Nancy Luce – Pet Chicken Folk Hero April 8, 2016

Nancy Luce may be the most important pet chicken lover you’ve never heard of–called “The Madonna of the Hens.”  She lived and died in the West Tisbury area of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1800s—and she adored her pet chickens, which were a solace in her hard, troubled life. She loved them so much, in fact, that she wrote books of poetry about them, which she sold to tourists who visited the island. She also commissioned photos of herself with her beloved birds, and peddled those to visitors, as well.

Nancy Luce holding two chickens, photo in the public domain

Nancy Luce with two chickens. Photo courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

The Life and Death of Nancy Luce

Nancy Luce lived a rather solitary—even a lonely—life. Born in 1814, she was an only child of a farming family at a time when it was common for agricultural families to rely on their many children to help run the farm. When her parents grew ill, Nancy found herself in charge of the entire, struggling farm, as well as being the caretaker for her ailing parents.  As Nancy grew older and her parents sicker, the task of caring for the family fell completely to her. Her parents, she explained in her writings, had many complaints and “lose their reason dreadful fast.” She took comfort in her flock of pet chickens. She seems to have suffered from depression most of her life, and surely the weight of all that responsibility on her shoulders didn’t help. However, she managed well selling groceries and dry-goods… until about 1840, when she grew ill herself. After that, she struggled terribly.

Even so, she found outlets for her creative spirit through care for her pet chickens, painting, and writing.”I think it is best for me to try to make a few pictures  if I can to take up my mind so that the medicines have a chance to help if possible…” Nancy Luce wrote to her supplier. “[S]end me a box of water colors & charge to me one that has gay colors in it bright yellow and light yellow and orange and light red & other gay colors & a brush or two if you have them & if you havnt any brushes send me the box if you are willing,” she requested, also pleading to keep the special package for herself secret.

While her paintings no longer exist, the books she created were illuminated with lovely block lettering and a beautiful hand.

Nancy Luce page

Nancy’s handwriting, a page from one of her books.

We can’t know for sure what she suffered from, but some contemporaries referred to her own illness as neurasthenia, which was essentially a catch-all description nervous disorder that we might refer to now as chronic fatigue syndrome. Neurasthenia was blamed upon the pressures of modern life and an overly active mind… and surely few people had as many pressures as Nancy Luce did.

It’s possible also that she suffered from lupus, or  multiple sclerosis, both chronic conditions which would have accounted for the migraines, digestive issues, depression, pain, cold sensitivity, and difficulty in getting about… as well as the intermittent nature of her illness. Nancy Luce wrote about the sporadic suffering in 1845: “Some of these years that I undergo the most, then I cannot do the leastest morsel to a picture, nor write not any, I undergo so much, & some part of the year, when I feel a little better, then there is only some days, & some part of the day, that I can do a little picture, or write a little…”

In her community, Nancy Luce was ostracized and mocked. The fact that she was in trade was seen as unusual for a woman… and the way she doted over her animals was certainly an eccentricity and a sign of a disturbed mind. In Consider Poor I, Walter Teller wrote that she was derided as “sick and strange” and that some described her as having a “raggedy and half-starved” appearance. She may well have been actually half-starved. Her symptoms included nausea, and an inability at times to have anything more than milk pass her lips.

After her father’s death, two neighbors petitioned to have a guardian appointed for Nancy because of “insanity and imbecility.” Her doctor and some of her relations successfully opposed this, thankfully, and she was permitted to continue managing her own affairs. But surely this left her feeling even more as if she was surrounded by enemies, and alone, with only herself to rely upon.

Nancy Luce eventually died in April of 1890. She had been living alone with just her hens and cows, so when she fell on a Saturday, she laid unable to get up for several days before anyone came to check on her. One hopes her little hens found their way to keep her company—and perhaps keep her warm–until she was discovered. April on Martha’s Vineyard routinely drops into the 30s overnight, and Nancy would have suffered terribly from the cold due to her illness.

Although she was found alive on Monday, Nancy declined into unconsciousness and died that Wednesday, April 9, 1890. Artist Dan Waters created this touching illustration of Nancy Luce several years ago:

Dan Waters illustration of Nancy Luce

Illustration by Dan Waters, Indian Hill Press.

The Pet Chickens of Nancy Luce

This hard life is the backdrop against which we must see Nancy Luce’s love of her pet chickens–chickens which she gave whimsical names like Ada Queetie,  Beauty Linna, Lily Laly, Phebea Peadeo, and Lebootie Ticktuzy. She recorded her chicken names—40 of them in all—in her first book, Poor Little Hearts, excerpts of which are available in the book Consider Poor I, available for purchase from Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Nancy’s poetry, which she sold for her living along with the photos she commissioned, chiefly concerned her pet chickens, her own suffering, and her sorrow at the deaths of her beloved pets.  Her heart, she wrote, was “consumed” by the death of one hen, Ada Queetie.

She had more than common love

And more than common wit

Her heart was full of love for me

Now every time I compose a few lines, I have a weeping spell.

But not all of the verses are maudlin and sorrowful. In fact, when it comes to writing about her pets, much was touching and funny–and certainly familiar to today’s pet chicken keepers. Some of the tales she tells about her hens are the sorts of tales we hear about nearly every day here at My Pet Chicken:

When I used to go out of the room

And left them both together, and come in again

They would speak to me, they was so glad I came in again,

And if I was gone too long, they would both call me

To come to them.

Another of her anecdotes reminds me of my hen Hildy… Nancy Luce’s hens were spoiled enough that they wouldn’t eat treats if they fell off the plate onto the floor, she wrote, explaining “They must have their cake out of my hand or plate.”  Chicken lovers will understand the endearing and persnickety demands of a spoiled pet hen.

The hens of Nancy Luce were her friends, when she had few others.

Nancy Luce dressed in checks, photo in the public domain

Nancy Luce holding one of her pet hens.

Called “strange” by her neighbors,  she was bullied ruthlessly at times. Groups of young boys would even gather together outside her house to bang pots and pans and make a racket because they knew it disturbed her nerves. But when it came to her hens…

When I used to say pretty babes

They would both run to me at a dreadful swift rate,

When I used to say make haste, or come here,

They both did it quick

Is it any wonder poor Nancy Luce valued the companionship of her hens over that of humans? She felt herself friendless in human society (save for her doctor), but wrote many times that her hens had compassion for her when she was poorly, staying by her side and chatting with their little sounds. She could not understand why people were opposed to her compassion and regard for the creatures in her care.

Some folks against my keeping hens, & against my feeding them, & against my keeping them warm, they don’t care how much poor hens suffer with hunger and cold, stop my having eggs to help myself with. I cannot live without hens.

Not feeding or providing chickens with shelter sounds especially cruel to modern ears, but truthfully Nancy Luce was far ahead of her time. In her day, it was fairly common to keep chickens without even a coop. The bantams would roost in the trees as they could, without cover. There was no commercial feed until 1910, which was two decades after Nancy’s death. So most chickens would have lived off what they could forage buoyed by the occasional kitchen scrap or tossed scratch or grain. At that time, Nancy Luce was caring for her hens in the same thoughtful ways pet chicken lovers do today. She was giving her hens shelter to keep them warm, making sure they were fed well, providing them with calcium supplements for laying, and cooking for them as we often do, with warm porridge on a cold day, or even little cakes. (In fact, our book My Pet Chicken Handbook contains a collection of recipes for hens, in addition to egg recipes for people.) It certainly must have been odd to her contemporaries. She may as well have been instructing them to allow squirrels to nest in the kitchen cabinets.

But Nancy Luce cared so much about her hens that she even wrote to the editor of her local paper, explaining how much better hens will produce eggs if treated well.  And she recommended care then that was fairly revolutionary for the time: offering oyster shells, keeping clean water and food, taking the chill off water in the winter time, cooking them porridge, making sure they had good shelter—and that sunlight was available in the shelter, and so on. Nancy Luce reported that with these innovations, her hens beginning to lay as early as 4 months, and producing an amazing quantity of eggs for chickens of that era, more than twice as many as usual.

“Be good to your hens, not cruel,” Nancy Luce pleaded.

What will also be familiar to chicken lovers–as well as to the Facebook friends of chicken lovers, let’s admit it–is that the doted over pet hens learned to communicate back to Nancy Luce. It wasn’t just a matter of their learning to respond to Nancy when she called. They also learned how to “speak” back to her. Her pet hens would ask her for things, and had the ability to make their desires known.

For example, if they wanted fresh water, they would “pick on the lower button of the door.” This is a story we hear over and over here at My Pet Chicken from our customers: pet chickens come and knock at the kitchen door for treats! And Nancy Luce also shared other tales of communion between her and her favorite two little hens:

When they used to see some flies up on the window

They would stand side by side, and look at me, and call me,

To help them to them flies.

That brings to mind my hens who “help” me garden by waiting patiently beside me when I work, because they have learned they’ll be tossed the occasional cutworm or unearthed grub. Nancy Luce knew then what science has proved over and over: chickens are startlingly smart. One expert characterizes chickens as “smarter than toddlers“—chickens can count to five—and possessing “many hidden depths.” And it’s true… people who keep pet chickens are often startled at just how smart and affectionate their chickens are, seemingly regardless of breed. This is something Nancy Luce discovered many years ago: the affection and intelligence of hens.

History records that Nancy Luce kept bantams. The breed/s she kept has not been noted—the APA didn’t begin standardizing breeds until 1873—but based on existing photos of her hens as well as what types of chickens would have been available at the time, her little birds most likely would have been either game bantams of some sort, (first described in 1850), or Nankin bantams, which have been around for time out of mind. Another early type appearing in the US, Pekin bantams—similar to today’s Cochin bantams—didn’t appear here until about 1860, and from the photos, none of Nancy’s hens appear to have possessed the feathered legs that would identify them as Pekins.

Nancy loved her little feathered friends so much that she had tombstones made for them when they died.

nancy luce - chicken tombstone

One of the tombstones Nancy commissioned for her pet chickens (Photo by Wayne Smith, used with permission from Martha’s Vineyard Museum)

Nancy herself was eventually buried in West Tisbury, out of concern that if she was buried on her farm, her grave would be disturbed if her land fell into the hands of callous people.

Nancy Luce today

Tomorrow will be 126 years since Nancy Luce died. Let’s all–all of us modern chicken lovers–take a few moments today or tomorrow to remember Nancy Luce as a pioneer, a patron saint of pet chickens. Nancy Luce provided humane care for her hens before anyone really understood why “lowly” chickens should be fed and sheltered.

We’re giving away a copy of our book, My Pet Chicken Handbook, along with a package of chicken Party Mix (a treat for your chickens) to one commenter, who will be randomly chosen April 22, 2016. The chicken names Nancy Luce created are so quirky and sweet; we’d love to see a revival of names  like Ada Queetie (or even just “Nancy”) in remembrance of pet chicken folk hero Nancy Luce.

To enter:

  • You must reside in the US.
  • One entry per person.
  • Comment here on this blog post with your vow to name a hen in remembrance of Nancy Luce.
  • Let us know in your comment what name you chose and why!
  • Entry period ends April 21, 2016 at midnight EST.
  • The winner will be notified by email, and must respond within seven days (or another winner will be chosen).



Pat Rivera April 8th, 2016

I vow to name my next henTweedle Dedel Bebbe Pinky in honor of Nancy Luce.

tj April 8th, 2016

…I remember seeing something on Pinterest regarding Miss Luce, such a wonderful and yet sad story. :’o/

…I, here today, vow to name a future hen in honor of Nancy Luce and I love the name, “Lebootie Ticktuzy”. I’m thinking a future cochin hen or an orphington hen? ;o)

…Peace & blessings.

Dianne April 8th, 2016

What a sweet soul she was. I will name a hen Nancy Luce after her and also Ada after her litte Ada Queetie.

Cheryl Reese April 8th, 2016

It just so happens I have some new pullets that I’ve been trying to come up with names for a few days now. I have moved 2 Gold Laced Cochins (unnamed) and a Rhode Island White (named Ivory, as I already have Ebony) out to my grow out cage in the coop. I shall name them Nancy and Luce. In my brooder I also have a baby Light Brahma chick and a Bielefelder chick, and I shall call them Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna. How perfect…..that this great story has helped me name my new pullets!

Mahala Davis April 11th, 2016

Thank you for introducing me to Nancy Luce. I loved the old pictures.. great post 🙂

Crystal Gieck April 15th, 2016

What a lovely woman! And to think she continued to keep her beloved hens despite the mockery and bullying she suffered through in that day and age! I am starting a wee flock of silkies, and will vow to name one of my roo’s Luce in honor of Ms. Nancy Luce…pioneer of chicken care!!!

Lisa Cendejas April 26th, 2016

What an incredibly kind and caring woman. A lovely story of how chickens kept a lonely woman feel loved and needed. Animals are such sweet spirits. I’m so happy to know there were crazy chicken ladies way back when!

Mary Franta April 26th, 2016

What a wonderful story. I have come to love chickens and their quirky personalities, and am warmed that Nancy’s chickens gave her a family. We already have a Lucy in our flock, so next chicken will be Queetie Lucy! Love the name Queetie!

Leesa May 5th, 2016

What a sweet, sensitive woman… and quite intelligent as well, as evidenced by the progressive (for her time) way she tended to her special little flock. So sad that she suffered so, both physically and emotionally. I will definitely use her flock names for my own hens… saving Ada Queetie for the most special of all!

Suzanne Carlson July 7th, 2016

Great article! Two things I love, history and chickens! 🙂

Katie J. Ewing July 12th, 2016

What a heart-warming story! I have 10 chickens and I love them so much. Thanks for introduce me to a amazing woman.

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