Sister Act: The Story of Clarissa Terwilliger

Clara Terry

Photos of Clara Terry’s grave by Melissa Cole. Used with permission.

by Laura Suchan

I am most definitely a cemetery tourist. No matter where I travel — neighbourhood, city, or country — I want to visit a cemetery. However, of all the cemeteries I’ve visited around the world, one of my favourites is located in my hometown of Oshawa, Ontario. Although there is not much known about the history of Union Cemetery, archival research indicates that the original 19 acres served as the Presbyterian burying ground and was purchased in 1848 from Robert and Euphemia Spears by the Secession Church.

The earliest recorded burial in the cemetery is that of Alexander Armstrong, a farmer and local magistrate, interred in 1837. The southwest corner of the property was the location of a brick Presbyterian Church (built in 1837), the original Presbyterian cemetery, a manse, and a school. The church is thought to be the first non-wooden public building in Ontario County. The large building sat 500 people and was used for church and educational meetings. The Church was destroyed by fire sometime after 1863. In 1875, the cemetery came under the ownership of a holding company, which hired noted landscape architect Heinrich (Henry) Adolph Engelhardt (1830-1897) to redesign the land. One of Engelhardt’s most famous design projects was Toronto’s spectacular Mount Pleasant Cemetery in 1874, now listed as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Engelhardt believed that every town and village should have one cemetery where people of all denominations could be buried. He felt it was important for burial grounds to be removed from churches. The location for a cemetery should, according to Engelhardt, “be carefully chosen, at some distance from the turmoil and bustle of active life, yet should be always easy of access. If the site chosen possesses natural advantages, such as hills and dales, groves and creeks, so much the better, but the improvements should agree and conform to the natural features of the place.”

Union Cemetery was designed with these principles in mind. Winding laneways and large trees make for a peaceful park-like setting, bringing to mind William Blake’s line “travelers repose and dream among my leaves.” I have often done that, enjoying contemplative walks throughout the grounds. Today the large cemetery encompasses more than 30 acres, 25,000 burials, and at least as many stories.

For me personally, one of the most interesting stories is about the unconventional Terwilliger sisters, particularly eldest sister Clarissa. Every town has them: the eccentric characters that add colour and flavour to any neighbourhood. In Oshawa, the Terwilliger sisters certainly fell into that category.

Clarissa (sometimes known as Clara) and Sarah were daughters of 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, having arrived from New York State in about the year 1816. The sisters were said to be clairvoyants and became quite notorious in and around town for hosting free séances at their father’s home. Local resident and amateur historian Samuel Peddlar 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.”

In the early 1840s, the Terwilliger sisters followed the teachings of the Second Adventists, who believed that Christ would appear in person to claim his earthly kingdom. William Miller, an American evangelist, preached that the world would end in 1842 or 1843. Sarah so fervently believed in Miller’s vision that on the date of the predicted end of the world, she made herself a pair of silk wings and jumped from her father’s porch, hoping to fly to heaven. She fell 15 feet, resulting in a broken leg. The incident, as one would expect, garnered quite a lot of excitement in town.

terwilliger

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

Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about the Terwilliger sisters. While Sarah’s burial place remains unknown, Clarissa was said to be buried in Union Cemetery. I was determined to find out more about her, 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, just to the right of one of the old access roads. The upright stone features a small tympanum with a weathered carving flanked by a graceful scrolling to the shoulders. A floral wreath with clasping hands inside adorns the upper part of the memorial. A few flowers 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.” This had me thinking: 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.

Clara Terry2

Erected by Clara Terry. Photo by Melissa Cole.

Clarissa’s “attempting to fly” sister, Sarah, died about the year 1869. Shortly thereafter, Clarissa married 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. 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. Could a marriage break-up be the reason Clarissa was adamant that her stone show that she was the one who erected it? 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 in Union Cemetery, records show Clarissa is not 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.

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 sisters Terwilliger 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 the town’s eccentrics. Her gravestone is a reminder that she did not conform to society’s expectations and did things her own way. Her story is also a reminder to me that, although I may travel the globe, some of the most remarkable treasures are in my own backyard. As the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”: a suggestion from Proust that there are many discoveries waiting in my own neighbourhood.

Sources

Heinrich Engelhardt, The Beauties of Nature Combined With Art, (Montreal: Lovell, 1872)

Oshawa Museum, Union Cemetery and Terwilliger family documents

Samuel Pedlar papers, unpublished manuscript, Oshawa Museum

***

Laura photoLaura Suchan is the author of Memento Mori: Classifying Nineteenth-Century Ontario Gravestones. She enjoys sunny afternoons spent in old graveyards. In her professional life, she is the Executive Director of the Oshawa  Museum, where she has been balancing budgets and writing business plans for over 25 years.

She is a member of the Association of Gravestone Studies, the Abandoned Cemetery Committee for Clarington, Ontario, and is President of the Trent University Alumni Association for Oshawa/Durham.  Laura enjoys writing, yoga, traveling, and spending time with her two sons. Connect with her at www.laurasuchan.com or on Facebook at Early Gravemarkers https://www.facebook.com/EarlyGravemarkers/.

***

Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, as well as a space opera trilogy. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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6 Responses to Sister Act: The Story of Clarissa Terwilliger

  1. guyportman says:

    Nothing beats a cemetery Laura. I appreciate what are you are saying about the most ‘remarkable treasures’ being in ones own backyard. The Brompton Cemetery in my hometown of London is one of the best cemeteries I’ve visited. Evidently you feel the same about Union Cemetery.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. glenavailable says:

    Cemetery tourists of the world unite! That was brilliant Laura. Thanks for the great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, another great cemetery read! I like the idea of cemeteries conforming to the landscape which rarely happens around my part of the country. And I like a good mystery too, especially in my own back yard. The Terwilliger sisters were quite odd!

    Liked by 1 person

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