It’s always wise to take stories from the Illustrated Police News with a grain of salt. The London crime tabloid ushered in a new age of exploitation and sensationalism in newspapers, without troubling themselves too much with pesky things like sources or journalistic standards or facts. If they could get a lurid bit of art out of a story, they ran with it, even if they had to embellish the narrative to fill space.
In the summer of 1869, a one-line news item began appearing in newspapers in the UK and the US:
The earliest I can find a reference to this story is in the Pall Mall Gazette on July 27, 1869. Within two weeks the same blurb was appearing in the Buffalo Commercial (New York) and elsewhere. I haven’t been to trace the origin of the story or verify any details, but the Illustrated Police News knew a good subject for a lurid print when they read it, and commissioned the illustration you see to the left.
Readers expected to find details about the art inside, so the News offered the following details, transcribed to the best of my ability from a blurry scan:
DUEL BETWEEN NUNS
We have had of late some startling disclosures with respect to conventual life, but it is not often that we have to record or illustrate so singular an “affair of honour” as that which our artist has depicted on the front page of this week’s paper. “A Duel Between Nuns.” How strange do the words sound! but we must come to the conclusion that nuns have their passions, tempers, friendships, and hates, like the rest of the human family. We have an exemplification of this in the quarrel which brought about the remarkable passage of arms, shown in our front page. Two nuns, belong to a convent in the neighbourhood of Genoa, carried their animosity to such an extent that nought could pacify them save a duel with pistols. The combatants exchanged shots, but no blood was shed.
You’ll notice something about that passage: it contains no additional details. Nuns, pistols, Genoa, no blood was shed. It just embroiders the one-line slug into a paragraph to fill space inside the paper.
Did it happen? Nothing argues against it, but I have no idea at this point. It could have just been a mischievous story invented by a reporter to fill up the column. You’ll find all manner of anti-Catholic tales in the papers of the time. For example:
Nunsploitation was popular in the ad section, too:
You get the idea: satisfy multiple cravings at once: sex, violence, and anti-popery.
The theme of brawling religious was a popular one. Only a few months later, IPN lead with this:
This story has far more more detail than the dueling nuns, suggesting it actually happened rather than just being elaborated from a passing news item of questionable provenance:
I can completely see that happening. Similar stories feature in lives of the saints from the earliest days of monasticism. Heck, I can even see Genoese nuns at 10 paces with pistols. Whether they turned out to be true or not, however, the Illustrated Police News still would have run those stories. Reports about Catholics Behaving Badly always have an audience.
[Thanks to Strange Company‘s Facebook page for alerting me to the nun story. You should follow them. It’s a great site.]