Sister Act: The story of Clarissa and Sarah Terwilliger

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

In almost every town there are those people who are known by their behaviours or actions as eccentrics.  In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters were certainly regarded as somewhat unusual, and maybe even eccentric.

For much of its history, Oshawa, Ontario, has been known as an industrial hub and was often referred to as, “the Manchester (England) of Canada.”  However there was a time during the 1840s when the town gained notoriety as one of the centres for the Millerite craze.  During the winter of 1842-1843 many people were captivated by the teachings of William Miller, an American farmer and evangelist, who preached that the Second Advent of Christ would occur shortly.  His followers believed Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom, and the world would be destroyed by fire.  Stories of Oshawa farmers giving away all their livestock and farm implements were locally reported.  One of the most interesting stories connected with this period concerns the Terwilliger sisters, Sarah and her older sister Clarissa.

Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of local farmer Abraham Terwilliger.  They lived in a beautiful brick mansion on the main road in the east end of town.  Their family was among the earliest settlers in the area, arriving from New York State in about the year 1816.  The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in the Oshawa area for hosting free séances at their father’s home.  Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Pedlar attended one such séance with a party of unbelievers and noted, “that while some (of the party) may have been impressed with startling noises and rappings, others could see nothing in them but something to excite a subdued merriment.”[1]

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An artist’s rendition, ES Shrapnel, of Sarah Terwilliger flying from the porch.  It comes from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant, published in Toronto in 1898 by William Briggs.

Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on February 14, 1843, the evening before the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch with the expectation of departing this world ahead of the fire and flying to heaven.  Thomas Conant, in his 1898 book Upper Canada Sketches, gives an account of what reportedly happened next:

…falling to the ground some fifteen feet she was shaken up severely and rendered wholly unfit to attend at all to the fires that were expected…  The wings were made of silk.  Though in the picture, they appear to do their work, they did not prevent the wearer falling to the ground about fifteen feet, and suffering the result in a broken leg.[2]

The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.

Unfortunately, other than this story of blind faith, the historical record does not tell us much more about the Terwilliger sisters.  While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Oshawa’s Union Cemetery.  Often overshadowed by her “flying” sister, I was determined to find out more about Clarissa in order to shed some light on her story.  I always felt sorry for Clarissa, partially because of the family’s notoriety even 175 years later and partly because I believe no one’s story should be lost to history.  After much research, I found Clarissa’s gravestone in the South Presbyterian section of the cemetery, located near one of the old access roads.  The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by graceful scrolling to the shoulders.  A floral wreath enclosing a delicate carving of clasping hands adorns the upper part of the memorial.  A few flowers additionally grace the side of the stone.  The stone reads, “In Memory of Clara Terry, Died.”  All in all, it is a fairly typical gravestone of the time, except for two things: the lack of any other information, including a death date (even though there is a spot for one) and the phrase at the bottom of the stone which reads “Erected by Clara Terry.”  Why would someone go to the trouble to make sure everyone knew that she erected her own gravestone?  Perhaps more research would shed some light on the mystery.  It was back to the archives I went to uncover more information.

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Clara Terry headstone in Union Cemetery. Photo by Melissa Cole.

Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869.  Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married the much younger (by as much as 10 years), John Terry, a medicine peddler and farmer of East Whitby. In the 1871 Census of Canada, Clarissa and John lived in East Whitby Township with a young woman (possibly household help) named Harriet Young, then 23 years old.  Sadly, John and Clarissa’s union appears to have ended; by the 1881 census, John Terry is living only with Harriet, and they have a six-month-old boy named Frederick.  Clarissa is still listed as living in East Whitby, but she appears to have moved closer to her parents, Abraham and Alma Terwilliger.  I’ve often wondered if the end of Clarissa’s marriage prompted her to place the inscription about who was responsible for her gravestone, almost as if she was declaring her independence for all eternity.  Unfortunately, unless new information is unearthed, we will probably never know.  We do know that in 1891, Clarissa is living with Chauncy Terwilliger, likely a relative.  The 1901 census lists her as boarding with Alfreda Chatterson.

Clarissa passed away in Oshawa on July 17, 1905 — which begins the second mystery. Although her gravestone is present in Union Cemetery, official cemetery records show Clarissa is not actually buried there.  No birth or death dates are listed on the stone.  It can be surmised that, for whatever reason, Clarissa was buried in a still-unknown location.  She may have ultimately been laid to rest in another local cemetery with her parents.

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Headstone detail – “Erected by Clara Terry.” Photo by Melissa Cole.

Hopefully, this is not the end of Clarissa’s story.  It’s unfortunate that even 175 years after her sister jumped from the porch in a religious frenzy, the Terwilliger sisters are still associated with this eccentric act.  I think it is important to separate Clarissa, the daughter, sister, wife, and friend, from the story of one of Oshawa’s most notorious episodes.  Her gravestone with the “Erected by Clara Terry” inscription is a reminder that she did not always conform to Victorian society’s expectations of women and did things her own way.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly in Spring 2017


References:

[1] Samuel Pedlar, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum; digitally available through the Oshawa Public Library.

[2] Thomas Conant, Upper Canada Sketches, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1898), 92; digitally available through archive.org.

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