Or, why Catalina de Erauso might be my dirtbaggiest dirtbag yet.
A few weeks back, Friend of the Newsletter Ann Foster messaged me about a historical dirtbag she came across in her research for her podcast Vulgar History. Readers, I loved this person so much that Ann invited me on the podcast for a three part special, during which she told me the whole story and I reacted loudly for three full hours.
It’s a ride. And I can’t not share it with you.
Gentle readers, may I introduce:
Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun!
(You see already why Ann messaged me. Is this story Bugs Bunny playing basketball? Because this space is my jam.)
Catalina was born in the Basque city of San Sebastián in the late 1580s or early 1590s. If you’re not familiar with the Basque Country, it’s an autonomous community on the border of France and Spain.
Catalina’s father was a soldier, and due to a vow he made to an allegedly magic statue of the Virgin Mary after being wounded in battle, he sent his daughter to a convent to be a nun at the age of four.
Now, Catalina—and I cannot emphasize this enough—was a bad nun. Like, catastrophically bad. If her aunt hadn’t been the prioress of this particular convent, she would’ve been thrown out for how bad she was at nunning. But because of nepotism and Magic Statue Reasons, Catalina stayed at the convent until she was 15.
What happened at age 15, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you: Catalina fought a nun, robbed the prioress, and ran out into the woods, where she made herself a new set of men’s clothing, cut her hair like that scene from Mulan, and embarked on her life as a fugitive ex-nun under the assumed male name Francisco de Loyola.
(I’m going to continue using she/her pronouns for Catalina because that’s what she used in her memoir, but there is very obviously some gender business permeating this story. Catalina went as Francisco de Loyola, as well as several other male pseudonyms, throughout her life. Who knows how she might have identified today.)
Nun on the Run
Catalina went on a variety of disguised adventures throughout Spain, including a brief stint as a page for King Philip III and an equally brief stint in jail for throwing rocks at kids.
Nobody ever recognized her as Escaped Bad Nun Catalina de Erauso, but several times she ran into relatives and very nearly blew her cover, so after about three years, Catalina ran to Seville, where she conned her way into a job as a cabin boy on a merchant ship and sailed to what’s currently Panama.
The idea was for the ship to drop off its goods in Panama, restock, and head back for Spain. But Catalina decided to rob the ship instead and run away to start a new life in Panama. And thus begins a period of 20 years I mentally refer to as “Catalina de Erauso Runs Around Central and South America Being an Absolute and Colossal Piece of Murderous Garbage.”
Motive: Hat Too Big
Catalina got a job as a shopkeeper in Panama, which would have been fine, if she’d been constitutionally capable of minding her business. But one day, Catalina went to enjoy a show at the local theater, and a powerful local guy named Reyes sat directly in front of her and refused to take his hat off, blocking her view.
I’ve been waiting since Day 1 for my documented interest in Giant Hats to be plot-relevant to a DTTA story. At last.
So Catalina, being a reasonable person, responded to this hat-based annoyance by chasing Reyes in the street the next day, slashing his face with her dagger, and stabbing his friend.
Catalina was arrested—obviously—but got bailed out and decided now was a good time to set up shop elsewhere. She travelled to Trujillo, but the friends of Mr. Big Hat Reyes, quickly found her new hideout. What did Catalina do, you ask? Slashed those guys’ faces too, obviously. Then got out of town again. Rinse, lather, repeat. This is a pattern that will continue.
In Which The Author Reminds Us All That Colonialism Is Bad
By this point, Catalina is starting to realize that her true passion in life is stabbing people and/or slashing their faces. So she makes what’s really a reasonable career decision, all things considered, and joins the Spanish army, which at this point is waging a genocidal colonial war against the Indigenous peoples of South America.
As you know, this newsletter has an established position of being anti-colonialism and anti-genocide. So, like, the Spanish Army are clearly not the good guys in this story.
But even the colonial Spanish army looked at Catalina de Erauso’s military career and thought “whoa, this person is truly alarmingly violent.” She was so brutal that they put her on half pay and delayed her military advancement.
So, like, perhaps worth noting as I tell this story that Catalina sucks and is a certified Grade-A bad person. But the shenanigans she gets up to are so truly unhinged and classically dirtbaggy that I’m obsessed with her story, even while recognizing she’s a garbage human who left a trail of atrocities a mile wide behind her.
End sidebar, resume nonsense.
What We Duel in the Shadows
While Catalina was on shore leave from genociding, she spent an evening in a gambling house, where she—to the great surprise of no one—got in a fight. Her memoirs say this was because of “a misunderstanding,” but we’re already on her fourth stabbing and there are many more to come, so.
Anyway, she stabbed the guy who insulted her in the chest. A local judge came in, accusing her—accurately—of murder. So Catalina slashed the judge in the face and then ran away to hide in a nearby church, where she could claim sanctuary from the law.
The local governor was like “what the actual fuck, who stabs a judge” and offered a reward for anyone who could catch her alive, but Catalina got some help from a local face-slashing enthusiast and escaped from the church under cover of darkness. After successfully avoiding the law, the first thing she decided to do was to volunteer as a second in a duel between two guys she literally did not know at all. Because sure.
The duel took place at night, and things got out of hand. Catalina was drawn into a swordfight with the opponent’s second. It was too dark to see her opponents’ faces, but she won the duel by stabbing the guy in the chest, as is her trademark.
Except then under torchlight, it was revealed that the man she had slain in the duel was her own brother! Who had been a soldier in the Spanish army! Coincidentally!
That’s right, friends, the cross-dressing stabby nun just Poloniused her own brother. Shakespeare is cheering from his grave.
Llama Stop You Right There
Yet again, Catalina decided now was a good time to get out of town. She continued to wander around South America, creating havoc and being a disaster, until she reached Potosi, Bolivia. At this point, she picked up a new job: escorting 12,000 llamas to a nearby town.
The sources just provide this fact like it’s no big deal. But I have so many follow-up questions. How do you herd 12,000 llamas? A quick Google search tells me there are approximately 12,000 llamas in all of the US and Canada. How do you herd every llama in the continental US and Canada, solo?
And just a couple years later, Catalina was charged with escorting a different 10,000 llamas.
THE SHEER VOLUME OF LLAMAS IN THIS PERSON’S LIFE IS INCONCEIVABLE.
She was also continuing to stab strangers throughout the Llama Time part of the story. But that sorta goes without saying.
For those keeping track at home, here’s a list of the jobs Catalina de Erauso has held so far in the story:
“Allison,” you’re all saying, “surely you’re not about to tell me Catalina de Erauso ended the Llama Herder Phase of her life and picked up an even weirder profession?”
Oh ho ho, reader, that’s where you’re wrong, because her next job was bounty hunter.
That’s right, someone decided that Captain Stab-Stab was the perfect person to track down a local criminal who was on the run.
She didn’t stay in the crime-fighting profession long, but can you imagine how the local police responded when Catalina de Erauso showed up with her face-slashing dagger, ready to solve crime? I want someone to write a mystery series that’s an odd-couple pairing with Catalina and the jaded beat detective forced to work with her. I will give you all my money.
Christ on a Cracker
After hanging up her crime-fighting cape, Catalina settled in La Paz, Bolivia, where she lived peacefully for a grand total of about two weeks probably. Then she—say it with me, everyone—stabbed a guy and got arrested for murder again.
Now, this time, it started to look like this was the end of the road for Catalina de Erauso. Instead of letting her pull her trademarked move of running to a church and claiming sanctuary, they actually sent her to prison and sentenced her to death.
But Catalina had a plan! When the priest who came to take her final confession gave her the communion host, Catalina chewed it up, then spat it out into her hand.
And because this meant she was now holding the literal body of the literal Jesus Christ in her hand, they had to take her into a church to dispose of the consecrated host in a non-heretical way.
Which got her into a church! Which meant—yep:
Truly, the scams this woman had up her sleeves were ludicrous. But it worked: they couldn’t execute her while she was in a church, and just like she’d done about a dozen times before by now, she slipped out under cover of darkness and moved on to a new town.
Return of the Nun
After a few years—which included several more murders, bar fights, escapes from churches, &c—Catalina arrived in the city of Ayacucho, Peru. She got in yet another fight with a sheriff, because what else is new. But the local bishop intervened, taking her to the church and dressing her wounds from all that stabbing.
Now, as we all know from Mulan, getting injured while dressing as a man is a surefire way to blow your cover. So when the bishop found out Catalina was AFAB, he had numerous questions. And Catalina, bless her chaotic heart, told the bishop the entire story. In her memoir, she sums it all up like this:
“I left the convent, cut my hair, travelled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant at the feet of Your Eminence.”
Which—and fair play to her—is a decent summary.
The bishop, after his initial reaction of “what in the entire fuck,” confirmed Catalina was still a virgin, and they came to the mutual agreement that Catalina would become a nun again! One would think that the amount of face-slashing and Jesus-spitting and straight-up murder we have discussed would disqualify you from nunhood! But as I have observed in other stories, clearly I know nothing about the church’s viewpoint on murder!
After enjoying her fame as the Lieutenant Nun in Peru, Catalina hopped a ship back to Spain, where she was insta-famous. Everyone wanted to hear her story. She even met Pope Urban VIII, who gave her a papal dispensation allowing her to wear pants. The pope, to his credit, reminded her about the whole “thou shalt not kill” thing while doing so, but honestly, I’m just obsessed with the idea of a papal dispantsation.
After all this, Catalina settled down and wrote her memoirs, but the celeb life didn’t suit her. Not enough face-slashing, I imagine. So she hopped another ship headed to Mexico in 1635. The ship was caught in a storm, and there’s no record of Catalina landing in Veracruz, so it’s likely she died at sea.
Although, knowing Catalina de Erauso, maybe she snuck off into Mexico and started slashing people’s faces and hiding in churches again.
She sucked so bad from beginning to end. A paragon among dirtbags. Rest in Garbage, you terrible person.
Sale alert, before you go! From May 6–11, the ebook of A Tip for the Hangman is available for just $1.99 on all ebook platforms! If you’ve been holding off on picking up the book until it cost less than a Taco Bell Mexican pizza, now’s your chance. Get yours at Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or wherever else you buy ebooks. I truly appreciate each and every person who gives it a try!
Until next time, ask yourself “What Would Catalina de Erauso” do, and then please, God, do the exact opposite of that,