CLOSE
Chloe Effron / iStock Collage
Chloe Effron / iStock Collage

Force of Habit: The Nun Who Became an FBI Agent

Chloe Effron / iStock Collage
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
crime
The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
Keystone/Getty Images

Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.

On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.

The Ogden Standard, September 5, 1914
A news account of the tragedy, September 5, 1914
Library of Congress // Public Domain

While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.

In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.

The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.

Taliesin
Taliesin as it looks today
edward stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
8 Animals That Have Been Imprisoned or Arrested
iStock
iStock

It might seem like a case of animals just being animals, but when eight donkeys in northern India recently ate nearly $1000 worth of greenery in their small town, they did four days in the big house. (Perhaps part of the problem? They ate expensive saplings that were planted right near the jail. Rookie mistake.) But whether they harmed property or people, were in cahoots with human outlaws, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, these eight other critters are proof that "crime" can sometimes be cuddly.

1. THE PIGEON THAT WAS ARRESTED ON SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE.

In 2015, officials in India arrested a pigeon they suspected was a spy. The bird’s body was stamped with a message written partly in Urdu—Pakistan’s official language—and what appeared to be a Pakistani phone number. It had landed in a village close to the country’s shared border with Pakistan, near the Kashmir region that’s claimed by both countries and has been the subject of multiple wars between India and Pakistan beginning in 1947. Though there was a ceasefire in 1972 (the current situation is that India controls 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan 35 percent, and China 20 percent), because both countries believe they have rights to the area, it's frequently the site of military clashes and infiltration.

So when a 14-year-old boy found the suspicious-looking pigeon so close to Kashmir, he turned it over to authorities. The officials took it to a veterinary hospital for x-rays, and though they couldn’t find any concrete evidence of foreign fowl play, they kept the bird in custody, recording it as a “suspected spy” in their police diary.

That said, not everyone took the news as seriously as the Indian police did: In the days following the bird’s arrest, Pakistani social media was flooded with memes depicting the feathered detainee as a slick 007 type, and amused internet users coined hashtags like #PigeonVsIndia and #IfIWereAPigeon.

2. THE BEAVER THAT WAS APPREHENDED FOR A DESTRUCTIVE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SESSION.

In December 2016, a wild beaver must have decided that forest trees weren’t festive enough, because it wandered into a dollar store in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to browse Christmas trees and decorations. Workers noticed the animal knocking items onto the floor, and called the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Captain Yingling of the sheriff's office arrived on scene to prevent the "shopping" beaver from ruining the store. “The suspect attempted to flee the area but was apprehended by Animal Control,” the sheriff's department joked on their Facebook page.

Instead of allowing the beaver to finish up its holiday shopping, the St. Mary's County Sheriff handed the critter over to a wildlife rehab center. As for the police, they said the quirky incident just marked another day on the job: “As a law enforcement officer, you just never know what your next call may be...” they mused on Facebook.

3. THE FOUL-MOUTHED PARROT IN INDIA THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR REPEATEDLY INSULTING HIS OWNER'S STEPMOTHER.

In 2015, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra taught a foul-mouthed parrot named Hariyal a lesson in politeness after they “arrested” it for swearing at an elderly woman named Janabai. According to locals, the pet bird had picked up the rude habit from Janabi’s stepson, Suresh Sakharkar. The two were embroiled in an ugly property dispute, and the latter had reportedly spent the prior two years training Hariyal to spout epithets whenever the estranged relation walked past his house.

The situation escalated, and Janabi, Suresh, and his bird were eventually called to the police station. “Police should investigate and seize the parrot,” the embittered stepmother told Indian news channel Zee News. That said, Hariyal must have known he was in hot water, because he kept his beak shut. “We watched the parrot carefully but it did not utter a word at the police station after being confronted by the complainant,” a police inspector told reporters.

Instead of locking Hariyal up, officials gave the parrot over to Maharashtra’s forestry department, where he can presumably fly—and curse—freely for the remainder of his life.

4. THE SQUIRREL THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR "STALKING" A GERMAN WOMAN.

While walking down the street in the West German city of Bottrop in 2015, a woman realized that she had attracted a furry stalker: a tiny red squirrel. The animal was chasing her and acting aggressively. Frightened and unable to flee the rodent, the woman called the police for help. Authorities captured the squirrel, “arrested” it, and brought it back to the station. There, they discovered that the critter was suffering from exhaustion.

Police helped nurse the squirrel back to health by feeding it honey, and a spokesman said the squirrel would be sent to a rescue center instead of languishing away in a cell for its stalkerish habits.

5. THE BAD MONKEYS IN INDIA THAT WERE IMPRISONED IN "MONKEY JAIL."

iStock

In 2004, a rogue monkey became infamous for terrorizing residents of the city of Patiala, in India’s northern Punjab region. The monkey was guilty of multiple crimes: It stole food from homes, ripped the buttons off people's shirts, threatened kids with bricks, and once even swiped someone’s math textbooks and calculator. To keep the marauding jungle creature off the streets, officials sentenced it to “monkey jail”—a now-defunct detainment center in Patiala that was reserved for ill-behaving primates.

The “monkey jail"—which appears to have operated from 1996 until the mid-2000s—was located in the corner of a local zoo. The 15-foot-wide barred cell was secured with chain-link fencing and wire mesh, and had a sign that read: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

Punjab is filled with countless wild Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. Some of the animals have moved into cities and towns in search of food, as humans continue to destroy their natural jungle habitat. Others were once used as animal guards, or trained as performing monkeys, and were set loose by their owners once they turned violent. Particularly ill-treated or mischievous primates have been known to destroy property and pester—or even attack—humans. But since Hindus revere Hanuman, the monkey god, killing the creatures is verboten.

Wildlife officers in Punjab took matters into their own hands by opening the monkey jail. They responded to public complaints by capturing the creatures with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once the monkeys were locked up, there was little to no chance of "parole."

As of 2004, there were 13 jailed monkeys, all imprisoned for harassing people or committing petty crimes. Patiala’s primate penitentiary was eventually closed, and authorities announced it was going to be replaced by “reform school" that's intended to train the monkeys to be less aggressive.

6. THE CAT WHO WAS DETAINED FOR HELPING OUT WITH A PRISON BREAK.

On New Year’s Day 2013, a cat took the heat for scheming Brazilian inmates who were likely either planning a jailbreak or attempting to communicate with outlaws on the outside. The white feline was slinking around the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca—a city in northeast Brazil—when guards noticed that its body was wrapped in tape. They apprehended the kitty, and discovered that it was carrying items including several saws and drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries, and a phone charger.

Prison officer Luiz de Oliveira Souza told reporters that the cat had been seen entering and exiting the jail before. It had been raised by inmates, and was often in the custody of one of their families. However, officials couldn’t figure out which of the jail’s 263 prisoners had tried to use the feline for their own nefarious purposes: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak,” a prison spokesperson told local newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.

Following the cat’s “arrest” and brief imprisonment, it was taken to a local animal shelter to receive medical treatment.

7. THE TOUGH PRISON PET THAT WAS ACTUALLY A VERY GOOD BOY.

Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Unlike some animals on this list, Pep the dog was a very good boy. But in 1924, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the dark-haired Labrador to a life sentence without parole. Pep was taken to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where officials jokingly gave him his own inmate number and mug shot. Reporters nicknamed the canine "Pep The Cat-Murdering Dog," as he was said to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat.

Thanks to all the media hype, Pep had quite the tough reputation. But a few years after the canine’s imprisonment, the governor’s wife, Cornelia Pinchot, set the story straight in an interview with The New York Times. Turns out, Pep had never murdered her pet feline; her family simply bred Labradors, and owned too many dogs. Pep, she said, was a gift to the prisoners to lift their spirits.

Today, researchers say that partisan journalists twisted the facts around, and that Pep was actually a beloved prison pet that freely wandered the hallways and was adored by all. As for the "life sentence without parole" part, the Lab was eventually moved to a newer prison; when he died, he was buried on its grounds.

8. THE FEISTY DONKEY IN MEXICO THAT WAS LOCKED UP TO SETTLE A SCORE.

iStock

In 2008, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas arrested a feisty donkey named Blacky after it bit a man in the chest, and kicked a second man trying to rescue him. Police apprehended the burro and locked it in the jail’s drunk tank. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed, no matter who they are,” said Officer Sinar Gomez.

Police said that the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner, Mauro Gutierrez, paid the injured parties’ medical bills and salary for the days they missed work. The boisterous burro served three days in jail, and Gutierrez settled the score by paying Blacky's victims.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios