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 Midwife’s Tale

Only one American midwife of the Revolutionary War era left a diary that has been recovered, Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine. It is a fairly basic document. Some entries are just a few words. Still, between 1785 and 1812, a time of incredible change in New England, Martha tended her diary regularly.

A Midwife's Tale

A Midwife's Tale

In 1990, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich used her own considerable knowledge of the period to connect the dots in Ballard's diary. The result was A Midwife's Tale, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards. It is a terrific book, and it was made into a film for PBS's "American Experience."

One of the best things about A Midwife's Tale is the fact that Ulrich has given us a fully fleshed-out picture of Martha Ballard, and has at the same time retained her distinctive voice. Ballard was a religious, hard-working wife and mother who trained her daughters and other young women to assist her, understood the medicinal uses of the plants she grew in her kitchen garden, and in her prime delivered two-thirds of the children in Hallowell.

The town had more than one doctor, but in 816 births over the course of 27 years, Martha called a doctor in to help her with a birth just twice. In all those years, Martha saw 19 babies and five mothers die just before, during or just after birth.

While childbirth rested on a community of women when Ballard began her career, one of the tensions of the book comes out of the inroads male doctors were already making into midwifery by the time Martha died in 1812.