Friday, January 17, 2014

Nancy Luce the Chicken Lady of Martha's Vineyard

This tombstone was photographed at the cemetery in West Tisbury, Massachusetts,
on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

Apr. 3, 1880
Aged 73

The story of Nancy Luce is sad and depressing.  She was considered an oddity during her lifetime, and now in death gawkers gather at her strange gravesite.   On the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where she spent her life, she is known as “The Chicken Lady”. 

Nancy Luce was born in 1814, to a family of means, the daughter of Phillip Luce and Anna Manter.  She came down with some sort of illness as a young woman, and the disabilities lasted the rest of her life.  Some think she may have been an early sufferer of Lyme disease.  Her parents died at about this time, and neighbors tried to steal her property.   She won her rights but it left a bitter taste with the islanders, who hated her.  She lived alone, lonely and in poverty for the rest of her days.

For companionship she had her chickens.  She spent all her money on their care, and her egg money on their elaborate burials.  Each chicken had a casket and granite tombstone.  They had odd names like Toona, Otte Opheto and Tweedle Dedel Bebbe Pinky.   People thought she was crazy.  She wrote little books about her chickens to help pay for the taxes and expenses.   Curiousity seekers and tourists took her photographs and made postcards of her, but she didn’t receive any income from the photos.

She died alone in her house on 9 April 1890.  No one discovered her body for several days.   Her farm was sold and the tombstones for her chickens became doorsteps.  She had a decent burial, and even today her fans decorate her grave with chicken dolls, statues and glass eggs. 

The Dukes County Historical Society in Edgartown now has two of Nancy’s chicken tombstones.  Here is a sample epitaph:

Poor little Ada Queetie has departed this life,
Never to be here no more,
No more to love, no more to speak,
No more to be my firend.
O how I long to see her with me alive and well,
Her heart and mine was united,
Love and feelings deeply rooted for each other,
She and I could never part,
I am left broken hearted…

For the truly curious:

A biography of Nancy Luce,  Consider Poor I:  The Life and Works of Nancy Luce, by Walter Magnes Teller, 1984

Click here to read a sample of Nancy Luce’s 1871 writing about chickens

Nancy Luce’s papers are now at the Brown University Library.  Walter Magnes Teller used them to write his biography of Luce.  They can be accessed at the Hay Annex, call numbers Ms. LUCE Box 1 and Box 2. 

A Complete Edition of the Works of Nancy Luce, by Nancy Luce can be read online at this link:


Generation 1:  Henry Luce, born 1644 and died May 1687/88 in Tisbury; married about 1666 to Remember Litchfield, daughter of Lawrence Litchfield and Judith Dennis.

Generation 2:  Thomas Luce, born about 1679 in West Tisbury, died 1 April 1727 in Tisbury; married about 1707 to Hannah Butler, daughter of Thomas Butler and Jemima Daggett. Thomas Butler is my 9th great grand uncle, and I descend from his brother John Butler (1625 - 1658)

Generation 3: Malatiah Luce, born 1710 in Tisbury, died 3 May 1801 in Nauvoo, Illinois; married Eleanor Harlow

Generation 4:  Thomas Luce, born 1743 in Holmes Hole, Tisbury, Massachusetts and died about 1810 in Tisbury; married on 29 June 1769 in Holmes Hole, Tisbury to Hulda Butler, daughter of Shubael Butler and Hepsibah Daggett.  She was born about 1747 in Edgartown.  Shubael Butler is the son of Zephaniah Butler, my 8th great grand uncle.  I descend from Zephaniah's brother, John (see above).

Generation 5:  Phillip Luce, born 11 December 1771 and died 1 May 1847; married on 14 March 1811 in West Tisbury to Ann Manter, daughter of George Manter and Sarah Athearn.  She was born 28 July 1778 in Tisbury, and died 14 June 1851 in Holmes Hole, Tisbury.

Generation 6:  Nancy Luce, born 23 August 1814 in Tiah's Cove, West Tisbury and died 9 April 1890 in West Tisbury.  


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Nancy Luce the Chicken Lady of Martha's Vineyard", Nutfield Genealogy, posted January 17, 2014, ( accessed [access date]). 


  1. How interesting! Thank you for posting this story.

  2. Nice post! Interesting and you are right lots of eccentric things on the island....Will send this the Luce family :)

  3. Oops, I'm sorry I called you Janice in my previous comment. Trying to do too many things at once. I really enjoyed your post and all the added information. I feel so bad for Nancy.