It was tough to ignore the Hemp Lady, a.k.a. Caroline Killeen, during the 1996 New Hampshire primary: a 70-year-old cycling ex-nun who wore a giant marijuana leaf across her chest like a superhero’s badge.
A lover of puns, the long-shot Democratic presidential candidate and pro-cannabis activist attached handmade campaign signs to her rickety bicycle. One read: “Roads Scholar Killeen Will Defeat Rhodes Scholar Clinton.” Killeen’s irreverent “Let Clinton Inhale” bumper stickers mocked President Clinton’s infamous remarks about trying marijuana once or twice at Oxford University but not breathing in the smoke.
I first met the Hemp Lady in downtown Manchester at the New Horizons homeless shelter, which doubled as her home and campaign headquarters. Politicians often stop by homeless shelters for photo-ops; I was unaware of any candidates who lived at one.
“I resent being called homeless,” she told me the day before Christmas 1995, “because I consider myself a happy wanderer, a Bohemian, a Franciscan who trusts in the living God to provide.”
I was interviewing Killeen for “Why Can’t I Be President?” — a documentary for PBS stations that focused on the fringe candidates in New Hampshire, where any American citizen age 35 or older can get on the primary ballot for a $1,000 filing fee.
Leaving the shelter, filmmaker Al Ward and I followed Killeen as she trudged through the slush on Elm Street, Manchester’s main drag, where voters trip over candidates during the week before the primary. Her marijuana logo was an instant icebreaker with strangers. Two young smirking men stopped in the middle of the street when she inquired about legalizing hemp. “Hemp’s awesome!” one replied, beaming as Killeen handed him a campaign button.
“Now are you going to get registered to vote?” she asked. “Because, see, if you don’t vote for it, it’s never going to happen!”
High Times, the pro-marijuana magazine, named Killeen its “Freedom Fighter of the Month” in June 1996. But she didn’t smoke pot herself, claiming she tried it once (and inhaled) in the 1970s and it gave her a headache. The Hemp Lady mostly pushed the medical and environmental benefits of marijuana, claiming that “an acre of hemp produces the oxygen equivalent of four acres of most other plants.”
Killeen was officially on the New Hampshire primary ballot five times — 1976, 1992, 1996, 2004, and 2008 — and claimed to be running as a write-in candidate in the elections in between. Her vote totals ranged from 11 in 2008 to 393 in 1996. Killeen’s political high-water mark came in 1982, when she lived in Arizona. She received nearly 27,000 votes in a Democratic primary bid to unseat US Senator Dennis DeConcini — however, she still lost 83 percent to 16 percent.
Before embracing hemp, she staged numerous long-distance bicycle rides over the years for political and environmental causes, urging onlookers to “Killeen Up The Earth.” In 1968, she rode from Pennsylvania to Florida to promote Bobby Kennedy’s ill-fated run for president. In 1973, she rode from Florida to the White House with an “Impeach Nixon” sign on her handlebars, having also protested Nixon in 1970 for his “lack of commitment” to the bicycle as a way to reduce air pollution. One of her 1976 bike campaign signs asked voters to “Trade In Ford.”
During multiple elections, Killeen gave away pieces of clothesline (“solar dryers”) and talked about energy savings from hanging your clothes out in the sun versus using electric appliances. One of those “solar dryers” is now in a filing cabinet at the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office, preserved as political memorabilia instead of living out its destiny holding wet laundry.
Although Killeen had a rambling speaking style (just watch a forum at Saint Anselm College for “lesser-known candidates” for a sample), she had an amazing talent for rebranding herself and giving reporters something fresh to write about each election. When we walked past Steve Forbes headquarters in Manchester, she compared herself to Little Orphan Annie (Killeen was adopted, too) and Forbes to Daddy Warbucks. In 1988, she sold packets of vegetable seeds to fund her write-in campaign, pitching herself as the new Johnny Appleseed. Her 1992 slogan was “America Needs More Trees, Not Bushes.”
A political junkie at heart, Killeen always looked forward to the next election. She became pen pals with Karen Ladd, New Hampshire’s assistant secretary of state, and exchanged letters from the late 1990s until late 2012. Ladd saved each piece of correspondence and graciously copied her archive for me.
“Caroline never forgot my birthday,” Ladd recalls. “And sometimes she’d even call. She’d always give people in our office something to talk about.”
In late 2010, the former nun moved to Assisi, Italy, where she could pay tribute to St. Francis of Assisi, one of her original inspirations for devoting her life to the Catholic Church. She started signing her name as “Caroline of Assisi” and occasionally shared prayers and deep personal thoughts.
“This aging process is new for me. I was always able to be ahead of the game,” she wrote. “Rather than dwell on its ability to sap one’s reserves, I tend to stay involved — not sit and wait for Sister Death.”
Killeen died in Italy last December, 19 days before what would have been her 89th birthday. Before she left the United States, she had one last political fight — with public housing authorities in Scranton, Pa., over her right to inhale inside her home.
Ironically, that battle was about regular tobacco smoke, not marijuana.
Watch a clip of the documentary: