A Diva in St. Augustine – Emma Thursby

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Emma Thursby, a famous nineteenth century opera singer, visited St. Augustine three times to perform between 1890 and 1892. On March 28, 1891, she performed at the Hotel Ponce de Leon, three years after it was built.

Born on February 21, 1845 to John Barnes Thursby, a rope-maker, and Jane Ann Thursby, Emma would later be known in America and Europe for her powerful voice. At a young age, Emma became a member of the Old Bushwick Reformed Church and performed in a concert at the age of five. During this concert, Emma received an overwhelming amount of support from the audience, ending with applause and cheers for an encore. This debut led Emma to grow more interested in singing. Growing up, Emma’s parents decided to enroll both her and her older sister, Alice, into a school where they could further learn how to sing. This solidified Emma’s decision to become a professional singer.


After the death of her father, Emma, at the age of sixteen, faced a new problem. With the need to help around the house, she would not have any time to practice her singing. This, however, did not stop her and instead she persevered. In a post-Civil War America, Emma received various opportunities to sing in multiple churches. After these experiences, she traveled to Italy in 1872 to train with voice teacher Francesco Lamperti and vocal maestro Antonio Sangiovanni. Her fame grew in both America and Europe after her performance with Patrick Gilmore’s 22nd Regiment Band, in 1874.

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Traveling the globe multiple times on tour, Emma even performed with author Mark Twain in a series of programs for the Redpath Lyceum Bureau in 1876. Throughout her career, Emily was praised for her pure, clear, and powerful voice. According to The Boston Globe, “Miss Thursby sang most delightfully, as might have been expected. The purity of her voice, have absolutely correct intonation (so rare a virtue nowadays that we feel it necessary to record its presence whenever we detect it), the delicacy and refinement of her style and the intelligence of her rendering, were, each and all, worthy of the highest praise.”[1] Along with her voice, Emma was known for her pet, a talking Mynah bird, given to her in 1887. The Mynah bird could talk in five languages, seemed to understand questions just like humans, and was a marvel for people who went to see Emma perform. This bird accompanied her on tour until its death in 1899.

Towards the end of her life, Emma devoted her time to teaching students to sing. She took a final trip to Europe in 1923 with her younger sister, Ina. She experienced a probably stroke a year later in 1924, leaving her partially paralyzed. This, however, did not deter her from her duties as the “American Nightingale.”[2] She saw the end of the 1930-1931 concert season before passing away at the age of eighty-six.

Written by Kaitlyn Curtis, Flagler Senior


Emma Thursby. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Cecilia_Thursby. Accessed 2/8/2023

Gipson, Richard McCandless. The Life of Emma Thursby 1845-1931. New York: The New York Historical Society, 1940.

Guide to the Emma Thursby Papers. http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/nyhs/ms2530_emma_thursby/bioghist.html. Accessed 2/7/2023

Image 1 from Wikimedia Commons – https://www.astro.com/astro-databank/File:Emma_Thursby_001.JPG

Image 2 from Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Cecilia_Thursby#/media/File:Portret_van_Emma_Cecilia_Thursby_Emma_Thursby.jpg

[1] Richard McCandless Gipson, The Life of Emma Thursby 1845-1931 (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1940), 159.

[2] Gipson, 381.