By Bill Miller
Perhaps I should dedicate this article to my wife because she inspired it, accidently. She was sharing stories from her latest “favorite book” by Patricia Harman, “The Reluctant Midwife.” As usual, I responded with, “We have a midwife in our family tree, and she had a terrible experience.” So, here’s the story, with a warning: For mature readers only.
Anne Hutchinson, my 12th great-grandmother, who I recently introduced as “Our Founding Mother,” was also Boston’s midwife in the 1630s. She was trained for the job by helping her mother deliver several of her 15 siblings, and participating in all 16 of her own deliveries. She was a graduate of Hard Knocks Medical School.
Anne had moved to Boston in 1634 with her wealthy merchant husband, William, and their 15 children. She quickly built a reputation as a trusted midwife, nurse and spiritual leader for the women of Boston. Consequently, on the evening of October 17, 1637, Mistress Anne was summoned to help deliver a child for Mary Dyer, 26 year old wife of milliner, William Dyer, and my 11th great-grandparents. Mary went into labor two months prematurely and things were not going well. The very painful delivery went on for hours. Mary finally fainted from the pain. While she was unconscious, midwives Anne and Jane Hawkins delivered a stillborn female, with extensive deformities of the head, spinal column and extremities. They were in a terrible predicament. They wanted to protect Mary and William from public shame, and they realized that the Puritan fathers would interpret it as God’s judgement on their sins. What do you do with the body? English law allowed a midwife to bury a dead baby, but the Massachusetts Court forbid it.
To protect the Dyers’ reputation, they tightly wrapped the dead baby, to hide its deformities, and told the waking Mary that the baby was dead. Then, realizing that they could be charged with evil intent, or worse, around midnight Anne ran to the home of Rev. Cotton, whom they had followed to Boston, to ask his advice. Late that night, Rev. Cotton and the two midwives secretly buried the baby in the Boston Church Cemetery, according to English law.
Several weeks later, Anne was being tried as a “heretic” before a jury of Puritan clerics, for leading a Bible study for women. Suddenly, Mary Dyer showed up in her defense. As Mary walked down the aisle, a woman in the room pointed to Mary and proclaimed, “She is the mother of a monster!” Gov. Winthrope immediately inquired about the details, and then ordered the baby exhumed and brought to him. He wrote his description of the child’s deformities for all to read: “The eyes stood far out, so did the mouth…the back was full of sharp prickles…instead of toes each foot had three claws…no head but a face…no forehead…but above the eyes four horns, hard and sharp.” I said this was for mature readers! Winthrope put the infant corpse on public display, and even sent his description to England, all to prove that Mary and Anne were monsters in the eyes of God.
Just for the record, my favorite, active midwife tells me that the baby’s condition is called anencephaly. “It is a neural tube defect which occurs in the embryonic period. The baby is missing part of the skull and brain and is very deformed. Most are stillborn, or live less than two weeks. Many years ago such babies were called “Monsters.”
I never found out how much Anne got paid for her midwife services, but I know it wasn’t enough. As a result of this tragic midwife delivery, coupled with some theological conflicts with the Puritan clergy, Great-grandma Anne got thrown out of Massachusetts and moved her family to Rhode Island. Later she co-founded the State of Rhode Island with Roger Williams. I wonder if midwives were covered by workers compensation!
One of the special rewards of doing genealogy is you sometimes get to see what your ancestors did with their lives, and it becomes part of your story. If you would like help finding the stories in your family tree, come to Lake Lure Genealogy Club on the second Tuesday of each month at 3:00 in Mountains Branch Library.