On Maryland History: Case of the crazy nun


THE SIGHT of a most agitated nun scurrying from house to house in a quiet East Baltimore neighborhood about noon Sunday, Aug. 18, 1839, alarmed residents. She made little sense and seemed mentally unstable. Seeking sanctuary, she was taken in by the town jailer. It turned out that she was Sister Isabella Neale from the Carmelite Convent on Aisquith Street. But the word that she had managed an "escape" from the convent was enough to draw a crowd of hundreds -- and then thousands.

This was a period when the city and country were in a black mood of suspicion, particularly of minorities thought to have foreign connections. To Protestants, the Roman Catholic convent appeared to be the strangest and most puzzling intrusion into their narrow world.

The decade of the 1830s, in fact, had witnessed the introduction of a new genre in popular literature, the "exposure" of the secret world of the convent. Two books, Rebecca Reed's "Six Months in a Convent" (1835) and Maria Monk's "Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal" (1836), were best-sellers. Monk's "expose" sold more than 300,000 copies, the top seller that year. Too many Americans were ready to believe these silly concoctions that described convents as dens of sex, secrecy, sedition, perhaps torture, certain signs of a decadent pope and church.

All this might not have been enough to enrage a mob over a bewildered stray nun. It might not have been enough despite the view of one historian that in those days Baltimore suffered from a "virtually psychopathic urge to mob violence." The city had been subjected to "some of the most vitriolic anti-Catholic propaganda found anywhere in the nation," according to Joseph G. Mannard, a University of Maryland researcher and writer on the period.

The culprits were two Presbyterian ministers, Robert J. Breckinridge and Andrew B. Cross, publishers of the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine. Breckinridge had a fascination for convents. He had even been invited to inspect the Carmelite Convent, but because he had not been allowed to visit the basement, he remained convinced that it contained torture devices of the Inquisition.

Breckinridge had published a lead article on the convent, charging that young women were held there against their will -- and probably tortured as well. His flimsy evidence was the testimony of some Methodist women who swore they had heard cries for help. When the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass., was destroyed by a mob, the reverend made an ominous reference to the action as "the burning of a cage of unclean birds."

It was the constant anti-Catholic and anti-convent pounding that surely encouraged naive Baltimoreans to believe that the deranged Isabella was truly trying to run to freedom.

When they gathered by the dozens to glimpse the escapee, it was Mayor Sheppard C. Leakin who plucked her away in a hack and took her to Washington Hospital for a mental examination. When larger crowds gathered at the convent, it was Leakin along with Judge William Worthington and Councilman John Seidenstricker who talked to the angry mob and stalled it until reinforcements came to help beleaguered constables. The mayor brought in the City Guards, a force of some 600 volunteers organized after the 1835 bank riots, to preserve order. A committee of three prominent citizens then toured the nunnery and talked to the sisters, all of whom confirmed that they had suffered no ill treatment and were voluntary members of the order.

The city fathers were aided by leading citizens who condemned any mob violence. Most newspapers also called for calm. The Sun described mob members as "those who live by plunder and revel in riot." It supported the guards and other volunteer groups, hoping they could hold the line against "any ruffians found in this community dastardly enough to imitate the Boston mob and attack a household of weak females."

On the second night, an erroneous report in the Baltimore Post that Isabella had been declared sane brought out larger and angrier crowds. Some began throwing stones at the City Guard. One young guardsman was beaten severely. There was no firing, but the guards had to fix bayonets and charge the mob to disperse it. On the third day, the crowds were smaller, arrests quickly made and streets cleared.

By then, responsible papers had printed the true diagnosis. Isabella, the doctors concluded, was suffering from something called "monomania." One added that she was "a perfect maniac." These opinions quieted public anger. Even the Presbyterian publishers, denying any responsibility for mob action, called for order. "Let the persons, property and rights of all be held sacred," they said.

Isabella, according to The Sun, was about 35, originally from Charles County. Her family, it reported, had "a hereditary disposition to insanity." One of her brothers had been hospitalized with mental illness. She herself had "exhibited symptoms of insanity" for years and had to be removed from classroom instruction and allowed "to indulge in the solitude" she sought. But she grew worse and refused any food. Then she "begged to eat only peach leaves and grass" and grew weaker by the day. Everyone urged her to eat. On the critical Sunday, she finally had a proper meal. She was allowed to go to the kitchen for seconds and escaped through an open window.

The sister was sent to a hospital, where she lived until 1867. An investigation by a committee of the City Council was ordered but later forgotten. Charges against most rioters were dropped. Four were found guilty but only of of vandalism and fined a minimal $5 and costs. Baltimore wanted to forget the shameful three days and plucked them from its collective memory.

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