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Ann Arbor 200

Sophia Pierce: Columnist & Clairvoyant


Not feeling well in 1880s Ann Arbor but not quite sure what the cause is?  With your name, age, one leading symptom, and a lock of hair, Dr. N. H. (Sophia) Pierce would diagnose your ailment based on her clairvoyant skills. Don’t need a diagnosis? Simply pick up a copy of the Ann Arbor Courier and you could read her opinions, short fiction, or poetry in the paper. Unacquainted with Sophia? Well, as a resident in the 5th or 6th ward you may find her on your doorstep, coming to collect information for the census. It seems that everyone in Ann Arbor must have been familiar with Mrs. N. H. Pierce, or Dr. N. H. Pierce, or simply "Soph" as she signed some of her published musings. 

A classified newspaper ad that reads, "MAGNETIC PHYSICIAN - Mrs. N. H. Pierce can diagnose disease by letter. Send name, age, lock of hair, and one leading symptom, and receive by return mail a clairvoyant diagnosis of your disease.
Classified Ad in the Ann Arbor Register, March 8, 1888

Born Sophia Messylvia Monroe in 1828 in Watertown, New York, her family moved to Detroit in 1835 before settling in Ann Arbor three years later--just 14 years after the town’s founding. At 19 she married 27-year-old Nathan H. Pierce. The couple became fixtures of Lower Town, the area on the north side of the Huron River which was building itself up with the aim of becoming the center of the city.

Nathan was involved in civic life, at times serving as a City Marshal, Constable for the 5th Ward, and Deputy Collector for Internal Revenue. Together the couple had 5 children, three of whom survived: Ada Josephine (Pierce) Saunders born in 1848, Edward Hartley Pierce born in 1855, and Nathan Pierce III born in 1870. 

A poem entitled "Our Motto" by Mrs. N. H. Pierce, "Our motto is, "ever press forward!" There's no time for lagging just now; No time and no use to look backward, when once we take hold of the plough. - What grand and what noble achievements May lie within reach of us all, If, by faithful unflinching endeavor, We rise and respond to the call. - To those who are doubting and fearful, And ready to yield to despair, Who only are hopeful in sunshine, When everything looks bright and fair. - We offer a brotherly greeting, And urge them to bravely press on. How soon they will find that the Lion that lives in their pathway is gone. - Then work while the daylight shall aid you, Nor fold your weak hands in despair. The units of your toll shall be paid you, If only you do your full share."
"Our Motto" by Mrs. N. H. Pearce, published in the Peninsular Courier, May 15, 1874

Her Written Record

A woman of many words, Sophia was a prolific contributor to local newspaper the Ann Arbor Courier and the monthly Ladies’ Repository, periodical for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Much of her work for the Courier reached a greater audience through reprints in other papers.

Morality was a central theme, and her surviving short stories tend to be melodramatic tales of down on their luck women. “The Wentworths,” reprinted in the Peninsular Courier, recounts a woman whose husband leaves her home alone with their sick baby in order to gamble and drink at a saloon. He misses the death of their child and must carry the guilt as a consequence. The couple separates, he reforms, and they get back together, with the woman staying devoted to her husband. It was touted as being a true story based on a couple Sophia knew.

Sophia’s commentary on local events was similarly focused around ethics. While her short stories and poems were published under “Mrs. N. H. Pierce,” she also used the nom de plume “Soph,” particularly when offering observations of the community. Upon her death the Ann Arbor Courier wrote, “Her series of articles known as 'Ann Arbor in Slices' will be remembered by all of our old readers.” The series was printed with the heading:

"This beautiful city, its virtues and vices, 
Its arts and its sciences, I'll serve you in slices;
Beside I will give, for the sake of variety, 
Occasional views of its scenes and society."

The only article in the series that could be located criticizes a “ball alley” or “gymnasium," purporting that men and boys gamble there. 

Her strong opinions attracted attention and another article signed “Soph” appears to be fending off an anonymous detractor and asserting the justness of her proclamations. She defends her righteousness by writing, “You will see by this that the writer of 'Sopht poetry' does not need to be fed on “pickles in thin slices to sweeten her temper.” A proper appreciation of her well-directed efforts to bring about improvement always does this.” (The inclusion of pickles was likely in reference to her family's side business selling the product.)

Of her remaining works, her poems offer more levity and a few odes to admirable figures.

A stone obelisk with an eagle carved atop it. The base is engraved with names. In a cemetery with green grass and headstones in the background and trees with spring leaves sprouting.
The Civil War Monument in 2024. Taken by Steve Jensen.

A Lasting Landmark

Sophia wasn’t content to only write about improvements she hoped to see in her community, she also contributed to it. As a founder and leader of the Fifth Ward Decoration Society she helped spearhead the tradition of leaving flowers and offerings on soldier’s graves locally for “Decoration Day” (now known as Memorial Day). 

Founded in 1870, the society soon set its sights on a permanent memorial to the ward’s Union soldiers who lost their lives in the recent Civil War. The Fifth Ward had a disproportionately high number of enlistees, totaling 75 out of the district’s 140 voters. 25 of those soldiers were eventually buried in Fairview Cemetery. By 1874 the decoration group had successfully raised enough money to erect a monument in their tribute.

A plat map including the 5th and some of the 4th ward bordering the Huron River in North Ann Arbor.
The Northern half the city of Ann Arbor, 1874. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library. 

The society’s leaders thanked contributors, writing

“Ages hence that monument shall stand, for nothing short of a convulsion of nature can remove it from its firm foundation. Future generations will see and admire it, shall point with exultation to this symbol of our faith and righteous cause.” 

Their declaration came true:  the monument can still be admired at Fairview, bearing the names of the lives lost. 

Census Collector

In 1880, Sophia undertook another job that connected her to her community: Census Enumerator. She was put in charge of collecting information about the 5th and 6th Wards, reaching a total of 1,903 residents. 

After completing her work in 1880, she “received a letter highly recommending her for her honesty, integrity and faithfulness to duty, from the census bureau.” She was reappointed in 1883 which “she deemed a high compliment, being as stated, the only lady selected to a like position.”

Upon the conclusion of her first census the Ann Arbor Courier relayed that, “She has found much that was edifying, some things saddening, and could tell many a funny story in illustration of character.” Sophia’s writing made it clear that she was interested in society, and the insight she gained from visiting homes for the census may have helped inform her authorship. 

A newspaper advertisement for "Magnetic Medicine" which shows an illustration of a gaunt, hunched over man using a crutch labeled "before" and a man standing upright labeled "after."
Ann Arbor Democrat, April 6, 1883

Magnetic Medicine

The next role she took on also allowed her entry into people’s homes, but it wasn’t founded in evidence like the census. As a magnetic physician and clairvoyant, Sophia advertised her ability to “cure when all others fail,” "without medicine," and "without asking questions." 

These were not the magnetic forces used in modern medicine. In the late 1800s, magnetic balms and ointments were touted as curing just about any and all physical or mental ailments from toothaches, to inflammation, to removing “mental gloom and despondency.”  

An advertisement for Mrs. N. H. Pierce, "Eclectic and Magnetic Physician - A Registered Physician Under the Laws of the State of Michigan - Has Had 25 Years Practice."
Sophia did seem to be "eclectic," but it's likely that this typo was meant to be "electric." Ann Arbor Register, February 10, 1887

As a lower town resident, Sophia was likely well acquainted with the success of her late neighbor Dr. Daniel Kellogg who claimed that he was connected to spirits and could command the body via electric force. He too used "magnetism," professing that blood was affected by magnetic impulses because it contained iron. Like Dr. Kellogg, Sophia advertised her ability to diagnose diseases from a dubious distance. 

After her husband’s death in 1883, Sophia’s practice seems to have begun in earnest. She was registered in that year and “branched forth more largely in the work which she for many years has been engaged in.” One advertisement claimed she had 25 years practice, receiving testimonials from people throughout the Midwest.

A Fateful Fall?

Her publicized medical skills were no match for liver cancer, and she passed in 1893 after being confined to the house for three weeks and to her bed for ten days.

Illustrative of the limited knowledge of medicine during the time period, her obituary claims that her liver cancer “was the direct result of a fall received from the high bank south of E. W. Moore’s house, where she had been called to attend Mrs. Moore during an illness some four years ago.”

Eli W. Moore was Sophia's Pontiac St. neighbor, manager of one of Lower Town's anchor businesses, the Ann Arbor Agricultural Company, and also happened to be the President of the Board of Health at the time of her coming to treat his wife, Elizabeth Moore. Sophia didn’t take the fall lying down and petitioned the city to be compensated for her injuries. 

In the end, “all was done for her that possibly could by competent doctors, neighbors and children – her children seldom leaving her bedside.” She now rests in Fairview Cemetery not far from the monument that she helped to spearhead.