Many know the story of Brownington educator Alexander Twilight, but fewer are familiar with his wife, Mercy, who was not without her own accomplishments.
Many of the decisions that determined Mercy’s life were made by her husband, but it is difficult to believe he made his choices without the support of his wife, who later in life proved to be a resourceful and independent woman. Therefore, the following biography is a celebration of Mercy Ladd Merrill Twilight.
Mercy was born in Unity, N.H. in 1805 to parents Dudley and Mary Merrill. Her family is believed to have been fairly wealthy, but further information about Mercy’s childhood is currently a missing piece in her history. Around the age of 21, Mercy was, for unknown reasons, in Peru, N.Y. where she happened to meet Alexander Twilight, who was working as a teacher at the time. They were married in 1826 and Alexander was 10 years her senior.
Three years later, the Twilights moved to Brownington, for Alexander to begin his positions as principal of the Orleans County Grammar School and minister of the Brownington Congregational Church. Upon arrival, Mercy and Alexander moved into a small homestead down the road from the school which to-day serves as the Educational Building at the Old Stone House Museum. They soon expanded their home in 1831 to be able to board more students who were attending the Grammar School.
The Twilights never had children of their own, but Mercy likely had a motherly role for the students who stayed in their home as well as those who stayed in her husband’s Athenian Hall dormitory (today is known as the Old Stone House) after its opening in 1836. The students residing at the dormitory were responsible for much of their cooking and housekeeping chores, but Mercy, along with female teachers or principals who might have stayed at the dormitory, undoubtedly looked after them in many regards. Since the trustees of the Grammar School had not supported the construction of Athenian Hall, it was likely Mercy’s substantial dowry that provided Alexander with the funds he needed to build it.
It was later due to this decision on Alexander’s part, that the Twilight’s experienced some financial difficulties. So, in 1842, they sold their home and took up residence in the dormitory building, probably altering a space on the fourth floor to be used as an apartment. Not long after, in 1847, Alexander had several disputes with the school trustees that ultimately resulted in his resignation as both principal of the school and minister of the Congregational Church. He sold Athenian Hall to the trustees and he and Mercy moved to Quebec for Alexander to pursue other ventures as an educator.
Mercy must have dearly missed her home of 18 years in Brownington, but she was not without friends in Quebec. One of whom may have been Margaret Robinson who gave Mercy a book of scripture quotes as a gift in May 1849. Still, Mercy must have been pleased when, in 1852, her husband was asked to return to his role as principal of the Orleans County Grammar School in Brownington and he accepted.
Despite having sold it to the trustees, the Twilight’s were able to move back into Athenian Hall when they returned to Brownington. Likely the trustees still owed Twilight money for the building because even after he died in 1857 and the closure of the Grammar School in 1859, Mercy was able to continue residing there.
Due to Alexander’s rather poor management of their finances, Mercy was left with an itemized estate, including their possessions but no monetary sums, valued at $512 (or about $16,000 by today’s values). With money tight, Mercy supported herself by using the stone dormitory as a boarding house. At some point, she acquired her liquor license to sell alcohol at the boarding house. In 1864, she wrote to the town of Brownington describing her positive experiences selling alcohol but noting that she would not be renewing her license. This was probably related to her decision to move to Derby to live with relatives the following year.
Although she described the experience as positive, it is surprising that Mercy ventured into liquor sales at all. Her husband had been a staunch supporter of temperance and Mercy herself was a member of the Good Templars, a temperance society. According to an 1866 article in the Burlington Daily Times, she served as an officer in the Vermont Grand-Lodge of Good Templars. While this might be seen as hypocritical on Mercy’s part, it could also be evidence of her resourcefulness. She needed income and perhaps she simply saw the sale of alcohol as a lucrative practice.
Throughout Brownington and Derby, Mercy was known as much more than the wife of Alexander Twilight and a clever businesswoman. After her death in July 1878, she is remembered in local newspapers for her kindness and endearing character. According to a notice in the Orleans County Monitor, “she lived an exemplary life and was well-beloved.” The Newport Express and Standard said she spent her time “ministering to the sick, sympathizing with the bereaved and doing other deeds of kindness and love that have endeared her to many hearts.”
The details of the actions that earned her this reputation may never be known, but it is clear that she made an impression on the same town that had made an impression on her when she first arrived with Alexander in 1829. Her obituary in the Newport Express and Standard noted that she was buried beside her husband in the Brownington Cemetery “at this place amid scenes that had been familiar and dear to her for half a century.”
Mahala Nyberg is associate director of collections and programs at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.