, Newburyport, MA

December 31, 2013

Confessions of a midwife

As I See It
Melissa Berry

---- — 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.

When Constable Henry Jacques was named “upon proof” with Eleanor Bryer, his wife’s niece, he fled to New Jersey. Henry was no doubt in hot water with his wife, Anna, Deacon Richard Knight’s daughter. When Bryer appeared in court with uncle John Knight (1666), Jacques was nowhere to be found. The judge ordered Jacques “to appear in court upon penalty of having 30% of his estate seized and of being disenfranchised” (EC 3:309). Jacques did return with his tail between his legs and the deacon kept his son-in-law’s paws busy erecting the new meetinghouse

In 1670, Eleanor Bailey and Judith March, midwives to Anne Chase, were more than glad to offer up big daddy James Allen. He had forced himself on the young lass while she was working at a Salisbury home. Bailey asserted, “At the point of death, she still affirmed she told the truth.” Furthermore, the midwife had known Chase for over two years at the time of the birth and had “never seen any unseemly carriage in her at all time” (EC 4:24).

Joseph Mayo was pinned by Newbury midwives Dole, Thurley and Moores. They delivered this chap and rallied firm and hard to get a conviction. All were present during the birth of Hannah Adams’ child (October 1678) and gave sworn testimony that Mayo was the father (EC 7:138). Adams’ brother represented her in court, and the judge ordered Mayo to “pay from the times of the child’s birth and 20s. to Abraham Adams” (7:137). Additionaly, in a November 1679 session, the court ordered him “to pay 30s. per week until further notice” (7: 316). However, Mayo’s daddy drama did not end here.

Mayo also shared his love potion with Adams’ half-sister, Sarah Short, listed on the September 1679 court docket next to Hannah Adams (7:265). In May, Sarah’s brother Henry brought a complaint against Mayo, but then in June, he withdrew it, as Mayo agreed to marry Sarah. The conjugal math shows that while Mayo was visiting the expecting Hannah, he impregnated Sarah. In the end, Mayo made out like a bandit from spreading his seed, receiving a hefty dowry and estate from Short.

In the Priscilla Wilson-Samuel Appleton fornication case, midwife Hawthorne gave quite a scandalous testimony. According to her, “the child was the image of Mr. Samuell Appleton from the crowne to the foote” (EC 9:65). No doubt, Appleton was in the doghouse! His new bride was with child and his father on the bench, but Wilson’s father held high rank as well, so a compromise was reached. In the end, Appleton dodged a guilty verdict when the infant died shortly after birth. The court ordered him to pay half of all associated costs, and his wife surely put him on a tighter leash.

All things considered, the Essex County judges should have been grateful that they had lovers making unlawful entry between the sheets rather than on the streets!


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