A Midwife’s Tale
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells the story of an eighteenth-century midwife and healer living in Maine, the plot unraveling through her own diary entries, expanded upon by Ulrich. This intimate tale of historical fiction brings to light issues of religion, economics, sexuality and the common medical practices that defined the New England frontier.
Ulrich begins each chapter transcribing some of Martha’s diary entries, listing the month and year in the chapter title. Following the diary entries, Ulrich writes essays using her own analysis to piece together the years of Martha’s life, explaining the content of the diary entries within the context of the times. Ulrich also includes diary entries from Martha’s contemporaries to further flesh out the world of eighteenth-century New England.
The woman whose diary entries we are reading, Ulrich explains, is Martha Moore. Born in 1735 in a small town called Oxford, Massachusetts, she belonged to a well-educated family. In 1754, she married Ephraim Ballard and two years later, she gave birth to her first child, Cyrus. Martha went on to have five more children, four daughters, as well as another son, but three of her girls were lost to a diphtheria epidemic in 1769.
That same year, Ephraim traveled to Maine with the hope of finding a new home for the family. He decided to settle in Hallowell, taking ownership of a mill and property that had been owned by a British sympathizer who fled to Canada. Martha and the children joined Ephraim there where Martha became a midwife, delivering her first child in July of 1778.
Through her diary entries, Martha gives detailed accounts about various medical procedures she was expected to perform in her role as a midwife. These included delivering babies, preparing bodies for burial, dispensing pills, making medical calls, and collecting and preparing healing herbs. Ulrich follows this entry by providing an overview of common homeopathic remedies of this time, and the way medical tasks were divided between physicians and healers.
Martha writes about a trade network established between the women in the community where she and her daughters would trade goods with other households in the community. She also writes of the household chores she is expected to perform and how she is helped by her daughters, particularly with the task of weaving.
Ulrich goes on to explain the gendered division of labor and how the women in the community would create their own economic subsystem contingent on trade and barter.
In November 1792, Martha writes that her niece, Parthenia Barton, who has been living with Martha and her family for some time, gets married to Shubael Pitts. Then Martha’s own daughter Hannah marries Moses Pollard, the son of an old family friend and the town nurse. Ulrich explains the common marriage practices of the day, writing that people often had very simple weddings that were the product of the labor of the entire community and that most couples would live apart until they had the means to set up a household together.
Martha’s son, Jonathan, gets married after being named as the father of Sally Pierce’s illegitimate baby. Martha tends to her during her delivery, where Sally names Martha’s son the father and sues him for support. Jonathan does the honorable thing and marries her.
Martha also writes about several complication-free deliveries she performs following the weddings. Ulrich explains that these would have been notable as complications were not uncommon in the birthing process at the time. She offers a detailed explanation about how these deliveries might have gone wrong, comparing Martha’s success rate to the success rate in other periods throughout history.
After Martha’s youngest daughter gets married, she writes about how the difficulty of managing the housework has become a real problem since she has lost the help of her children. In November of the same year, Martha recalls how her husband had been attacked by a band of armed men while he was out on a survey job. Ulrich explains that poor settlers often felt threatened by the presence of surveyors, seeing them as agents of richer men seeking to take away the land that the settlers felt was rightfully theirs.
In March 1804, Martha writes of her persistent weariness, worn down by hired help that turned out to be untrustworthy and issues with her bad-tempered alcoholic son. Ephraim has been imprisoned for debts incurred in his job as a tax collector. Martha describes the difficulty of being a woman on her own. Ulrich gives a detailed description of what prison life would have been like for Ephraim at the time.
In May 1809, Martha writes of her dedication to her garden, which preoccupies much of her time. Her grandchildren are now old enough to help with the housework, providing her with a renewed source of labor and freeing up her time so that she may attend to more births than ever. She continues to perform her midwifery duties until the stress of the births becomes too much for her in her old age.