Another “monstrous birth” in New England

Allow me one more post on this last day of Women's History Month about Anne Hutchinson, the midwife in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who was banished to Rhode Island for heresy.

The pregnancy Hutchinson had been carrying during her civil and ecclesiastical trials turned out to have been probably the first hydatidiform mole, or molar pregnancy, in New England, according to a 1959 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.Anne Hutchinson

This freakish obstetrical event, which occurs in about 1 in 2,000 pregnancies in the United States today (it is 10 times more common in Asia), happens when a pregnancy goes awry and turns into a mass of tissue in the uterus. The mass might grow for several months, and lumps of tissue might eventually be "delivered." Such a "birth" event would likely be upsetting to anyone, but given the beliefs of the time, it carried a dark judgment on Hutchinson's state of grace.

She was safe in Rhode Island, but the event was sensational news. Imagine the response of her nemesis, Gov. John Winthop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when he heard that not only had Hutchinson attended Mary Dyer's "monstrous birth," but now had also delivered one of her own.

I can't stop wondering how Hutchinson felt about this. Although the austere religion practiced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony never allowed anyone to take salvation for granted, according to Calvinism, God's favorite people should be easy to spot: They prospered in this life as well as the next.

Hutchinson herself had had a comfortable life in England, and even in Massachusetts she was a member of the church, the wife of a prosperous textile manufacturer and the mistress of an elegant home right across the road from Gov. Winthrop's, according to Selma R. Williams in Divine Rebel: The Life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson.

Yet her life in America was one catastrophe after another. Hutchinson was a deeply religious woman. Did she feel God's presence so strongly that she was able to dismiss the evidence others saw of His disfavor? Or was she constitutionally unable to listen to people she judged unlikely conduits of the word of God? In any event, she spoke her mind, she stood for what she believed in, and she moved us all forward.

A “monstrous” birth

Having a baby with a birth defect could get you killed in colonial America, and attending such a birth as a midwife was also perilous.

Anne Hutchinson, the subject of the previous post, was already in serious trouble in Puritan Boston for her unorthodox ideas when she was summoned along with another midwife, Jane Hawkins, to the childbed of her friend, Mary Dyer, who had remained loyal to Anne. On that day in October of 1637, Mary bore a deformed, stillborn baby girl.

The birth of a "monster," as such a child was called in colonial America, was seen as a sign of God's disfavor, at the very least. The charge that the mother and her attendants had been consorting with the devil was always possible, and the penalty for witchcraft could be death.

Anne asked her old minister for help -- John Cotton, who had sided with the religious authorities against her. Summoning some of his old friendship for her, he advised the secret burial of the dead infant.

However, in March of 1638, when Anne was excommunicated and sent from the congregation, Mary got up and followed her. Someone at the emotional scene, perhaps a fourth woman who had been present at the birth, cried out that Mary had borne a monster. Governor John Winthrop's interest was piqued.

Winthrop interrogated Cotton, who confessed his role in covering up the birth. Winthrop had the child exhumed.

In his journal, the governor reported that the dead infant had, among other features, "four horns, hard and sharp," two mouths, and three claws per foot where her toes should have been.

The birth was, Winthrop declared, evidence of  "the Lord declaring his detestation of their monstrous errors." By this time, however, Anne and her followers, including the Dyers, were safe in Rhode Island.

In 1660, long after Anne's death, Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of having become a Quaker. She had come back from Rhode Island knowing she would likely be executed, to strike a blow for religious freedom.