Helen Jackson 1

From “Convent Cruelties: A Providential Delivery from Rome’s Convent Slave Pens. A Sensational Experience,” 1919.

Did you ever hear about the riot sparked by horror tales, a Holiness preacher, and a renegade nun?

On October 12, 1924, a man named Lindley wrote this postcard home to his aunt and uncle.  Lindley was headed to Cadle Tabernacle, Indy’s evangelical megachurch of the Jazz Age, to hear a talk by “a minister who was once a R. Catholic priest 25 yrs.  He can tell you things that would make your blood run cold.”

The “ex-priest,” it turns out, was a Canadian named L.J. King.  Known to cops all over the U.S. as a “traveling peace-breaker” and impostor, King instigated at least one riot that left two men dead.  Traveling with him on many occasions was a sidekick “ex-nun” named Helen Jackson.  In 1919, Jackson authored an infamous, if minor, American terror classic, Convent Cruelties, where she told of her escape as a girl from one of “Rome’s convent slave pens” — not in Italy, but in Detroit, Michigan.

As they crisscrossed the U.S. trying to undermine the Roman Catholic Church, these two ex-Catholics played on a deep nerve of mistrust, even paranoia.  At the apex of their popularity, King and Jackson even became fronts for the Ku Klux Klan in advance of the fateful 1924 election.

What better October story to tell than one of dark conspiracies, underground terror machines, and that old sub-genre of fear — the Gothic nunnery tale?

Helen Jackson 2

From “Convent Cruelties.”

Part gory Black Legend, part sheer black comedy, anti-Catholicism is an “unholy ghost” running through American history.  Unlike many ghosts, it was out in the open.  During the Reformation, Protestant martyrologists like John Foxe printed bloodcurdling engravings of evil tortures carried out by priests.  In later years, fear of “Popery” was partly tied to hatred of poor immigrants, most of them Irish, whose arrival in America sparked a wave of paranoia.  For decades, amateur sociologists considered Catholics ten times more likely than Protestants to be drunks and criminals.

In the 1920s, anti-Catholicism got a shot in the arm from the re-born Ku Klux Klan.  The Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross, printed in the Century Building in downtown Indy, rang the warning knell about Vatican takeover of schools and the inroads of “ignorant, diseased” foreigners.  Contrary to popular belief, African Americans were never the main target of that paper, which folded when editor D.C. Stephenson went to jail in 1925.  Readers were far more likely to find attacks on the confessional, praying the rosary, or Catholic infiltration of Harvard.

The Fiery Cross, September 26, 1924 2

The Fiery Cross, September 26, 1924

L.J. King and Helen Jackson weren’t quite the con-artists that newspapers portrayed them as, but they did profit from old animosities.  Helen, in fact, had a few literary grandmothers, crouching in the dark corners of American folklore, where “escaped nuns” really do find a hideout.

One sensational book containing “revelations” about life behind convent doors had rocked New England in the 1830s.  Almost a century later, it still haunted the minds of many American voters.

In 1834, a lynch mob driven on by class resentment, hatred of the Irish, and the sermons of Lyman Beecher — Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father — attacked an Ursuline convent school in Charlestown, Massaschusetts.  Touched off by rumors of a kidnapping, a mob dressed as Indians drove out the nuns and burned the place down.  Catholics left the ruins of the convent, situated within view of Bunker Hill, standing for decades as a reproach to nativists.

Maria Monk 1 (Virginia Wesleyan College)

(Courtesy Virginia Wesleyan College)  The book also came out in Dutch.

In the aftermath of a trial that acquitted the attackers, Rebecca Reed, a teenager who had been rejected by the Ursulines when she tried to join the order, penned an imaginative attack on the nuns, a book that partly drew on spine-tingling 18th-century horror fiction and Indian captivity narratives.  Reed’s book and a gory sequel quickly became two of the bestselling books in American literature.

The sequel, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, was still wildly popular in the 1920s, when Monk’s “disclosures” became a Ku Klux Klan favorite.  The book tells the story of a Canadian girl — a teenage prostitute, in reality — who was sent to an asylum for “fallen women” in Montreal, not a nunnery.  Actually ghost-written by opportunistic American ministers who twisted the real Maria Monk’s experiences into a pornographic nightmare, this arch-classic of religious and sexual terror is one of the great literary hoaxes.  Yet even today, the “Secrets of the Black Nunnery revealed” has a die-hard fan base of believers.

You might have heard some of these sadomasochistic stories.  Dark tunnels allow priests to have access to nuns.  Babies born to the nuns are baptized, strangled and tossed into the St. Lawrence River.  An investigation by a Protestant editor from New York, William Stone, turned up zero evidence that Maria had ever been inside the building where she claimed she was held captive.  All but two people Stone met in Montreal laughed at American readers’ gullibility and “monomania.”  (Old habits die hard.  In 1938, the Toronto Star would lampoon the hysterical American reaction to Orson Welles’ fake radio version of The War of the Worlds, which aired on Halloween.  A hundred years earlier, the invading Martians could have been Catholic priests.)

Though Maria was briefly famous — she almost married Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph — the ministers who exploited her pocketed most of the profits from the book.  She quickly plummeted into Manhattan’s underworld.  Arrested for pickpocketing a man who had just paid her for sex, Maria Monk died in jail in 1849, age 33.

Helen Jackson 3

Jackson dressed in a nun’s habit on stage.

As King and Jackson traveled around the U.S. seventy-five years later, Monk’s popular stories gave them a ready-made audience.  Awful Disclosures remained a favorite Victorian horror book long after it was discredited.  It’s revealing that the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research at IU-Bloomington has three copies.  Kathleen M. Blee, who wrote an oral history of women and the KKK during the 1920s, mentions:  “nearly all my respondents recalled owning a copy of Maria Monk’s stories…”

For decades, the fallout of such tales made life difficult for Catholic presidential candidates — from Al Smith in 1928 to JFK in 1960.  Catholic schools were a huge part of the debate.  Illustrator Thomas Nast, who battled corruption in New York, famously portrayed Catholic bishops as alligators trying to gobble up school children.  Thomas E. Watson, a Populist Senator from Georgia in the early 1920s, ran a nationally-distributed journal, Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine, where he published graphic depictions of inquisitorial tortures and stories about crucifixions of students at Catholic schools.  Watson’s tales and drawings were so lewd, the Federal government investigated his magazine for obscenity.  When Andrew Kehoe, a deranged Catholic, dynamited 45 students and teachers at a public school in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927 — the Columbine of the 1920s — the Ku Klux Klan released a pamphlet comparing it to the massacre of French Protestants in 1572.

Nativist papers everywhere joined the fight.  The Menace and The Yellow-Jacket, published in rural North Carolina, landed on about 2 million American doorsteps in the 1910s — a bigger circulation than any newspaper in Chicago or New York.  These journals, which relished the tales of defrocked or bogus priests spilling “inside information,” were direct forerunners to The Fiery Cross.

As the provocative lecturer and bogus nun brought sexual nightmares into American churches, the lure of seeing a “convent slave” must have been huge.  Police investigators were on the lookout, however.  Arizona police received information back in 1911 that the “ex-Catholic priest L.J. King” was, like Maria Monk, a masquerader from over the border — the northern border.

Born in New Brunswick around 1866, Louis Joseph King was a former Catholic who became drawn to the Holiness movement and first evangelized in French-Canadian lumber camps in northern Maine in the 1890s.  Sparking riots almost wherever he went, King got driven out of towns all over the U.S. and was arrested in Virginia in 1909 as “a public disseminator of verbal filth.”  A Phoenix newspaper called him a “traveling peace-breaker.”  King, who settled in Toledo, Ohio — where a man tried to shoot him in 1920 — published a fiery 800-page autobiography in 1908, Scarlet Mother on the Tiber, and ran a book house and tract-publishing business.  One tract would eventually be titled “Why We Need the Ku Klux Klan.”

Often hugely off-color, it’s easy to understand how his attacks on things Catholics considered sacred got him into trouble.  King said mock masses lampooning “the wafer God” (a reference to the Eucharist), Catholic veneration of Mary as the “Mother of God” (“Who was God’s great-grandmother?” he wanted to know), and dredged up Maria Monk and other hoaxes like the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.  The flamboyant King, who advertised himself as “The Luther of the West,” even offered a $50 reward if anyone could show him “Bible proof of Purgatory after death.”

As he traveled around the U.S., King received ample support from nativist newspapers, all of which promoted conspiracy theories about the takeover of America by Catholic boogie men.  One forerunner in the field was Charles Chiniquy, 19th-century America’s best-known ex-priest — and, oddly, another French Canadian.  (By one account, Chiniquy was the bestselling Canadian author ever.)  Chiniquy floated a theory that the Vatican had caused the Civil War to discredit American democracy and that Lincoln’s assassins were trained by the Jesuits.  Conspirators John and Mary Surratt were actually Catholic and John Wilkes Booth’s sister claimed that he had converted.  Revealingly, Chiniquy had been defrocked in Illinois in 1856 — for propositioning women in the confessional.

A spirited pro-immigrant paper once printed in Louisville’s Limerick neighborhood, The Kentucky Irish American, fought a long-running feud with nativists.  It carried the story of a riot King instigated in New Jersey in 1915.  The William Black mentioned here was another unscrupulous “ex-priest” active in Texas who also traveled with an “ex-nun,” Sadie Allison.  In February 1915, an angry Catholic shot and killed Black at a hotel in Marshall, Texas.

Some time around 1910, King started traveling with Helen Jackson, née Barnowski, a helpful backup, since she claimed to be an “escaped ex-nun.”  Born into a Polish Catholic family in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, where her father was a coal-miner, Jackson was later the target of fact-checkers.

One of the bigger events in the not-so-divine duo’s career — and which helped uncover their fraud — occurred in 1920, when they tried to start a ruckus in Michigan.  At Ypsilanti’s Free Methodist church, a group came to hear them tell horror tales about “bacchic orgies,” “harems for the priesthood,” etc.  “Mrs. Jackson” often carried little bags with her and displayed them as examples of how convents disposed of murdered babies.  She claimed she’d been waterboarded, forced to drink “dirty soup,” and had a cross burned on her back.  Girls who came to the convent wearing jewelry, she claimed, had their rings burned off with hot pokers by the nuns.

12-08-1922 3

The Fiery Cross, December 8, 1922.

A prankster or angry audience member must have known she was twisting the truth, since he came to church carrying a bottle of polecat scent in his pocket.  Once he yanked the lid off, the skunk smell dispersed the assembly fast.  When they filed back in again and L.J. King started to speak, six boys stood up and egged the preacher, spattering an American flag by accident.

Ypsilanti newspapers then let the real story out of the bottle.  Like Maria Monk, Helen Barnowski, records proved, had been an “unmanageable girl of the streets” packed off to a House of the Good Shepherd in Detroit by her sister.  These shelters for prostitutes and sexually promiscuous teens, called Magdalene Asylums, are still controversial today in the wake of sex abuse scandals, especially in Ireland, where some truly dark things may have happened.  The experience was surely rough for the unfortunate Helen, at a time when brutal punishment was common in American schools.  And the press backlash against her was far from kind.  One Catholic rebuttal branded her a “skunk” and “dupe of the white slave trade.”  Further testimony from Chicago’s Polish community suggested that she’d been a bartender there.

Her detractors were right when they pointed out that secular courts sometimes turned women over to the nuns for “reform” — indirectly making the Catholic Church their “jailer.”  But when the news came out that Helen never was a nun, she sued two Ypsilanti papers for damages to her income.  She lost that suit in an Ann Arbor court.

The Counterfeit

C. Mungrett, “The Counterfeit,” 1923.

By the time King and Jackson came down to Indy, Convent Cruelties had been out for five years.  Historian Todd Tucker, author of Notre Dame vs. the Klan — the book that started an infamous civil liberties fiasco at IUPUI in 2008 — argues that Jackson’s autobiography figured into the riot between the “Fighting Irish” and South Bend Klansmen in May 1924.   A retaliatory rally in South Bend was scheduled for October 18.  D.C. Stephenson’s Fiery Cross went to great lengths to issue an “official version” of the riot — a pamphlet touted right alongside Helen Jackson’s autobiography.  And just two days after the Notre Dame riot in which college students humiliated the Klan, Louis King spoke to a Young Men’s Holiness League at Cadle Tabernacle.

King flyer

By this point, the lecturers were skirmishers for the Klan.  Their separate arrival in Indianapolis, just weeks before the 1924 gubernatorial election that swept the KKK into statewide power with Klansman Ed Jackson at the helm, was perfectly timed.

The Fiery Cross, November 7, 1924

The Fiery Cross, November 7, 1924

Helen Jackson spoke at Cadle Tabernacle in early October to “631 persons, most of whom came in Fords from the country” (Indiana Catholic & Record).  When King spoke in mid-October, his wife Nellie walked around taking up collections while he regaled the crowd with emotional harangues about nuns “Buried Alive.”  It’s fascinating that another of his lectures was called “Bottle Convent Booze,” since Prohibitionists often filed right into Klan ranks.  Both speakers accused priests and nuns of drunkenness.

For several weeks, crowds came to the Tabernacle, once considered the biggest church in the U.S.  Some sources claim that founder Howard Cadle had “lost control” of his church and wasn’t responsible for the Klan takeover of his building, a favorite venue for KKK patriotic rallies.  As the lecturers’ visit shows, this might, in fact, be true.

The Indianapolis News reported L.J. King was “giving ‘inside’ information regarding the Catholic Church” to an audience of about 3,000 when a Mrs. Helen Collier stood up and challenged him. Collier walked toward the platform and “denounced a certain statement he had made regarding a religious custom.  King threw water in her face and instructed men in the auditorium to escort her outside.”  The brave Mrs. Collier, a parishioner at Holy Cross, went to the police and charged King with assault and battery.

On October 19, a Sunday night, while King was already facing court proceedings, he tried to speak again.  Twenty-four police officers showed up on the steps of the Tabernacle to shut the event down.  This is when the crowd rioted.

Indiana Catholic & Record, October 3, 1924 (4)

Indiana Catholic & Record, October 3, 1924

“Crowds Cheer Lecturer,” said the News.  The two police squads had come with Mrs. Collier — and also, it seems, by request of the church’s owner, J.W. Speicher, who was finally convinced that the nun and priest were frauds.  “King held his meeting anyway on the steps of the Tabernacle and spoke to about 3,000 people.”  The audience — Klansmen and Klanswomen — grew “incensed” and threatened to break down the doors.  They threatened Speicher with a retraction of Klan support if he didn’t let King speak, clearly a business threat.

“If Speicher keeps us out no Klansman will ever darken its doors again,” one man shouted.

“He might as well burn it down without the Klan with him,” a woman shouted.

“Cadle will never be elected mayor if we don’t get in,” another shouted.

“Cadle is trying to get control of this tabernacle, and when he does, you can get in,” another voice, apparently friendly to Cadle, added.

King got into the building at last, mounted the platform and asked “every red-blooded American” in the crowd to resist his arrest.  As they rushed forward, he escaped through a side door.  Police arrested him two days later.

Indiana Catholic & Record, October 3, 1924 (2)

Indiana Catholic & Record, October 3, 1924 (3)

Indiana Catholic & Record, October 3, 1924

Howard Cadle was no friend of Catholicism, and may have wanted to clean up the Tabernacle because he had aspirations to be mayor.  But from this episode, it seems he might have found these visitors repugnant — or had second thoughts about where the Klan was headed.  L.J. King, however, threatened that he was going to move to Indianapolis to hold a four-week meeting at Liberty Hall, then under construction on East Michigan Street. “If this promise did not materialize, he would build a tabernacle of his own.”  (The supreme irony of this is that according to East Side folklore, there was once a tunnel from Liberty Hall under Michigan Street to the Dearborn Hotel, allegedly operated by the Klan for out-of-town guests — the stuff convent tales are made of. . .)

Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson naturally disavowed any association with the speakers.  Stephenson, later a convicted kidnapper and rapist who nearly cannibalized a woman and held her captive in his Irvington home, told the press it was “beneath his dignity to be connected with the affair.”

Before the whole episode even went down, the Catholic Information Bureau, founded in Indianapolis in 1924 to refute Klan accusations, had taken out large ads in Midwestern papers to warn the public of these “traveling peace-breakers.”  The Bureau sounded the voice of reason back on October 1:

Indianapolis Times, October 1, 1924

Indianapolis Times, October 1, 1924

Under the rallying cry “Indiana is not Russia,” the Indianapolis Times amped up its battle against the KKK during the 1924 election — a battle for which it would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize in 1928.

By that time, the lecturers were still busy on the American road.  In 1926, the Michigan Supreme Court sent Louis King and two “associates in ‘evangelism'” to the State Penitentiary in Jackson for physically assaulting a Protestant editor who stood up to the Klan.  King spent two years behind bars.

Casa Grande Dispatch (Casa Grande, AZ), January 1, 1927 (2)

Casa Grande Dispatch (Casa Grande, AZ), January 1, 1927

Released, the ex-convict and “ex-nun” got back together.  They were getting into trouble under riot ordinances as late as 1929, when Pennsylvania police were still trying to keep the lid on.

King shows up on the 1940 U.S. Census as an “alien.”  Ironically for a Klansman, he’d never become a U.S. citizen.  He lived with a daughter — who had the strange name Willo Whacker — and died in Toledo in 1948.  Helen, married to a shoe repairman, also lived in Toledo.  Her death is a mystery.

Helen Jackson 7

The House of the Good Shepherd at 2629 West Fort Street in Detroit. Part of the building was still standing in 2013. With a gift from the Ford family, the home relocated to Dearborn Heights in 1942 and is now called Vista Maria, a shelter providing foster care for girls and advocating against child sex trafficking in Detroit.



Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834.  (The Free Press, 2002)

Katherine M. Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s.  (University of California Press, 2008.)

7 responses to ““Escaped Nuns are Myths”: The Roots of a Forgotten Riot”

  1. Captain Hugh Smith says:

    My Grand Father use to tell a story about the “Escape Nun and her Pimp.

    He talked about him and another group of Catholics meeting the train in Enid Oklahoma armed and telling them to keep on moving.

    At the time the KKK was going strong and she could really get the Baptist going.

  2. Mary Dooley says:

    Hi. Thank you for this article. I found it, when looking for more information about one of the men killed in the 1920 riot in Whiteford Township, Michigan, who was a great uncle of mine. His name was Walter Gilday. The other man who died was his in-law, Maurice Drouillard. One of the deputies who guarded the church in which King was speaking went on trial for the shootings, and was acquitted.

  3. Anonymous says:


  4. Karen says:

    My question is what motivated this woman to write this book and incite riots if what allegedly happened to her was not true?

  5. Helga says:

    Exactly. In Canada, B. C. and Saskatchewan have uncovered mass graves at Residential Schools, Catholic run, and all the other Priest atrocities around the world point to the Church forever covering.

  6. David says:

    Good article. L. J King’s actual name was Louis-Joseph Roi.

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