No one never can replace my poor little dears live and well,
No one never can be company for me again,
No one never can I have such a heart aching feeling for again,
No one never can I set so much by again, as I did by them…
-“Poor Little Hearts,” drafted by Nancy Luce in 1859
As I ride the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, I watch the island form from a matte purple haze. Underneath this atmosphere, an overcoat of silvery water constantly shifts and trembles. Their gestures are cobwebbed like the scales of a fish, or impressed fingerprints, or the hay meadows of Nancy’s land. Watching the wave’s intricate movement, I think of how many routines contribute to a life as a whole. I think of how many days Nancy spent with her hens, singing to them, scooping her mighty hands into barrels of southern corn, giving them the comfort she so longingly desired herself.
-An excerpt from Poor Little Hearts
My forthcoming biography of Nancy Luce, titled Poor Little Hearts, uncovers the life and writings of Martha’s Vineyard’s chicken lady. Despite her local legend, her image today is misrepresented, and a remarkable narrative of determination and faith has been buried in the 125 years since her death. My creative nonfiction book is based on site specific and archival research to show how a lonely, ailing woman became a recognized celebrity of her time. Her story was reprinted in newspapers across the country, thousands of tourists visited her, and a group of donors from across the world helped Nancy build one of the greatest and unique avian structures inside her home.
Even in the most dire circumstances,
Nancy remained true to her literary
and artistic voice.
Nancy Luce lived in West Tisbury, then known as the village of New Town, from 1814-1890. At age 26, she became seriously ill, turned away from society, and remained house-ridden for the rest of her life. Although frail and destitute, she looked past the criticisms of her aberrant lifestyle and instead wrote compassionately about her pet chickens. Nancy’s most famous poem, “Poor Little Hearts,” was written after the deaths of her favorite hens, Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna. She remained unmarried, self-reliant, and inventive, as she self-published her poetry and sold her booklets and photographs to tourists.
As I am writing the biography, I realize that every piece of evidence that I discover about Nancy confirms my idea that she was a resilient individual and not simply a farcical hermit. She created a sellable identity with hundreds of tourists that visited her homestead, purchasing her hen poems and photographs. However, fame or independence would never alleviate her sufferings from an undiagnosed illness or her exclusion from society.
Chickens were Nancy’s emotional pillar during her life of poverty, sickness, and seclusion. Her tribute to her hens was commissioning two gravestones for them after their passing. The letters on one headstone read Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna, along with their time of death, age, and a stanza of poetry. The second, stouter gravestone is dedicated to Nancy’s final chicken companion, T. T. Pinky. Nancy’s final wish was to buried beside her companions at her homestead, however the executor of her estate decided against the plan. Everyday admirers of Nancy Luce leave behind chicken tokens of appreciation at her graveside located at the West Tisbury Village Cemetery.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum recently displayed her hen headstones, manuscripts, and correspondence from their special collections in an exhibit. There is also a very useful biography published in 1984, Consider Poor I: The Life and Works of Nancy Luce by Walter Teller, that frameworks important events in Nancy’s life. Upon new discoveries made during my research of the chicken poet, I believe that my book will respond to previously unanswerable questions about “The Madonna of Hens.”