Sarah Peirce Nichols usually got up before 3 a.m. every day in 1833 to walk … and walk … and walk. From the time she had a nervous breakdown at the age of 20 until her death in 1879, Sarah walked for miles every day. It made her feel better.
Sarah Peirce Nichols
She was the daughter of a once-prosperous Salem merchant and shipmaster at a time when Salem ranked as the richest city per capita in the United States.
Her family went from rags to riches to not-quite-rags in just three generations. Sarah’s grandfather, Jerathmiel Peirce, started out in life as a leather dresser. But during the American Revolution, he and a partner, Aaron Waite, bought a privateer and prospered. Over the next 50 years, Peirce and Waite bought or built 10 vessels, which brought them great wealth. A replica of one of those ships, Friendship of Salem, now docks at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
Jerathmiel had a grand house built in Salem by Samuel McIntire, according to family tradition. He married Sarah Ropes, and they had five children who lived to adulthood. Their daughter, Sarah, married George Nichols, her cousin, in 1801. Her brother, Benjamin, married Nichols’ sister Lydia. The brothers-in-law went into the shipping business together.
George Nichols took voyages to Europe and the Indies, sometimes as captain. After his marriage, he made only two sea voyages, retiring from seafaring in 1804. His first child, Sarah, was born that year. Eight more followed.
The War of 1812 cost him half his fortune, worth the then-princely sum of $40,000. The British captured every vessel he owned. The business rebounded after the war. But, wrote George, “then came on a long series of disasters, ruinous voyages were made, the effect of bad management, and in 1826 I found myself bankrupt, as were also my father Peirce and his two sons.”
One can only guess how those vicissitudes of fortune affected Sarah. She suffered severe pains in her stomach and in her facial nerves. Then in 1824, George Nichols and other prominent men of Salem withdrew from the North Church. They founded the Fourth Unitarian Church because they wanted a different pastor. At that time, Sarah’s health broke down.
Her niece, Martha Nichols, described what happened in a family memoir partly dictated by George Nichols. A Salem Shipmaster and Merchant: The Autobiography of George Nichols explains.
During this period the oldest daughter, Sarah Peirce, was very delicate, suffering from what would now be called a nervous breakdown. She was sent to Cambridge to a noted specialist, who pursued heroic methods, with happy results. Horse-back riding was at once prescribed, which was a mild form of exercise compared to long drives in a wagon without springs, and walks of twenty miles a day. The practice of walking was kept up by my aunt for more than fifty years, to the time of her death, within three months of seventy-five years. Of course the number of miles a day were diminished with increasing age, but within a few weeks of her death she made her six miles daily, the sum total amounting to 147,000 miles.
In 1826, two years after Sarah’s nervous breakdown, the family moved from the prestigious Tontine Block (burned down in 1904) to the home of a friend. They then moved to a house owned by her paternal grandfather. Sarah’s Uncle Benjamin gave up business and went to work as Harvard’s librarian.
The Daily Walk
Sarah Peirce Nichols never married. She rose every day, usually before 3 a.m., and walked an average of 12 miles. She walked in the heat, in the cold, in snow, in rain, in moonlight.
On her 29th birthday, April 19, 1833 she wrote that she suffered stomach pains, but after her 12-mile walk, she felt much better.
On June 1, 1833, Sarah Peirce Nichols set out from that house for her daily walk. She recorded in her diary:
June 1st. Very fine weather. 12 miles walk. Five years from this day I have travelled 15,961 ¼. I have received two handsome presents this week, a bonnet and belt ribbon.
On June 12, 1833, she wrote, “I took my usual walk this morning. God has seen best to afflict me for this fortnight past, every night with my old pain the ticdolerue, but far be from me every murmuring thought, my heavenly Father will order every thing right, let his will be done.”
Her diary describes a circumscribed life of family visits and religious services. A typical entry on June 14 goes like this: “12 miles walk this morning. I took tea at grandma’s, where I met Aunt and U Saunders, who came from Andover last evening.”
Sarah Peirce Nichols Moves Again
After 1833, Sarah and her family moved several times until 1840. They then settled in the three-story house by Samuel McIntire at 80 Federal St., which had belonged to Jerathmiel Peirce. Grandfather Peirce lost his fortune along with Sarah’s father, and had to sell the house. But friends of the family bought it and willed it to Sarah and her three sisters. Sarah died in 1879.
The Peirce family owned the house until 1917, when they sold it to the Essex Institute, now the Peabody-Essex Museum. The house, a National Historic Landmark. now opens to the public.
With thanks to A Day at a Time: The Diary Literature of American Women from 1764 to the Present edited by Margo Culley. This story was updated in 2023.
Image: Friendship of Salem By Fletcher6 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5213322.