Powerful Conversion Clouded by Controversy

By Marc Massery

Controversy has clouded the fascinating conversion of a convicted murderer, Claude Newman, who embraced the Catholic faith while awaiting execution by electrocution in the early 1940s in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Thankfully, the convrovesy surrounding Claude Newman's conversion can be pinpointed to one unreliable source: Fr. Robert O'Leary, the priest who administered Claude his first Sacraments.

We know this thanks to the research of Dr. Ralph Frasca, the chairman of the Department of Communication at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. He spent several years researching Claude Newman's life and death via public record and through interviewing original sources. He published his findings in an article titled, "The Truth About Claude Newman" in the New Oxford Review in October 2015. In sum, Dr. Frasca discovered that Fr. O'Leary embelished the original story of Claude Newman's conversionin in a radio address he gave late in his life, adding false claims of apparitions and visions of hell.

For those Catholics who have heard the story of Claude Newman, this discovery can come as quite a shock. Especially since the story that goes around based on Fr. O'Leary's testimony is so exciting and powerful. But Dr. Frasca does not relish his discovery. In fact, he initially started researching Claude Newman's life and death in the hopes of proving the entire story true. And he was sad to learn that much of what we thought we knew about Claude Newman is not true. However, Dr. Frasca was happy to discover that at it's core, the real Claude Newman story is powerful enough without embelleshments. 

The Embellished Story

The popular embellished story most often told about Claude Newman, which initially grabbed Dr. Frasca's attention (and mine), has made Claude into somewhat of a Catholic cultural icon. In the embellished version, a black man named Claude Newman, a humble sharecropper, saves his wife from the clutches of a rapist, and in a crime of passion murders the attacker. Still, he's sentenced to death. In jail, an angry prisoner throws his Miraculous Medal to the ground. Claude recovers it and later that night receives visitations from the Blessed Virgin Mary, who teaches him about the Catholic faith.

Despite having no previous knowledge of Jesus Christ, Claude reveals to the jail chaplain, Fr. O'Leary, a sudden, lofty understaing of the Catholic faith. Father O'Leary gives him the Sacraments and helps prepare Claude to face death. Claude dies in a state of grace, excited to go to Heaven, and prays for his fellow prisoners moments before his execution.

Months later, Claude and Our Lady appear to a fellow prisoner, someone who hated Claude openly. Moments before this man's death, Claude and Mary reveal to this white prisoner a vision of hell and inspire his conversion, too.

The True Story

The real story, uncovered by Dr. Frasca's research, contains enough miracles of its own. But it does not tell of any apparitions nor any vision of hell. In the real story, a black man named Claude Newman, a mentally challenged sharecropper, attempts to rob a man and ends up fatally shooting him in the head. Claude is captured and sentenced to death.

In jail, awaiting his execution, Claude receives a Miraculous Medal as a gift from a fellow prisoner. This medal inspires him to call for a Catholic priest, despite never having practiced Catholicism. The jail chaplain, Fr. O'Leary, gives Claude religious instruction in the weeks leading up to his death. Claude receives the Sacraments and dies in a state of grace.

The Research
Through his research, Dr. Ralph Frasca discovered that Fr. O'Leary, the jail chaplain, had made many false claims in a 1970s talk he recorded about Claude Newman. In fact, in this recording, Fr. O'Leary had some of even the most basic facts about Claude's life wrong.

Dr. Frasca said, "Like thousands of others, I was inspired and fascinated when I first heard the Claude Newman story. In my case, I heard it as a priest's homily. As a communication historian, my natural instinct was to go deeper. In fact, I had even hoped that if I could prove some of the most remarkable parts of the story, I [thought I] might even be able to catalyze a cause for canonization to be opened in the Diocese of Jackson for Claude. In any case, I wanted to spread the word about this remarkable story of faith, conversion, redemption, and Marian apparitions. However to my sorrow, I discovered that some of the most remarkable claims in the story simply were not true."

From 2012 to 2014, Dr. Frasca made two trips to Mississippi and one the Chicago area with a side trip to Wisconsin. He interviewed Fr. Bernard Geiger, O.F.M., of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who knew Fr. O'Leary when the aging priest had moved to nearby Trevor, Wisconsin.

Father Bernard said, "I wouldn't believe what [Fr. O'Leary] says. ... He liked to make up stories to get attention."

Dr. Frasca also interviewed several other people who knew Fr. O'Leary personally.

Dr. Frasca said, "When I learned that Fr. O'Leary had told numerous untruths in the tape recording, I was really hurt and disappointed. How could he tell such awful lies? But then I remembered what a few friends of Fr. O'Leary told me about his final years. He was sad and bitter at the end of his life, wracked with physical pain. He felt that his superiors hadn't allowed him to accomplish anything important and felt that he would die forgotten. I think this is what prompted him to embellish, and then his embellishments got out of control. What he did is undeniably wrong, but perhaps his physical and emotional pain are worthy of compassion. Who among us hasn't embellished our own accomplishments or importance?"

Unfortunately, false narratives based on Fr. O'Leary's tape recording continue to fool people into believing that Claude received private revelations.

Father Peter Ryan, executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, "We need to tell the truth about this story [about Claude Newman] to spare the Church the possibility that her enemies will discover it and use it to discredit Church teachings on saints."

Dr. Frasca said, "The real Claude Newman was a killer and thief who repented at the end, undertaking a remarkable conversion. He reminds me of the penitent criminal (perhaps named Dismas) crucified with Jesus who acknowledged his sins and asked to be remembered by Jesus when He entered His kingdom. Is Claude much different?"

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Frasca, some Catholics, not knowing the truth, continue to present Fr. O'Leary's details in his 1970s recordings as fact. He said that some are even calling for Claude's beatification based on embellished details.

"Fr. O'Leary's falsifications have done what lies usually do - obstruct truth, create confusion, and serve selfish personal motives," Dr. Frasca said. "My article is the first attempt to correct the errors and present a lucid picture of Claude Newman. His story stands on its own without the embellishments."

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