Murder Among the Shakers

by Ragtimelil

The Shakers were pacifist, but it didn't keep one of them from being murdered.

Everyone admires the clean lines of Shaker furniture and the supposedly simple life lived by the religious community known as Shakers. Things were not always peaceful in the Chosen Vale community in Enfield, NH. There was conflict and even murder.

In the years around 1758 in Manchester, England, Ann Lee, a blacksmith’s daughter and a mill worker, became a member of the Wardley Society, an offshoot of the Quakers. The Society’s worship included march-like dances, ecstatic shaking of the body and hand movements and came to be called “Shaking Quakers.”

Ann Lee

 As a young girl, Ann Lee had an unhappy life. She saw drunkenness and despair all around her. Although she was repulsed by sex from a young age, her father arranged a marriage for her to another blacksmith.  She became pregnant four times but all of her children died at childbirth or soon after. She saw this as a sign that celibacy was the path to spiritual cleanliness.

She turned to religion and the "Shakers." She began to have visions, and as she became more active, she became a leader in the group. She was frequently imprisoned under harsh conditions where she was reported to have had more visions and performed miracles. Her crimes were breaking the Sabbath by dancing and shouting, and blasphemy. She saw herself as the female messiah and  claimed a vision instructed her to take her followers to the US to become free of persecution and to form a utopian society.

The group kept the name of “Shaking Quakers,” or “Shakers”  after immigrating to the US but they officially called themselves the "United Society of Believers in the Second Coming of Christ” or Believers.

Their first community in New York State was very primitive and they endured very hard conditions. With work and the leadership of Ann Lee, or Mother Ann as she became known, they managed to survive and began to take in converts and establish other communities or “families.”

The Chosen Vale

In 1793 The Shakers founded the 9th community in Enfield, NH on the shores of Lake Mascoma and called it the Chosen Vale. There they built over 200 buildings and housed the families of men, women and children who lived there. They farmed over 3,000 acres, worshiped in their own way and taught school for the children. They practiced equality, of the sexes and races, celibacy, pacifism, and communal ownership of property. They built the  Great Stone Dwelling, the largest Shaker dwelling ever built, that housed the men and women in separate sides of the halls with separate staircases for the Brothers and Sisters. It also had a large hall for their dances and worship, a kitchen and dining hall, a bell tower, some work rooms, and storage. The building was soundproofed so that the Shakers could carry out their duties in peace.

The Great Stone Dwelling, built in 1837-1841, was the Shakers’ most ambitious architectural achievement. Enfield Trustee Caleb Dyer sought the best architects in New England to plan the building designed to hold 100 believers.

The Dyer Family

The Shaker communities became a haven for people suffering hard times, especially widows with children and no family to fall back on.  Many times entire families would convert and join. In 1813 the Dyer family joined the community in Enfield, NH. The family consisted of Joseph Dyer, his wife Mary Marshall Dyer, and their children, Caleb Marshall Dyer, Betsey Dyer, Jerrub Dyer, Joseph Dyer Jr., and Orville Dyer.

Two years later Mary Dyer left the community claiming that the Shakers had destroyed her family. In some respects, this was the truth. The Shakers kept family members apart in an attempt to diminish the bonds between them and strengthen the bond to the church, not unlike some cults today. Children were housed in separate quarters tended to by Sisters. Men and women had little interaction and what they had was supervised. If a couple became too friendly, they would be further separated.

Mary began a campaign to get her children back. She attacked the Shakers in writing, and in and out of court. She became an activist, assisting others with the same battle. Mary never won her case. Her husband and all but one of her children remained devout members of the Shakers. Mary’s oldest son, Caleb, became the head trustee of the church and was instrumental in the building of the Great Stone Building.

The Shot

In 1861, a local shoemaker, reportedly of “intemperate habits”, Thomas Weir, enlisted in the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers. Before leaving to join the civil war, he placed his two youngest daughters with the Chosen Vale Shakers with the promise to never take them back as long as they wanted to remain. In May of 1862, Weir was discharged with a disability and returned to Enfield. He wanted his daughters back, but they wanted to stay with the Shakers. After repeated attempts to regain his children, Weir drove up in a wagon with a gun. The Elder Caleb Dyer went out to meet him and refused again to let Weir have his daughters. Weir drew his gun and shot Dyer in the abdomen. He died within 48 hours.

Weir was arrested and convicted of murder and sentenced to the State prison for 30 years. After serving 13 years, a petition, signed by 300 local residents, was presented to court and Weir was pardoned after a hearing held in 1876. He is reported to have lived quietly in Enfield and even occasionally did odd jobs for the Shakers.

 

Ghosts

To this day, mysterious things happen in the Great Stone Dwelling. Elder Caleb’s rocking chair will rock by itself. Lights are turned on, door slam and steps are heard when no one is there. In August 2011, the Souhegan Paranormal Investigators visited the Great Stone Dwelling and other buildings at the Enfield Shaker Museum, as its now called, and made recordings and photographs of what they found. Two sensitives were part of the team and said they definitely felt something. They had a very interesting report on their website but it has since been removed.

 

Shaker Song
Updated: 02/24/2013, Ragtimelil
 
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Ragtimelil on 08/26/2012

@Sheliamarie, we would have been neighbors! I worked at the Enfield Shaker Museum for a while.
@Sue thanks. I'm always hoping what I'm writing hasn't been too overdone.

2uesday on 08/26/2012

There is enough interest in the UK about the Shaker life-style for there to be occasional TV programs about it here. They are always fascinating to watch as the families and communities have a way of life that we seem to have lost. It would be easy to 'romanticize' what the actual life style involves. The information you have here with its details about - a bit of the history, was all new to me and interesting.

sheilamarie on 08/25/2012

Interesting story about the Shakers. I used to live near Enfield.

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