In Episode 66, Emily tells the soap opera-style tale of Sister Virginia Maria (aka Marianna de Leyva y Marino) a nun that had an affair, birthed a child, and then helped her lover MURDER any witnesses. Then, Rachel takes us to Hugo, Oklahoma, and tells us about three stories of circus performers that were treated horribly because of their differences.
Story 1 – Killer Nun
For today’s story, we are traveling way back in time. We’re heading all the way to the 17th century. The story starts with the birth of a woman named Marianna de Leyva y Marino in 1575. Her father was the Earl of Monza and her mother was the daughter of a powerful Milanese banker. Her mother died of the plague when Marianna was only one year old. Then, her father abandoned her to live with her aunts. She lived with them until she was 13.
When Marianna was 13, her father Martino de Levya dropped by to see his daughter who lived away from him for over a decade. He was all, “Hey, I have a great idea. Why don’t you go live in a convent!” And so Marianna, not wanting to disappoint the daddy that abandoned her years ago, went with him to the monastery Saint Margaret in Monza, in northern Italy, and became Sister Virginia Maria.
Shortly after her 14th birthday, daddy Martino came to see her for the very last time. He promised to leave her inheritance of 6,000 lire. Now, I struggled to figure out how much this would be because the lire is obsolete – but coinmill.com said 1 lire is about 1900 euros and so that would mean 6000 lire would be 11,617,620 euros. So, let’s just say, it was going to be a big inheritance. Marianna was a rich heiress!
Except… she wasn’t. Because he never ended up leaving her anything. Luckily, she still received a yearly income as a nun. Which I’m sure was extremely lucrative. *sarcasm* It’s actually not – by design.
I did a little extra research to find out more about what it was like to be a nun in the 1600s. Here’s what I found:
First – they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; the three evangelical counsels of perfection in Christianity.
The vow of poverty leads a nun to imitate Jesus who for our sake became poor, although he was rich. It helps her to be poor in spirit as well as in fact, and to live a life of labor and moderation. By the vow of poverty, she gives up the right to control or benefit from personal property and commits herself to live interdependently within a community, according to its constitutions. The purpose of this vow is to free her from being fascinated by material things so that she may be free to serve others.
The vow of chastity leads a nun to imitate Jesus who was chaste. This vow frees her from the demands of an exclusive human relationship so that she can give all her love to God, and through God to all people. By the vow, she promises not to marry or to engage in romantic behavior or sexual acts.
The vow of obedience leads the nun to imitate the obedience of Jesus Christ. by seeking God’s will for her and obeying her lawful superiors according to the constitutions of her particular group. As a member of her religious community, she searches for the will of God, not in arbitrary commands, but in prayerful reflection and dialogue with others.
Second, here’s what their days may look like:
- 02.00: Matins Laud, the first of the day’s services.
- After Matins Laud, a nun would go back to bed and would get up again at first light. She would then wash and have a breakfast of bread and beer. Because of the boiling process involved in the making of beer, it was far less dangerous to drink beer than water.
- 07.00: Prime, the second service of the day.
- After Prime, nuns would meet in the chapter house where chapters from the Bible or the writings of saints would be read out.
- 09.00: Tierce, the third service of the day.
- After this service, nuns would occupy themselves with work within the convent. This would be similar to what monks did in that nuns would work in the fields, the kitchen, the washroom or workshops.
- 12.00: Sext None, the fourth service of the day.
- After this service, the nuns would have their dinner. They would eat in silence while a nun read from a book. After dinner, the nuns would return to their work.
- 17.00: Vespers, the fifth service of the day.
- After Vespers, the nuns would have a light supper.
- 19.00: Compline, the last service of the day.
- Following this, nuns would go straight to bed.
For a while, Sister Maria lived a humble religious life. As a nun, she served as a teacher who taught young girls about religion and decency. She was the epitome of virtues herself — very prudent, mild-mannered, pure.
She was even described as “obedient” and “respectful”. Spending most of her time reading.
But, as usual, a fine man came along and ruined everything.
Around the age of 22, Marianna met a rich, young nobleman, Count Giovanni Paolo Osio and everything changed. This guy was, for lack of a better word, a fuckboi. By the time he was a teen he had taken many lovers and the people around town were also suspicious that he had actually murdered some people.
But to Sister Maria, he was the most wonderful man in the world. She was head over heels in love.
So, she started writing him love letters and soon the two of them had a torrid love affair.
Maria and Giovanni would write each other letters and send them across a rope that went from her monastery to his house next to it. They would have secret get-togethers at his house. And because they desperately wanted to see each other day and night, they even had a blacksmith make them keys for the monastery so Maria could come and go to Giovanni whenever she pleased.
One rendezvous at a time, the nun was getting further and further from a prudent sister. But because Marianna was a previously rich heiress she must have had some influence because she convinced other nuns to take part in the whole affair as well! They helped her go out of the monastery to get some lovin’. Even priest Paolo Arrigone knew it and kept quiet.
But this honeymoon phase didn’t last long.
In 1602, at the age of 27, Marianna gave birth to an illegitimate baby girl. The baby was stillborn but nonetheless, it was pretty much proof that Marianna had betrayed her vows to stay celibate for the lord.
The pair broke up after this for a while. Marianna was feeling so guilty for betraying her vows. But she was SO lustful for Giovani that she could not contain herself. Some rumors say that to help herself feel disgusted by Giovani and not want to get down with him so bad that she actually ate some of his feces.
Unfortunately, even that didn’t stop her from desiring him. Might have stopped him from desiring her…. But…. That’s just me.
Anywho, the following year Maria gave birth for the second time. Another girl; and this one survived. She gave the baby the name Alma Francesca Margherita. Giovani adopted the baby, at first claiming it wasn’t his and he was just adopting a child, but when Alma was 2 he acknowledged her as his illegitimate daughter.
With the baby out of the monastery and taken care of, it seemed like everything was sorted. But again, not for long.
In the summer of 1606, a nun at the monastery threatened she would let everyone know that Marianna wasn’t loyal to God. She was none too happy that one of her fellow nuns was just out and about galivanting around getting knocked up left and right but still getting to wear her habit and live at the monastery.
Giovani wasn’t about to let this nun shame his woman and so, to protect his lover, Giovani killed the nun. Allegedly, Marianna knew that he was going to kill her and didn’t say anything or stop him – making her an accomplice in the murder.
But she didn’t stop there. She also threatened other nuns and said that they were next in line if they said something about it. They covered up the story by telling other people the murdered nun ran away from the convent.
Still, the rumors about the raunchy nun didn’t stop. And just like in Shakespearean tragedies, the act of killing was repeated. Giovani didn’t want to leave any loose ends so he killed the blacksmith who made copies of the keys to his house.
Eventually, a few covered-up deaths started to get around and rumors reached the governor of Milan. What was going on in that monastery?
On Carnival day of 1607, they arrested Giovani and took him to prison in Pavia, northern Italy. But he escaped and so they sentenced him to death in absence – if they ever were to catch him, they would put him to death. They never got the chance because he was eventually murdered by an alleged friend.
When Archbishop Federico Borromeo heard of the scandal, he ordered a canonical trial for Marianna. The defendant explained her behavior as the loss of free will. She said that diabolic forces made her impulsive. Essentially that her hormones betrayed her – she was a nun. She had never even been near a man before. And then Giovani came along with his PENIS and got her all riled up and she didn’t even have the ability to resist. Been there.
To get the information they interrogated the priest who had allegedly known about the affair from the start. They even used torture to get him to confess. In the end, a year after the trial started, they sentenced Sister Marianna to be walled-in for 13 years in the Home of Santa Valeria.
During her sentence, other nuns brought her food and water through the only opening in the room. The rest of the time Marianna was to spend in prayer and atonement of sin. Not as fun as having a clandestine affair in a cottage but life’s a bitch.
In the end, Maria survived the whole period in this little room.
After the sentence, she stayed in the Home of Santa Valeria until her death in 1650 at the age of 74.
And that is the tale of the Lady of Monza – Sister Marianna – her affair with Giovani Osio that resulted in a child out of wedlock and their murderous spree to cover it all up.
Story 2 – Circus Performers
Today I am going to tell you the tragic history of Circus “freaks.” I will be using the word “freaks” in quotation marks, so hopefully that comes across through the audio.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, “Freak Shows” were some of the circus’s biggest attractions. And, in addition to the name being horrible, these people were often exploited, mistreated, and sometimes even kidnapped for the sake of the show going on.
Today, I’d like to tell you about a few of these “Freaks” and the horrible history behind their infamous names.
Let’s start with Annie Jones, AKA The Bearded Lady.
Annie was born in 1865 in Virginia. As a newborn, her face was already enveloped in hair. This was most likely caused by a condition called “hirsutism” (her-sit-ism), which causes coarse, dark hair to grow in places where women do not typically grow hair, for example, their upper lip, chin, chest, stomach, and back.
Annie’s parents were clearly upset by her appearance at birth. However, not to be discouraged by having an atypical child, by age 1, Annie Jones’ parents had already signed her up to show off her facial hair at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Her “act” (AKA, her just existing as a toddler with facial hair), P.T. Barnum offered her parents $150 per week for a 3-year-contract with his circus.
I’m usually not one to judge parents but I would have a hard time letting my toddler join the circus. I did see how much $150 a week would be now, and it is over $2800, which is a significant amount of money.
Annie was known as “the Bearded Girl,” as she had a mustache with sideburns by age 5. From what I read, Annie and her mother were living in New York together while Annie was in the circus sideshow, and also, Annie was given a nanny.
In the first year of Annie’s contract, her mother had to go back to Virginia for a family emergency. Annie was left in the care of the nanny, who must have not been awesome, because Annie was kidnapped by a New York phrenologist who attempted to profit off of her in his own sideshow. She was found in upstate New York at a church fair, but this douchebag claimed that Annie was actually his own daughter. The case did go to court and Annie was returned into the custody of her biological parents. I read in one source – and by source, I mean Wikipedia, that this may have been a publicity stunt arranged by P.T. Barnum. I’m not sure how much credence to give this, but if that is true it’s incredibly fucked up.
Of course, they couldn’t give up their cash cow, but for the rest of Annie’s career, her mom stayed close by her, which is something, I guess.
Annie continued to perform into adulthood. She was a talented musician, but of course, she was primarily known as “the Bearded Lady.” Later in life she also tried her hand at activism, and in a real bad-bitch move, she campaigned against the use of the word “freak.” Unfortunately, her dream of side-show performers being addressed like human beings did not come to fruition, and she was quoted saying that she had “known no life other than that of a freak.”
Something interesting to me is that Annie had a life outside of the circus. She married Richard Elliot at 16-years-old. They were married 15 years and then divorced. Then, Annie married another sideshow bally talker, which I believe are the announcers of each of the acts. This one was named William Donovan. They toured Europe, attempting to market Annie as a solo attraction and William as her talker/hype man. But William died unexpectedly, and Annie went back to Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth.
When she was 37-years-old, Annie caught tuberculosis while visiting her mother in Brooklyn. She died in 1902.
Ready for another horrible sideshow story?
Let’s talk about Fedor Jeftichew, who was marketed as “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.”
Fedor was born in Russia in 1868. When he was 16-years-old, P.T. Barnum brought him over to the US to perform in his show.
Much like Annie, Fedor was born with a lot of excess hair. His condition was called hypertrichosis, AKA werewolf syndrome. This causes an excessive amount of hair all over the body, including, obviously, the face.
Remember how I mentioned above that P.T. Barnum liked to spin some tales in order to get people to come to his shows? Well, he advertised Fedor as the dog-faced boy. His backstory was that his father, who had the same condition that afflicted Fedor, was living in the forest. He was described as “savage,” and ultimately killed by a hunter.
All of this was bullshit. In reality, Fedor’s father, Adrian, did have the same condition, but he also performed in sideshows in Europe under the stage name The ‘Wild Man from Kostroma Forest.‘ Fedor was Adrian’s illegitimate son, and for much of his childhood, he traveled with his father. Adrian was advertised in Russia as the product of a village girl’s affair with a bear. Pair this with his vulgar, off-putting nature, and you have someone people loved to fear. However, Fedor was sweet, and he engaged with the audience in their native language. Adrian ended up passing due to alcoholism, which my educated guess would be was tied to some deep-rooted insecurities.
Fedor was a smarty-pants. He was billed as “the most prodigious paragon of all prodigies secured by P.T. Barnum in over 50 years.” He performed wearing a Russian calvary uniform. He spoke multiple languages, but was forced to bark like a dog on stage. People also were allowed to get close to him and pull on his facial hair, you know, for verification.
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
In 1898, 7 years after P.T. Barnum’s death, Fedor helped lead the protest against sideshow performers being called “freaks.” That year, they were given the legal right to be referred to as “prodigies.”
Fedor left Barnum and Bailey in 1901, going on to tour back in Europe.
Again, like Annie, Fedor died young. He came down with pneumonia when he was visiting Greece at 35-years-old, and he passed away from this illness. He was mourned heavily by pretty much everyone he’d ever come into contact with.
Okay, one more.
Let’s talk about George And Willie Muse AKA “The Men From Mars.”
George and Willie were albino black men born into the Jim Crow south. They were kidnapped from their sharecropping community in 1899, at the ages of 6 and 9. A “freak hunter” named James Herman “Candy” Shelton stole the children away from their parents, who were sharecroppers, and forced into the circus.
These boys were forced to emphasize their features by growing out their hair into dreadlocks. Unlike the other two prodigies I talked about, George and Willie Muse were not compensated, though their act, “The Men from Mars” was popular, oh and also, it was super racist. They were called “Eko and Iko, the sheep headed cannibals from Ecuador.” Oh, and once they were advertised as “Darwin’s missing link between human and ape.” They were given only what they needed to survive, and they weren’t able to keep any of their wages – their white managers kept them instead.
Oh, and it gets worse. To keep the boys from trying to escape from the circus, George and Willie were told that their mother was dead. WHICH SHE WASN’T.
In fact, their mom, Harriett, was working overtime to get them back from their captors. She was a baaaddd bittchhhh fighting a severely racist time period and many legal authorities didn’t take her complaints about the circus seriously. But the boys were trafficked for over 13 years, through different circuses, which made them incredibly hard to track down.
So she took matters into her own hands. In October 1927, Harriett went to a performance in Roanoke, VA and saw her sons, who at this point were in their mid-30s. George was playing the mandolin, and Willie was playing the guitar. Suddenly, the pair noticed a strong, black woman, who had pushed her way into the front of the primarily white crowd. George said, “There’s our dear mother. Look, Willie, she is not dead!” They put their instruments down and ran to their mom, finally reunited and able to go home to their family.
And Harriett wasn’t done – she pursued legal action against the Ringling Brothers and Candy Shelton, saying that her children were turned into slaves. The circus eventually paid back their wages and fired Candy Shelton, though I think he should have been criminally prosecuted for kidnapping, but that’s neither here nor there.
Also, it was negotiated that if George and Willie stayed with the circus, some of their wages would be sent home to their family, and their brother, Tom, would be given a job.
George and Willie retired from the circus in the 1950s. They became homeowners in 1961, which was pretty amazing for the south, as only about 30% of homeowners were black. They were upfront about the trauma that happened to them as children. George died in 1972 of heart failure, and Willie died in 2001, at age 108.
Willie outlived everyone who had exploited him, including Candy Shelton, whom he would often refer to as “Scum of the Earth,” or occasionally “cocksucker.”
And those are some of the dark histories behind circus sideshow performers!