Poor little hearts: The life and work of Nancy Luce

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Eleanor Hubbard shows off a chicken purse next to a portrait of Nancy Luce at the M.V. Museum. —Photo by Angelina Godbout

The Island is known to produce rugged individualists, but in its centuries of storied characters, none has proved more individual than Nancy Luce, born in 1814. Her parents, Philip and Anna, ran a bustling farm in the Tiah’s Cove area of West Tisbury, yet they bred only one daughter at a time when rural families whelped litters of children. Some unknown illness enfeebled the Luces, and from an early age, a strapping young Nancy ran the farm as best she could.

She was also an entrepreneur. She and neighboring farm women knit wool mittens prized by seamen due to ship out under cold skies. Over nine miles of rough road lay Edgartown, the urban center of Martha’s Vineyard. There, Nancy sold the mittens to a tradesman and he in turn, at wholesale prices, plied Nancy with such coveted items as rice, indigo, coffee, and spices, which Nancy retailed back in her home territory up Island. She performed this feat on horseback, to and fro. In her young years, she loved to ride — to gallop, in fact. These were Nancy’s happiest days, in effect her only happy days.

In 1840 when Nancy was 36, some illness — we can only wonder if it was related to her parents’ years of invalidism — knocked her sideways as well. There would be no more horseback riding. She could still milk the cow, something her father could no longer manage. Nancy found his inattention to hygiene deplorable, but the necessity to care for her sick parents, plus to struggle with the farm, made life unbearable.

Her parents died in due course, and soon afterward some of the abutting neighbors — perhaps coveting her fields — and with the help of townsfolk and selectman, filed a petition to assign a guardian to Nancy Luce on the grounds of “insanity and imbecility.” The family doctor, Willian Luce, who was kind and attentive to Nancy for the rest of her life, wrote to the presiding judge attesting to his patient’s viability as a property owner.

And now Nancy came into her own. Her great passion in life was her attachment to her chickens. Indeed she loved all animals, including her favorite cow, Susannah Allen, who lived in the back room of an admittedly rustic farmhouse, and a pet goat whose death circa 1840 may have triggered a grief so profound that Nancy’s illness spun off from that. In the excellent biography Consider Poor I, The Life And Works of Nancy Luce, first published in 1984, and recently reprinted by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, author Walter Magnes Teller suggests she may have suffered from what, a couple of decades later, a 19th century doctor George M. Beard termed “neurasthenia.”

Mr. Teller writes, “Overworked women were a commonplace of the social and cultural environment then and later… exhausted, nervous, half-crazed, women like her were legion and for the most part, silent. What distinguishes Nancy is that she spoke out in her writing.” She wrote letters on chicken care to the local papers, plaintive, self-pitying, supplicating letters to Dr. Luce, and she began to compose poems about her beloved chickens.

Oh how I long to see my poor little Beauty Linna live and well,

You know not the company she was for me.

Yes, her poetry was, frankly, mediocre, but she had excellent calligraphy, and she drew block letters with decorative flourish. Her paintings, sadly, are lost to time. Being ever the businesswoman, she cobbled together her first collection of poems, Poor Little Hearts, about her profoundly lamented deceased hens, found a publisher in New Bedford, and sold countless booklets to tourists who flocked to visit her.

How to explain the fame part of the Nancy Luce saga? Following the Civil War, the Methodist campground, with its adorable gingerbread cottages shaking their heads above tent platforms like new hydrangea blossoms, attracted huge numbers of summer visitors, essentially America’s first vacationers. On their itinerary was the day-long wagon-ride to the Gay Head Cliffs. A good half-way pit stop was the farm property of the Island’s most colorful madwoman, the one with the marble headstones for three of her dear “friends,” Ada Queetie, Beauty Linna, and Poor Tweedle Dedel.

Nancy Luce was admired (and with that admiration came a dash of pity) by many, and jeered at by rude boys who learned she hated loud noises; during the Ag Fair, they organized parties to bang pots outside her windows. But lots of people bought her little books, and later the photographs she was canny enough to commission of herself and her hens.

Her legend lives on: no one visits the Island for longer than a few days without coming across an account of her. And now the Nancy Luce story, with a great number of artifacts, has been artfully assembled at the museum on School Street in Edgartown.

The first sight one comes upon is the iconic gold-and-sepia toned photograph of Nancy, her long, sad face enveloped in a scarf, as she sits on a rocker with a chicken in each hand. A painting of her farmhouse by an unknown artist gives us a sense of where her life played itself out from birth to death, in 1890. Samples of writing in the poet’s hand are on display, as well as the exquisite marble hen headstones. Artist Caryn King contributed a Nancy Luce doll in her headscarf, her long, emaciated frame in a white work-apron and blue farm dress. If this doll could be mass-produced, the museum would sell out as quickly as Nancy Luce found takers for her poetry.

The exhibit will be on display until the end of January, 2015, every week running Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. “Consider Poor I” is on sale in the gift shop and also at Island bookstores.