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Force of Habit: The Nun Who Became an FBI Agent

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Chloe Effron / iStock Collage

Just three years earlier, Joanne Pierce had been teaching history and economics to middle-school children at the Sisters of Mercy parochial school in Buffalo, New York. Now she was feeding ammunition into M16 rifles while under fire as part of an armored personnel carrier in South Dakota. She was no longer Sister Pierce. She was Special Agent Pierce of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bullets cut through the sky overhead as Pierce and her fellow agents struggled to restore order between warring Indian factions at Wounded Knee in 1973. Before it was over, tribal leader Russell Means would be charged with assaulting Pierce as he aimed his weapon toward the carrier and Pierce, who kept a cool head in the middle of the gunfight, would go on to be recognized as one of the female pioneers in the Bureau. For nearly a quarter-century, she would serve the agency, helping tear down the barricade that had kept women out of the line of duty for 44 years. The goal was the same as in her convent years: to save lives. But, now, this nun had a gun.

Pierce (in the red dress) arrives to be sworn in at FBI Headquarters in 1972. FBI

Pierce, who was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1941, stayed nearby for most of her schooling. She attended a Catholic high school and studied history at Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y. Then, after earning a master's degree in history from St. Bonaventure University, Pierce joined the Sisters of Mercy convent in 1960 and began a 10-year tour as a history and economics teacher at various Catholic schools in the area. As she neared her 30th birthday, Pierce began to contrast the demands of the convent against her desire to start and raise a family. She realized the two were incompatible and began to consider leaving.

One day, an FBI agent showed up at school for career day. Pierce listened as he described his job in law enforcement. She liked the sound of it—a “new adventure,” she’d later say. She asked if any positions were open.

Mostly clerical, the agent told Pierce. It was 1970, and Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover restricted Special Agent status to male applicants only; no women had been seen on the force since 1928. Undeterred, Pierce left the convent and headed for Washington, where she was hired as a researcher.

Her timing was fortuitous. President Richard Nixon had signed an order of nondiscrimination in 1969, which was followed by the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972. While Hoover tried to exempt the FBI from the sweeping societal changes, his death in May 1972 opened the door. Just a week after his death, Acting Director L. Patrick Gray issued a press release that invited women to apply for Special Agent status. They would be given no special exemptions and would be asked to fulfill the same physical and academic requirements as their male counterparts: a college degree, and successful navigation of the brand-new FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

Pierce was informed of the change by a supervisor. She was told the qualification would be rigorous and the job—if she got it—would be demanding. She applied.

Of the 45 hopefuls to enroll at the Academy that summer, Pierce and former Marine Susan Roley were the only two females. They trained for a grueling two-mile run, pull-ups, and firearms shooting, where Pierce learned how to handle a .38 revolver, rifle, and shotgun. The two also bunked together during the 14-week training course.

“Sometimes I felt like I was an exhibit in a museum,” she told CBS This Morning in 2012, “because everybody wanted to say which one are you, the Marine or the nun?”

Both women passed. Roley was assigned to the Omaha, Neb. branch, and though Pierce was hoping for Miami, when she saw her assignment, she had drawn St. Louis, Mo. It wasn’t ideal, but Special Agent Pierce was officially ready for action.

Pierce barely had time to get her bearings in St. Louis when she was deployed to Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. The town had been taken over by the American Indian Movement, which demanded the removal of rival Oglala tribal leader Richard Wilson and acknowledgment of American wrongdoing on native land. The demonstration would eventually grow to 71 days of tense, sometimes violent occupation, with the FBI and U.S. Marshals among the government forces sent to defuse the situation.

Pierce’s squad was ordered to a roadblock to calm a disturbance that quickly turned deadly. A sniper was firing at the roadblock, and agents—including Pierce—were in the line of fire and sought protection inside a carrier. Gunshots rang out for nearly an hour before the sniper was apprehended; one agent sustained a minor injury. It was an uncensored introduction to the life of a Federal official.

From there, Pierce moved to Pittsburgh, Penn., where she spent the majority of her career. Agents in her squad were accepting of a female in the mix; civilians were another story.

“Initially, when you'd go out and say you were from the FBI, you'd get a look of disbelief, like you were kidding," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1996. Once, Pierce was tasked with wrangling fugitives and military deserters. One man on the run had seen Pierce before fleeing; he called the Bureau’s office and screamed that he couldn’t believe a woman was chasing him. He felt insulted that he didn’t warrant a male agent’s attention.

Another time, Pierce and a male agent entered a bank to question an employee—the secretary told the employee that “a couple” was there to see him. Pierce was also often mistaken for a traveling secretary. Some suspects took a sarcastic approach, telling Pierce she could “arrest them any time.”

As more and more women joined the force, Pierce became less of an oddity and more an example of a new normal. But something troubled her. In five attempts to be promoted to a supervisory role between 1981 and 1987, Pierce was passed over every time—including cases, she claimed, where the eventual hire was under-qualified. The only thing they had in common: all were male.

Pierce left the FBI in 1994 after 22 years of service. She had finished her tenure in Miami, seizing the boats and mansions of drug dealers, and then a bank in Boca Raton, Fla. offered her in a job in audit investigation, which she accepted. In her opinion, there wasn’t opportunity for further advancement in the Bureau.

Pierce went a step further, suing Attorney General Janet Reno in 1994 for discrimination. She asked for the difference in pay she would have earned had she been promoted and attorney’s fees; the case was settled in 1996 under undisclosed terms.

At the time of the suit, the FBI was unable to comment on her retirement or her contributions to the Bureau. But in 2012, for the 40th anniversary of her hiring, the agency profiled both her and Susan Roney. Having married a fellow agent, Michael Misko, in 1981, she now goes by Joanne Pierce Misko.

“I honestly didn’t see myself as a pioneer,” she said of her admittance into the Bureau, even though she was just one of two women sworn in that summer in 1972. Today, there are roughly 2700 female agents in the field. And, providing they have a college education and can endure 20 weeks of training, nuns are still free to apply.

Additional Sources:
“Nun Turned Agent Recalls Historic Career in FBI,” The Buffalo News, September 18, 1994; “Women Agents Erasing FBI’s Machismo,” The Chicago Sun-Times, November 9, 1986.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]


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