Sister Mary Ellen Elkins
Mary Ellen Elkins, Shaker schoolteacher, was born January 28, 1852, in Andover, New Hampshire, the daughter of Josiah R. and Almira (Simonds) Elkins.
Mary Ellen Elkins’ life began and ended tragically, but for many years she was a gifted and valued contributing member of the Enfield Shaker community.
Tragedy struck her family when she was an infant. In August 1852, her father Josiah Elkins was killed in a railroad accident in Boscawen, New Hampshire. His young wife, Almira, suddenly a widow, was financially and emotionally responsible for herself and four young children. Her brother-in-law, James Hervey Elkins, had been a member of the Enfield, New Hampshire Shakers, living in the Church Family for about 15 years, but had left the community in 1852. At his suggestion, in 1853 she brought her young family to live with the Enfield Shakers. Jasper (age 7), Odillon (age 5), Almira, Jr. (age 4), and Mary Ellen (age 2) were all taken into the Church Family and grew to maturity there. Almira died in 1859. Jasper left the community at the age of 19. Odillon left and later returned, while Almira, Jr. and Mary Ellen remained.
In the 1870 Census, 18-year-old Mary Ellen was listed as a weaver, though her intellect and love of learning drew her to the classroom. Following her student days, she served as a classroom assistant and in 1880 was appointed headteacher of Shaker girls. In 1881 she was also named their caretaker, replacing Sister Ella Briggs.
She contributed an article to the October 1882 issue of the Shaker Manifesto on the subject of obedience entitled, “The Story of Gideon” (pp. 222-223) which she had written for and read before the Bible class.
Elkins’ school curriculum included reading, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, geography, grammar, history, algebra, physiology, composition, vocal music, and drawing. In 1882 it was also noted that “her class in anatomy excelled all others in town.” Each year her exceptional teaching abilities were extolled in published town school reports: “1883, District No 13. Mary Ellen Elkins taught the summer term. This teacher’s intellectual capacity, her perfect familiarity with the subjects she teaches and her accurate method of presenting them, place her among the leading instructors of the town. Every branch, from the primary to the higher was correctly taught. The pupils understood their duty and discharged it in an intelligent manner. This school will class No. 1.”
That same year Sister Fannie Fallon became Mary Ellen’s teaching assistant. Her mentoring ensured that Fannie would be well prepared to become headteacher when Mary Ellen could no longer fulfill that role.
The first mention of Mary Ellen’s mental distress came in 1887, when it was noted that she had been taken to Canterbury for “a period of rest and change.” Then in 1889, she went to Concord “for treatment.” She was attended by a Dr. Bancroft who reported: “Miss Elkins is doing quite nicely and tho’ she presents some peculiarities, she seems to be very comfortable and apparently is not much discontented. I do not think that she recognizes the necessity of her coming here, not being able to understand that her mind was unbalanced.” (Letter, the Galen Beale Collection.)
On her return to Enfield, Mary Ellen was moved from the Church to the North Family. There she was well cared for until 1895. On April 26th of that year it was recorded, “Our insane sister Mary Ellen Elkins is placed at Haverhill for a time, for a change and rest, both for herself, and those who care for her.” When her nephew, Wendell Elkins, tried to visit her there at the Grafton County Alms House, he found the conditions unspeakably dreadful; he returned home without seeing her. Mary Ellen never did live in the Enfield Shaker community again. Mary Ellen remained at the Grafton County Alms House for six years, until her death.
Mary Ellen Elkins died on March 25, 1901, in Haverhill, New Hampshire, Her body was at last returned to her Shaker family for burial in the Church Family cemetery in Enfield, New Hampshire.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen