, Newburyport, MA


December 31, 2013

Confessions of a midwife

Fornication: unlicensed lovemaking by “unnecessary familiarity, disorderly night meetings, sinful dalliance, or in any other way.”

During the 17th century, fornication was by far the most prosecuted crime in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Despite the rigid system of this New Jerusalem, nothing could temper the fever to frolic, and records show that local folks made lots of whoopee. The first fornicator tried in Essex County Court was a Newbury fellow named Robert Cocker (December 1641).

The majority of cases were married couples like Isaac Bailey and Sarah Emery. Their first child was born within 26 weeks of marriage, which provided substantial hard evidence of “unlicensed lovemaking.” The couple endured “ritual shame and expression of penitence” and then resumed their role in the Puritan order.

However, another breed of fornicators rose up in climactic numbers — the unwed type. In these paternity cases, the males generally refused to ‘fess up to the crime, and judges often turned the other cheek due to their potent status and station, while laying out firm punishment on the mothers. For instance, when Elizabeth Drew named her child’s father, no charges were brought against him; however, she received 12 lashings. In an appeal, she earned 20 more and had to wear a badge: A Slander of Mr. Zerubbabel Endicott (1654). Drew had no defense against the big-gun Endicott, and neither did the various women whom he “examined” for witch marks in 1692.

Eventually, the Puritan courts passed an amendment giving credence to a woman’s testimony. At that time, it was believed that women endured so much anguish during childbirth that they would confess the identity of the father. Who better to take this confession? The local midwife who was known to be reputable and solid. The midwife would “ferret out” confessions and her testimony would trap these deadbeat dads. When the midwife leaked daddy’s name, the only big item left burning in his britches was the coin to pay for the child’s upbringing. She also preformed a service for the community that did not want a swarm of illegitimate children on the town dole.

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