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.

White Bronze Markers in Union Cemetery

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

Most of the grave markers in Union Cemetery are made of marble or granite, however scattered throughout the cemetery grounds are distinct bluish grey monuments.  Although referred to as white bronze, the monuments were made of a refined zinc which was referred to as white bronze to distinguish it from dark or antique bronze.  Manufactured the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut beginning in 1875, the stones were at their most popular in the 1880s and 1890s.

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Maker’s mark from the White Bronze Company of St. Thomas, Ontario as seen on the “Beath” monument in Section A, Union Cemetery, Oshawa Ontario.

An 1885 issue of Scientific American detailed the manufacturing process of the white bronze monuments.  Initially designs were modeled in clay and reproduced in plaster of Paris from which a cast is taken. This procured a perfect metal pattern from which the monument was moulded and cast in ordinary way. The different parts of the monument were joined together by pouring molten metal of the same material as the castings. Finally the monument was given a sand blast which gave it its beautiful appearance and, according to the manufacturer, much better than copper bronze which becomes black once exposed to the elements.

Although the white bronze monuments were all manufactured in Bridgeport, Ct., the final assembly work was done at subsidiary plants in the United States and in Canada at the White Bronze Company of St. Thomas (Ontario).  Monuments could be ordered through sales agents or catalogues and came in sizes ranging from a few inches to almost 15 feet in height. Embellishments such as flowers, crosses, name plates, figures and symbols could be added to personalize the monument at no cost. A monument could be purchased relatively inexpensively with prices ranging from a few dollars upwards of $5,000.

The White Bronze Company advertised their monuments were almost indestructible due to their composition and were impervious to the ravages of frost, moss, and lichen and would not change colour. The raised lettering remained legible and the removal tablets made customization easy. Scientific American proclaimed the refined zinc was “so well adapted to monumental purposes that it will ultimately supersede all other materials.” Of course these claims elicited strong opposition from the marble and granite dealers and carvers who claimed the bronze monuments would not hold up to the ravages of climate and in fact looked like cheap imitations of stone. Some cemeteries even banned monuments not made of stone due to pressure from the stone industry.

True to their claims, the white bronze monuments are a researcher’s friend as they have legible lettering and have held up well to the elements.

By 1914 metal had become too valuable a commodity due to the war and the White Bronze Monument Company ceased production of monuments, although they still produced name plates and embellishments for many years after.

In Union Cemetery there are 13 white bronze monuments as well as 5 smaller flat laying footstones.

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Left: Mallory gravestone in Union Cemetery featuring “Young St.John” with lambs. According to the Monumental Bronze Company catalogue the statute of St. John sold for $75 and the base was $215 or approximately $6,700 in 2018. Right: Statute of “Young St. John” as seen in Monumental Bronze catalogue 1882.

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The grand Phillips gravestone today faces busy King St. West and is a commanding presence. The shaft of the stone stands over three metres tall and is graced by “Hope” which stands over a metre tall. The four removal tablets are adorned with “Faith” (seen above ‘Phillips,’ on left), “Suffer the Children” (top right), a “Golden Sheaf” of wheat and information on the deceased (bottom right) The entire gravestone most likely cost $410 (over $9,000 today).

Stayed tune for our exciting new Union Cemetery tour featuring the white bronze monuments coming next summer!


All photos by the Oshawa Museum.

The Monumental Bronze Company catalogue is available from the Smithsonian Libraries https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/whitebronzemonu00monu

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