Presbyterians of the Past

Shushan Wright, died 1890

A problem faced when writing about Presbyterian personalities of the past is locating information about women in the church. For example, Alfred Nevin’s, Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1884, has over twenty-one-hundred biographical entries, six of which are about women. Not only are there few entries for women, but many of the biographies in Nevin do not inform readers if the men were married and had children. Yes, Nevin’s concern was to summarize the work of his subjects as Presbyterians, but a biography is a life story and some basic facts about one’s family should be provided for a fuller picture of the individual. After all, Presbyterians follow covenant theology and the promises of the covenant are for the household, so should not the members of the household be included to provide a more complete picture of the person’s relationship to the household? In the case of Shushan Wright there are sources available about her life, however, the reason for some of the information is because of a tragic event.

Drawing of the School Yard, Salmas, Persia, PCUSA Mission, circa 1890s, 5-22-2015

As far as could be determined, a portrait of Shushan Wright and the date of her birth are not available. Information about her life begins with her death. Shushan was repeatedly stabbed in Oola, Salmas, in western Persia by a young man on May 14, resulting in her death on June 1, 1890. The man, Minas, was an Armenian whose religious views were Nestorian. One of the difficulties encountered by Presbyterian missionaries in western Persia was the influence of the Nestorians. Minas had been engaged as a teacher in the mission school where Shushan served with her husband, American Presbyterian missionary Rev. John N. Wright. His first wife had died of disease and Shushan was his second wife. Minas had been repeatedly rebuked by the Wrights in the past for his continued romantic interest in their house keeper and nanny, Asli. One night when Shushan checked on her child sleeping in Asli’s room she found that the nurse had left the baby alone. It was determined that she was out meeting with Minas, which resulted in his being dismissed from the school by Rev. Wright. Later, Minas went to the Wrights to obtain his final wages and the transportation fare to return to his homeland. When Rev. Wright left the room to get the money, Shushan was attacked by Minas when he seized the opportunity, pulled a knife from his sleeve, and stabbed her several times. During the two days that passed before medical assistance arrived from Tabriz, Rev. Wright and J. C. Mechlin, director of the mission station, managed to stitch her wounds and make her as comfortable as possible. For a time she rallied and it seemed she would survive, but then she took a turn for the worse. More than two weeks after her wounds were inflicted, Mrs. Wright and her unborn son died on June 1.

Map NW Persia, circa 1898, from Wilson's Book on Persian Culture, 5-22-2015

By means of the prompt services of the Honorable E. Spencer Pratt, who was the United States minister to Persia, and Col. C. E. Stewart, the English consul-general at Tabriz, Minas was arrested. He was from Ooroomeeyah which is in the historically disputed area in northwestern Iran close to Turkey and Syria. The death of Shushan and her little son made the murder a double homicide according to the law of Persia. After the persistent efforts of English Consul General Stewart and United States Minister Pratt, Minas was brought to trial. He was charged, first, with having wounded Shushan severely resulting in her death; and then secondly, with having caused the death of her unborn child. There was a third charge added as a result of information received later in the investigation. The night before Shushan was murdered, Minas planned to kill her and Rev. Wright with a revolver but because of unfavorable circumstances for success he abandoned the attempted murder. The law of the land was the death penalty for such crimes and both the British and American representatives believed Minas would die for the killing, but he was instead imprisoned for life. The murder, arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Minas led to increased concerns for personal safety not only for the missionaries, but also for other Westerners as religious and ethnic tensions once again came to the fore and threatened stability in the region.

Much of the information about Shushan Wright’s earlier life is found in William Rankin’s Memorials of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1895. Instead of the information, the full text of the tribute by Rev. B. Labaree, D.D., of the Presbyterian Western Persia mission is provided.

The death of Mrs. Wright, of Salmas, has given us a terrible shock, one we shall not soon recover from. Under any circumstances her loss would have filled us with sorrow; but the terrible crime by which her life has been sacrificed has intensified our grief immeasurably.

Mrs. Wright was the daughter of Kasha and Sawa Oshana; the former was for many years a preacher in Koordistan and at times a highly esteemed teacher in our college, while Sawa was one of the first of Miss Fiske’s pupils, and has ever been one of our most devoted and beloved Christian sisters. Shushan, as we used to call her by her sweet Syriac name, spent much of her early life in the wild mountains of Koordistan, where she breathed in the free mountain air, the spirit of self-reliance, and independence so characteristic of the mountain Nestorians; however, in her case through wise parental training and the influence of divine grace was brought under excellent control.

I shall never forget a journey I made with her family and a large party of missionaries and native preachers through the mountains towards Ooroomeeyah. She was then almost a grown woman, as full of life and grace as a bird, fearless, active, and agile over those terrible roads, while in the midst of dangers from robbers, both Christian and Koordish. When our camp was assailed by our own Nestorian muleteers and our equipment seized with the most angry display of firearms, Shushan flew swiftly up the mountain side after them, fought them, and as others of our party joined in the efforts to calm the angry men, she wrestled a gun from one of the men and brought it to the camp. We learned to admire her bravery and finesse on this tour as we never could have done in her home or her school.

Mrs. Wright had been in our female seminary [general education for women] from time to time and showed considerable aptitude for acquiring learning and culture. Later on she became a teacher in an orphanage conducted by some English ladies here, and later still was an assistant to the mission’s school for girls in Tabriz. She won to a great degree the love and confidence of those with whom she associated. We rejoiced in her as one of the choicest fruits of divine training through mission teaching.

In the year 1885 she was married to Rev. J. N. Wright of Ohio, his second wife, and they settled in Salmas where she took great interest in the missionary work. In the year 1888 she accompanied her husband to America, and only returned last fall. All who have known her since her return testify to her growing interest and activity in the Master’s cause. As far as the care of her little family would permit, she was assiduous in holding meetings for the women, visiting their families, teaching a Bible class on the Sabbath, etc. The native pastor of the Oolah Church is warm in his commendation of her helpful influence during the months before her death.

During Mrs. Wright’s time of suffering from her wounds as she laid dying from the wanton, unprovoked assault upon her life, she showed a wonderful degree of fortitude and patience, and at the same time a most sweet and forgiving spirit in regard to her assailant. “If I die,” she remarked one day, “I shall go to heaven; but if he dies his soul is lost forever.” Her Christian character shone out brightly to the last. We can well believe that her remark to Mrs. Shedd, who visited her on her way through Salmas, was true, “All is light about me.”


Notes—Shushan in not in the photograph of the group of women. She became a U. S. citizen. The spellings of “Ooroomeeyah” include, Orūmīyeh, Urmia, Oroomiah, or Urūmiyeh, and probably other versions, which show Western speakers’ difficulties with transcribing the Eastern languages. The “Mrs. Shedd” referred to in the biography was not the wife of W. G. T. Shedd, but of Rev. J. H. Shedd, D.D. Rev. Wright’s first wife, Mary Letitia, was from Oregon, and she died of typhoid fever in Tabriz in 1878. Persia’s current name, Iran, came into use in 1935. A missionary to India, John H. Morrison (1806-1881), experienced the deaths of two wives on the field.

Sources—Other than the source provided in the biography, another source used was the 35 page report of the incident to United States Secretary of State James G. Blaine, which includes correspondence between Spencer Pratt of the United States, English Consul-General Col. C. E. Stewart, and others, along with testimony from the trial that includes Rev. Wright’s account of the events when his wife was attacked. There is also some interesting discussion of the murder of the unborn son and his inclusion as a victim in the case against Minas. The report is found in, United States Department of State, The Executive Documents of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Fifty-First Congress, 1890-91, With Index, In Thirty-Eight Volumes, Vol. 1, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891, pages 658-692. A publication that looks interesting but was not used for this biography is Isaac Malek Yonan’s, Persian Women: A Sketch of Woman’s Life From the Cradle to the Grave, and Missionary Work Among Them, With Illustrations, Nashville: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1898; in the preface, the author refers to several other publications regarding Persian women, customs, and culture. According to Yonan, page 139, there were about 150,000 Nestorians in Persia with a fifth of them living in Ooroomeeyah. The article, The Modern Chaldeans and Nestorians, and the Study of Syriac among Them, by Gabriel Oussani, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 22 (1901), pages 79-96, provides further information about the Nestorians.

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