The Tragic Story of Christian Missionary Dr. Eleanor Chestnut

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“We might as well die suddenly in God’s work as by some long, drawn-out illness at home”

– Dr. Eleanor Chestnut

Brave, strong women in history deserve a place in the present and future, meaning we should never forget their sacrifice for the greater good. They stood up to male backlash and prejudice when a woman had no voice. Some rose against all odds, let go of fears, and became martyrs. One woman’s belief in God and helping others gave her the courage to survive in a country torn apart by famine and war, only to be slaughtered like an animal.


Eleanor Chestnut was born to a washerwoman on January 8, 1868, in Waterloo, Iowa. She had a twin brother, James. Their biological father abandoned the twins and their mother shortly after the twins’ birth. Sadly, Eleanor’s mother died when she and James were three years old.

At 12, Eleanor went to live with E. F. Merwin and his wife in Hatton, Missouri. It is unknown what happened to James. The Merwins were poor and could not afford a high school education for Eleanor. Somehow, she discovered a training program through the Christian institution Park College (now Park University) in Parkville, northwest of Kansas City.

John A. McAfee founded Park College in 1875. George Park, a veteran of the Mexican War and an anti-slavery newspaper editor, donated a tract of land and an old stone hotel on the bluffs of the Missouri River. 

Students made the brick and put them into the group of halls and dormitories, and other structures. They worked on the farm and produced their own food. They have raised the horses and the mules with which the land is tilled. Park College turns off the cattle, the hogs, the dairy, and other products, which pay the professors salaries, and all the labor is performed by the students who turn in hours of labor in return for tuition and hoard. 

An electrical shop, a printing plant, building and engineering industries give opportunities to those who wish to acquire trades. The students are divided into families. Those who belong to “Family One” have made exceptionally good records. They pay nothing but give three and one-half hours of labor. Members of “Family Three” are those who pay $26 and work half a clay for board and tuition. (Stevens 1921, p. 40)

While spending eight years at Park College, Eleanor regularly attended Parkville Presbyterian Church, which worked closely with the college so students could be taught the Bible and their school courses.

After graduating from Park College in 1888, Eleanor took nursing classes at the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago (now Chicago Hospital for Women and Children), graduating in 1893. Afterward, Eleanor briefly worked as a nurse in Massachusetts and attended Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute.

In 1894, Eleanor set sail for China to devote her life to missionary work through American Presbyterian Mission.

According to the U.K.’s National Army Museum, “At the end of the 19th century, there was widespread indignation across China at growing economic hardship, compounded by decades of humiliating trade and political concessions granted to foreign powers by the ruling Qing dynasty.”

The Qing government banned foreign missionaries from entering China until 1844. And while they were allowed into the country, they could not travel to China’s interior for a few years.

In 1858, again defeated, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Tientsin with Russia, America, England, and France, permitting missionaries of these four to conduct religious propagation in the interior of China. In 1860, China had to sign the Treaty of Peking with England, France, and Russia, adding the new concession that foreign missionaries could purchase land and build anything at their liberty in all provinces of China. Through these treaties, foreign missionaries were authorized to propagate faith anywhere in China, and moreover, they were not subject to Chinese jurisdiction but under extraterritoriality. (Li 2002)

Around Eleanor’s arrival in Liin-Chou (now Guangzhou), the country was in turmoil, in part due to the First Sino-Japapense War that started on August 1, 1894, between the Qing Dynasty and the Empire of Japan over Korea and ended on April 17, 1895. 

Additionally, China was suffering from drought and famine. It was not a good time for Westerners to be in the country. The people were angry and had to blame someone, so they took their anger out on Christian missionaries.

About 530 miles from Lien-Chou, the Gutain (Kucheng) massacre occurred on August 1, 1895. Several Western missionaries from England were brutally hacked to death; only one survived but was left disfigured. 

Eleanor wrote a letter dated August 26, 1895, to E.F. Merwin on board a steamer ship from Canton to Macao.

“I suppose you have heard of the Kien (Fukien/Fujian) massacre. It was terrible and I have no doubt it will make the friends at home very uneasy for our safety, but I really think you need not be worried. It has always been my theory that a person is as safe in one place as another.”

Eleanor spent 11 years in China and was there during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century when 189 Christian missionaries and 2,000 Chinese Christians were martyred.

Despite the country’s violence against missionaries, Eleanor never wavered in her determination to stay in China. According to writer Susan Verstraete, she donated most of her monthly income to purchase bricks to build a women’s hospital in Lien-Chou. Eleanor held clinics in neighboring villages to explain the dangers of foot binding and trained nurses. She translated valuable books into the local dialect and volunteered at the school and church.

On October 29, 1905, Ohio missionary Dr. Edward Charles Machle asked to remove a street theater near the hospital because of the loud noises. Contemporary reports say it was a shed on hospital property used for idol worship during All Souls Day.

According to an article in The Washington Post dated November 4, 1905, Dr. Machle’s request angered the Chinese citizens. “The mob then paraded in the street, exhibiting the skeleton used in the instruction of the medical class, and alleging it was an example of the foreigner’s inhumanity to the Chinese people.”

The crowd burned the hospital, girls’ school, and the missionaries’ residences.

Another account states Dr. Machle and Buddhist priests at the temple adjacent to the hospital argued about “building a small Buddhist Temple on hospital property. Although Dr. Machle and the priests settled the argument peacefully, a lawless gang harangued the people until some of them formed a mob and burned the mission station to the ground. A priest at a nearby Buddhist grotto offered the fleeing missionaries refuge, but the mob followed them.”

This version states that Amy Machle was thrown into a river alive while the mob stripped Eleanor naked before tossing her into the river.

Another account from 1955 states the gang chased the missionaries into the street and viciously assaulted them. Eleanor managed to slip into the crowd undetected and get the police but returned to plead for the other missionaries. This version also states that right before she was killed, she treated the head wound of a Chinese boy, using a torn piece of material from her dress as a bandage. Moments later, the mob beat her and then killed her by stabbing her with a pitchfork.

Regardless of the version, what is factual is the angry mob killed Eleanor, Dr. Machle’s wife, Ella, their daughter Amy Machle, 10, John Rogers Peale, and Mrs. Peale. Dr. Machle, severely wounded, and Miss Patterson survived the attack.

When news back home spread of the missionaries’ ultimate sacrifice, it motivated others to follow suit. According to Verstraete, Parkville Presbyterian Church redoubled its missionary efforts in Lien-Chou, and several men volunteered to take over the work. They raised funds for the mission as a “memorial to the martyrs, and in 1907 Dr. Elizabeth Carper arrived to administrate the women’s hospital in Dr. Chestnut’s place.” 

At 53, Dr. Machle married Jane Mawson, 19 years his junior, in 1910, and they had one son together. He had three other children with Ella. They were in the U.S. during the massacre. Dr. Machle died in 1936.

Two years after the brutal massacre, China awarded the minor children of Etta Tucker — Elmer and Leroy Chestnut — $10,000. The children were Eleanor’s wards, and she was an aunt to them, although on which side of her family is unclear. Some reports said she had no living relatives. I could not find what happened to her twin, James.

Per TheClio.com, a fire broke out on the top floor of this building in 1955. Chestnut Hall was reopened in 1987 and called the New Dorm. Today, it is a co-ed dorm for students attending Park University. (Photo credit: Kansas City Star, October 4, 1955)

Sources

“A Letter From China.” The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa). October 9, 1895.

Bernadette Li, “Western Missionaries in China,” Vincentiana, Vol. 46, No. 62002.

“China Pays Mexico (Mo.) Children for Aunt’s Death.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. November 26, 1907.

“Confirms Massacre: Letter to Bishop Merel Tells of Chinese Slaughter.” The Washington Post. November 4, 1905.

Stevens, Walter Barlow. Centennial History of Missouri: (the Center State) One Hundred Years in the Union, 1820-1921 (S.J. Clarke Publishing 1921, p. 40.)

The Boxer Rebellion.” National Army Museum (London). Retrieved on July 27, 2023.

The Courage of Their Cultural Convictions: Women Missionaries in China.” Women of Every Complexion and Complexity. Retrieved July 27, 2023.

Verstraete, Susan. “With Skilled, Kind Fingers that Did Not Tremble”: The Story of Dr. Eleanor Chestnut.” BulletinInserts.org. 2012. Retrieved on July 27, 2023.

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I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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