Mary Jane Thurston Carte de Visite
Sister Mary Jane Thurson
Carte de Visite
C. E. Lewis, Photographer, Lebanon, NH, ca. 1880
Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA.

Sister Mary Jane Thurston

Mary Jane Thurston, Shaker nurse, eldress, and trustee was born in January 23, 1828, in Lebanon, New Hampshire, the daughter of Stephen and Mary (Mead) Thurston.

Mary Jane Thurston was one of several Thurston children raised by the Shakers at Enfield, New Hampshire. At various times in the 1830’s, her father was a resident of the North Family and was probably responsible for bringing his children into the society. His daughter Louisa was formally admitted to the Second Family in 1831 and George on March 29, 1832.

Mary Jane was likely first brought to Enfield in 1830 as a two year old child. An entry on June 2, 1832, however, states, “Mary Jane Thurston hurried away by her father.” In 1833, both she and a sister Fanny T. were formally admitted at the Second Family. According to Henry Blinn’s history of the Enfield Shakers, their father left the Society in 1837.

Until 1845 the only Shaker school house was located at the Church Family, so that is almost certainly where Mary Jane and her siblings received their formal education. Except when attending school, their life remained centered at the Second Family.

On January 18, 1853, Mary Jane Thurston, George Thurston, and Eldress Lucinda Hartford traveled to Canterbury Shaker Village where Jane was to have an extended stay “on account of ill health.” After three months she was judged well enough to return to Enfield and she was appointed an assistant at the Second Family Trustees Office. Within five months, however, her intensifying suffering from dropsy, or an edema of the bowel, made it impossible for her to continue working.

“December 16, 1853, Another young sister, Jane Thurstin,(sic) confined with dropsy. Case doubtful. She has been tapped and water discharged from one sack, in the bowels to the amount of nine or ten quarts or nineteen and half pounds. There is another sack of water perhaps as large, which has not been disturbed. It is expected she will undergo another operation for the purpose of removing these sacks entirely. Jane is anxious to have the operation performed, willing to forego consequences. She may die in the operation and she may survive it. She certainly cannot live long as she now is, as she appears to be filling up and can neither sit up or really lie down, her posture being a kind of half inclined one. Her general health is otherwise good.”

In fact, Mary Jane faced not an additional operation but multiple ones. Between May 17, 1854 and February 11, 1855 she underwent nine procedures to remove a total of 646 pounds of fluid from her body. On February 14, 1855, an eighteen pound tumor was removed through an eleven inch incision. Five doctors “from the world” were present for the surgery. Her attendants were her Shaker sisters, “Eldress Nancy Allard, Rebecca Robinson and Cynthia Annis, who was a nurse.” Miraculously, “this good young sister” survived the many medical interventions needed, and slowly began to recover.

Mary Jane was not appointed to an office of care at the Second Family until 1858 when she became an assistant nurse to Cynthia Annis. By 1862, she was able to assume the responsibilities of associate eldress, and in 1870 she replaced Eldress Hannah Taylor as the Second Family’s senior eldress. In 1874, she added to her spiritual duties those of senior trustee for the sisters.

In 1878, ill health again became a defining factor in Mary Jane’s life. With no one in the family able to fill her place, Canterbury’s Eldress Eliza Stratton was called on for help. She came “to the Second Family, Enfield N. H. to assume Eldress duties in place of Eldress Mary Jane and Charlotte Hart who are both seriously ill.” Mary Jane was moved to Enfield’s Church Family to regain her strength. Being skilled as both a tailoress and weaver it is likely that she used her time and what strength she had to work in that family’s textile industries.

When Mary Jane was able to return to the Second Family in 1885, she took up her duties as first trustee at the Trustee’s Office on the sisters’ side. On March 11, 1886, an important communication was received from Mt. Lebanon. “Family informed that from this date the sisters are to be recognized as Trustees, as well as the brethren…. Trustees at the South Family are Mary Jane Thurston, Eldress Melinda Hubbard.”

Whatever the impact of this change in status, Mary Jane had little time to experience its effects. On May 6, 1887, the Enfield Advocate reported, “Eldress Mary Jane Thurston of the South Family Shakers lies at the point of death, and in all probability will pass away before this is published.”

Mary Jane Thurston died on May 5, 1887 in Enfield, New Hampshire, at age 59. She is buried in the Second Family Cemetery in Enfield.

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen