In the spring of 1824, an apparent medical miracle unfolded at the Foggy Bottom home of Capt. Thomas Carbery, the mayor of Washington, D.C. Carbery’s sister, a 39-year-old widow named Ann Mattingly, had been close to death for several days, ravaged by a seemingly incurable form of breast cancer. The conventional treatments of the day, which included hemlock paste and mercury ointment, had done nothing to slow her decline. Mattingly entered the final stages of her illness wracked by a debilitating cough and vomiting “vast quantities of feculent blood.” Nevertheless, as she recalled, she felt entirely at peace as she awaited “the final close of my earthly misery.”
Matters took an extraordinary turn in the early hours of March 10th, as a small circle of friends gathered for prayers at the ailing woman’s bedside. After weeks of planning, their devotions were painstakingly timed to coincide with a special Catholic mass in Europe, under the auspices of a magnetic German cleric known as Prince Alexander Hohenlohe. At the appointed hour — 4 a.m. in Washington — a local priest arrived to give Mattingly communion, though she had grown so frail that even the simple act of swallowing was a painful labor. Exhausted, she fell back and prayed to be released from her misery if a cure was not forthcoming.
At a stroke, as recorded by her brother, every trace of illness appeared to vanish: “All this complicate[d] machinery of the human system, so much deranged and out of order, beyond the reach of medicine and medical skill, was, in the twinkling of an eye, restored to the most regular and healthful action.” Within moments, Mattingly rose from her sickbed, and the bells of Georgetown College tolled the news of her astounding recovery. “Miracle Ann,” as she came to be known, lived another 31 years without feeling a moment of doubt as to the source of her deliverance: “See what God has done for me?”
Nancy Lusignan Schultz, a professor of English at Salem State University, brings an impressive depth of scholarship to this odd, forgotten chapter of America’s early social history. She presents a gripping account of the controversy that erupted over Mattingly’s sudden and inexplicable return to health and explores the lasting debate it provoked “between reason and emotion, between science and religion, and between sectarianism and ecumenism.”
All of these tensions, she explains, were distilled in the person of Prince Hohenlohe, the mysterious “thaumaturgus,” or miracle worker, whose apparent ability to cure blindness and other infirmities had already made him a sensation in Europe. The 18th son of an Austrian crown prince, Hohenlohe drew crowds wherever he went, combining the “benign accessibility of a parish priest with the awe-striking cachet of a thousand-year-old name.” He also attracted powerful enemies. One official denounced him as a “deeply dissipated man, who seduces girls,” and even his staunchest defenders were forced to admit that he made “an unlikely candidate for Catholic sainthood.” As Hohenlohe’s fame spread, Pope Pius VII himself urged moderation, “so that the holiness will not become a subject of curiosity and mockery.”
The Vatican’s fears were amply borne out in America, where the news of Mattingly’s “distance healing” created an immediate stir. The young nation was moved, wrote one cleric, “as Jerusalem formerly was at the arrival of the three wise men.” Perhaps wisely, Schultz does not attempt to answer the divisive question of whether Mattingly’s return to health was a genuine miracle or not. “I believe that something extraordinary did happen in Washington City nearly two centuries ago,” she explains. “How this happened, though, and whether the explanation is natural or supernatural, pushes deep into the realm of faith. This book does not try to guide you there.”
Instead, Schultz focuses on the cultural impact of the drama. As the initial enthusiasm gave way to skepticism and concern, she demonstrates, the Mattingly episode exposed tensions within the American church and raised fears that foreign religious figures wished to tamper with the new republic’s hard-won freedoms. The result was a climate of “spectral paranoia” that fueled a wave of anti-Catholic violence, including the burning of an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., in 1834 — which, perhaps not surprisingly, forms the subject of one of Schultz’s previous books.
The result is a gripping slice of history with fresh, often unsettling resonances for the modern reader. “This miracle has caused a great deal of trouble,” as one beleaguered priest remarked at the time, “happy thing they do not occur often.”
MRS. MATTINGLY’S MIRACLE
The Prince, the Widow, and the Cure That Shocked Washington City
By Nancy Lusignan Schultz
Yale Univ. 274 pp. $30