to harm the vulnerable; Catholic schools, convents, orphanages, and other institutions, merely fronts for power and influence, if not dens of depravity.”
These anti-Catholic periodicals were more than just Church-bashing entertainment. “People took Watson’s ideas seriously,” says Rzeznik, who adds how “the Menace and other anti-Catholic newspapers shaped public opinion across wide swaths of the population and drove political discourse.”
“Concern about Catholicism fused with concerns about broader transformations in American society, from the rise of immigration and the growth of cities to the decline of ‘traditional values’ and changing gender norms,” says Rzeznik. “These [periodicals] rallied readers to defend the country against the Catholic threat.”
Those interested in a closeup look at this defense can access old copies of The Menace or the Jeffersonian in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling Americacollection of historic American newspapers. And the Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania library provides a trove of Watson’s anti-Catholic materials.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!