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The Nun Who Escaped: A True Story
Josephine Bunkley


In the early hours of November 9, 1854, seventeen-year-old Josephine Bunkley leaped from a convent window to escape ten months of what she described as slave labor, physical abuse, emotional torment and the imminent threat of sexual coercion. She fled to a nearby inn, from which her Protestant family brought her home again. Over the next few months she wrote her account of monastic experience for publication. However, this first account was pirated by a New York press and rewritten into a scandalous narrative Josephine hardly recognized, and titled The Escaped Nun. Miss Bunkley took the publishers to court and won: the book was stopped just prior to publication. This harrowing experience is related in the original Introduction to her 1855 "authorized version". Although Josephine won the legal suit, the newspapers made the most of the scandal. Miss Bunkley decided she could not quietly retreat to her Virginia home without giving the public the facts. In 1855, soon after her legal victory, she released her own judicious and honest account of life as a nun, titled Miss Bunkley's Book: The Testimony of an Escaped Novice. This is the account reprinted here, abridged for modern readers. The present version bears absolutely no literary dependence on the banned text, which was never in fact issued, and is no longer available for comparison.

This is the story of a Protestant child attracted to Catholicism in the pre-Civil war South, in a culture and time when crossing religious boundaries was not socially acceptable. In Josephine's account the reader feels this deep tension and the distrust that existed between the two groups. It is evident not only in Josephine's family opposition to her conversion but also in her own emotional turmoil. After she left the convent an uninvited priest came to visit her at home. She described it as a difficult encounter:

My former attachments and predilections for the Church rushed upon me with such force that I feared for my own steadfastness and my safety... I had no wish to see him, nor to be urged to enter the Church again, although there yet lingered in my mind something of these sentiments which had been assiduously cultivated for years and had not been completely dissipated even by those circumstances through which I had just passed.

Josephine was surprised at the verbal attacks which local Catholics leveled against her, surprised that her simple honesty about one naive adolescent experience could so threaten people who hardly knew her. She is surprised at how others twist her own words, refusing to believe her clear facts, and ever surprised at the repeated threats of those who would take her back by force. It is this innocence, this clear struggle to be as fair as possible, and her own retained Catholic sentiments in spite of her monastic experience, which make her story so very believable.

Josephine Bunkley never published anything else in her lifetime, at least not under her own name. She seems to disappear from history, her fate a mystery. The popular scandal of her story, however, influenced public discourse for decades. A quarter-century later, in 1882, a Philadelphia court trial for bigamy was published with the title, The Mysteries of Marriage: being the life of the man who wedded ten wives, one of whom was the so-called "escaped nun:" strange phases of human nature brought to light in the Philadelphia court (1). In this legal transcript the defendant, John F. Hogan, records the misogynist impulses which led him to knowingly marry ten different women. Among them was Bella, the so-called "escaped nun." While Bella can hardly be identified with Josephine, Bella's story reflects many of the same details fabricated fourteen years earlier in Josephine's public scandal.

Hogan says that, before he married Bella in New York in 1868, he had heard that she had been:

an inmate of a convent for three years, and ... she ran away from this holy place in preference to remaining at the expense of her honor... One of her sisters was holding the elevated place of Mother Superioress in an institution similar to the one from which the persecuted Bella had escaped; that her people were respectable and lived in Chicago; that the "dear girl" had suffered much in ... flying from the more than fatherly embraces of an infatuated friar... in short that she was an abused child (of 35 summers) who had sacrificed home and friends for the sake of her religion and her priceless virtue.(2)

After their marriage Hogan found that Bella's story was not quite what it appeared. The "true" story which he told the court went more like this:

Very many summers ago she was a novitiate (sic) in a convent in Iowa and was dishonorably dismissed for lewd practices, and was known afterwards by many persons as the "Escaped Nun," that she was an inmate of a brothel in the city of Savannah, and floated about for a long time in several southern cities... She played 2 or 3 star engagements in New York and Brooklyn with other women's husbands; that feeling herself playing out she sought a home with her relatives in Chicago... She left Chicago in 1867 and naturally steered for Brooklyn as a good field for a lady of her peculiar gifts. (3)

Bella's convent (if it existed) was in Iowa; Josephine's in Maryland. Bella's family is from Chicago; Josephine's in Virginia. Bella was in the convent three years, Josephine ten months. Bella's sister was a Catholic; Josephine's family was wholly Protestant. Bella is older than Josephine: if she was 35 in 1868, then she was at least 21 when Josephine, age 17, escaped her bonds. Whoever John Hogan married, it was not Josephine Bunkley.
Bella's story does suggest the widespread popular image of accounts such as Josephine's. Bella may have known the newspaper stories about Josephine's scandal, but she may have also drawn from an earlier account of a woman known as "Maria Monk." Josephine Bunkley relates this story in her chapter, omitted from the present edition, which describes the anonymous attacks of letters to the newspapers. One of the less obscene letters accused her of being "another ‘Maria Monk.'" This infamous character was apparently a prostitute who died in New York City Prison in September 1839, after spending two years of her early life in a convent. Bella might easily have known this story as well as Josephine's.

The pirated version of Josephine's account would have been a best seller if she and her friends had not taken it to court. But there is no need to embellish Josephine's story. It is fascinating enough, even without the scandal, which the author purposely minimized. Josephine was committed to tell the truth out of compunction to her deeply religious conscience, but she was too much the polite Southern woman, genteel, modest and trusting, to spell out precise sexual details. Even when she describes her eyewitness account of a nun giving birth to an illegitimate child, she uses the most circumspect language imaginable.

Although no detail of Josephine's own experience is left out in the present edition, her text has been shortened significantly. Her original narrative included an extensive litany against the Catholic Church, which is omitted here as much as possible. The anonymous male friend who edited her 1855 account and wrote the original Introduction had even stronger anti-Catholic sentiments. With Josephine's permission, he adds several chapters of his own at the end of her narrative, chapters clearly intended to dissuade readers from pro-Catholic sympathies. Such is not the intention of the present edition. Vatican II effected radical change in Catholic life and practice, including monastic rules and forms, and Josephine's criticisms would serve no constructive purpose for the modern reader. Apart from the Introduction, the original editor's annotations are omitted to permit Josephine to speak wholly in her own voice, describing those inner urgings which drew her to monastic life, and the pain she felt at being forced to give up her chosen faith when she left the convent.

These changes do not wholly "sanitize" the text. Catholic and Protestant readers may still disagree with Josephine on various points. Nonetheless, it is hoped that the text might lead to discussion rather than dissension. Hers is a compelling and fascinating story as good as any Gothic novel, a true story of one pre-Vatican II woman's monastic experience in America several years before the Civil War changed the nation forever.


1. Philadelphia: Barclay, 1882.
2. The Mysteries of Marriage..., 94.
3. The Mysteries of Marriage..., 29-30.