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Sarah Jane Prentiss: Artist, nurse, selfless
ARTIST, NURSE — These undated photos show Sarah Jane Prentiss, of Paris, who became a nurse so she could care for Maine soldiers wounded in the Civil War.
the bolded should be italic only (not bolded)
OXFORD HILLS — Sarah Jane Prentiss may not, at first glance, seem like the ideal person to celebrate during Women's History Month. Other women from the Oxford Hills have had a greater effect on the community, on the state, on the nation, on the world.
Reta Shaw, for example, grew up in South Paris and became a Hollywood actress, appearing in more than 80 television shows and movies. Minnie Plummer, grew up in the Oxford Hills and became an international opera star — known as Madame Scalar — performing in major cities in the U.S. and in Paris, France and other European capitals before returning to Maine and winning the heart of author, C. A. Stephens.
Agnes Gray was an influential teacher. The elementary school in West Paris is named for her. Maude Kaemmerling built, equipped and endowed the Norway Memorial Library.
Many women in the Oxford Hills have, over the years, risen to greatness, either locally or beyond.
So why focus on Sarah Prentiss during Women's History Month?
For two reasons.
As much as any woman — or man — you could name, Sarah worked hard to develop herself and her abilities.
But more than that, when a great need presented itself, she volunteered to help, even though it ultimately cost her her life.
Most of what is known about Sarah Prentiss comes from her diary and from more than 400 letters of hers that survive.
Sarah's parents, Henry and Mary (Hart) Prentiss, were from Reading, Massachusetts, but moved to Paris, Maine as a young couple and reared their family here. Sarah, born in 1823, was the youngest of nine children.
Her natural brightness and desire to improve herself were evident at an early age. At school in her home town, Sarah excelled in history and spelling.
She later attended the Lyceum held at Sumner Village, where she did well in the weekly spelling bees, better than many older students. She took singing lessons and enjoyed reading books about various battles of the Revolutionary War.
At 15, she took a stage coach from Paris to Yarmouth, to attend boarding school. There she studied Astronomy, Botany, and Grammar. Those subjects, she found, could not keep her busy enough. In a letter to her sister, Julia, she wrote that "the studies I had would not occupy all my time, so I told Mr. Dole I should like to take Chemistry, if he thought it proper."
Even with the addition of Chemistry to her class load, Sarah found time to sew, knit, and attend lectures on other subjects.
Later, while there, she studied Geology and Dance.
Following her schooling at Yarmouth, Sarah moved to Bangor and lived with her brother, Henry, and his family as she continued her education. She was older than many of the other students and found it difficult to make friends, as she considered the behavior of many of the girls to be frivolous and silly. In a letter to Julia, she wrote, "I am quite an old maid among them [at age 19] ... The belle of Bangor is only 16 and has been engaged and disengaged and is engaged again, it is said."
Pictures of Sarah show her to be a beautiful young woman. She had many suitors and may have been engaged once, though this is not clear. Her family and friends were constantly trying to fix her up. She writes at one point, "Aunt Rebecca has got a widower boarder at Aunt Luliger's for me, and cousin Clara has got a nice young man for me, and Henry shows me real honest, steady fellows that don't care a bit for me, and I threaten him to go to Boston or Lowell! And Mary tells me about her widower, if he will only wait for me ... "
Despite their continued efforts, Sarah never married.
Henry needed someone to translate French phrases for him and suggested that his sister learn French, which she did.
In 1846, Sarah, 23, attended a series of lectures on Physiology. She writes:
"I am not learning much new on the subject, except by seeing the skeleton and mannikin. The skeleton is suspended under a lamp on one side of the desk, a hideous looking thing, and the mannikin, a great contrivance made to represent the human figure as it looks after it is skinned, stands before the desk ... I did not know we looked so much like sheep and pork before."
The mannequin was constructed so that muscles could be removed, revealing the circulatory system. Sarah said it was so life-like, it made her feel sick and faint to see it.
While studying Physiology, she also studied German, thinking she might someday go to Germany to continue her education.
In 1861 when the Civil War began, Sarah, 38, decided to enlist as a volunteer nurse to care for injured Maine soldiers. She traveled to Boston and worked in the General Hospital there to learn nursing. She knew that her plan to travel into a war zone and tend the wounded was dangerous, so wrote to Julia, explaining what to do should she not survive.
"The Baskahegan Land, given me by Henry, is to be given back to his family.
"The bulk of my property, consisting of notes for money in Henry's possession, is to be divided equally between my brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces, then living ... .
"All my furniture of which I inherited from mother, I give to my sister and brother to divide as they see fit among our Parents' natural heirs.
"My clothing, books, pictures, cabinet of minerals, etc, I wish you, after choosing some for yourself, to distribute among my relatives and friends, sending some things so far as you can, to all in whom I have an interest, both in Maine and Mass."
She didn't know who would want her guitar, but had suggestions for who might take her dog, Apollo.
"All the letters addressed to me in my strong box are to be burned unread. My notes and deeds are in [the strong box], and poems, school compositions, etc.
"Keep this carefully. Your affectionate sister, Sarah J. Prentiss"
Sarah served in hospitals in Frederick, Virginia and in the WSA Fairfax Seminary Hospital, also in Virginia. Her war letters are fewer and filled with less detail, indicating how hard she was working.
In 1865, Sarah began work in the Finley Hospital in Washington D.C. In a letter to a friend in Bangor, she told of caring for wounded soldiers in three tents.
Like many Civil War soldiers, these men had not just suffered physically from wounds and hardship, but had witnessed mind-jarring violence and brutality. These men had let themselves go, not washing or shaving or combing their hair or changing clothes.
On her first day, there wasn't much she could do for these men medically, so she spent time talking to each one. At 42, she was probably older than many of her patients, yet the presence of this woman from their home state had a profound and almost immediate effect. The next day when she came on duty, the men were cleaner, not just physically, but in their language and manners, as well.
In a letter, she writes:
"Yesterday I went and stood a long time, combed their hair and talked with them, and was somewhat shocked by the dirt and rough language. Made no comment on either, but when I went this morning, I found the sick men's heads already combed and they [were] talking of cleaning things up. And not a rough word spoken ... but such changes usually occur in a short time in these rough places after ladies go in.
"I read to them a long time, political articles and last Sunday's sermons upon the death of the president."
Sarah went to see Abraham Lincoln's body lying in wake in the East Room of the White House.
In letters to friends and family, Sarah hid the fact that she had contracted malaria while working in the hospitals.
When the war was over, she struggled with the pain and fevers and weakness the malaria brought on. Rather than lie around being ill, she began to study painting to take her mind off her condition. Hoping a change of climate would improve her health, she traveled to Europe, putting to use the German she'd studied years before.
She lived in Germany for three years, studying art. The malaria, however, wouldn't let go. When her health worsened, Sarah returned to Maine to live with her brother and his family. She died in 1877, at the age of 54.
Ben Conant, the curator of the Paris Cape Historical Society in South Paris, has seen paintings and drawings by Sarah Prentiss and calls them "exquisite."
"Her use of perspective is wonderful," Conant said. "And the detail she could put into a drawing ... . There was one I saw of a building—it [the drawing] was about this high." He holds one hand about eight inches above the other. "It was a four story building and on each floor was a drawing of a little girl. She must have used a magnifying glass to do that."
A check of www.artnet.com shows that at least one of her paintings was sold in 2004 through Sotheby's in New York. The selling price was not made public.
Conant says there are families in the Oxford Hills who have drawings and paintings by Sarah Prentiss, and he hopes someday there will be a showing of her art.
Sarah Jane Prentiss demonstrated an unflagging desire for self-improvement, the courage to serve others in hard, even dangerous circumstances for long periods of time, and a willingness to defy personal illness by bringing works of beauty into the world. She may be the ideal person to celebrate during Women's History Month.