Confessions of a Colonial Midwife

Midwives assisting unwed mothers were often expected to testify in court and reveal the father’s name. Puritans believed that women endured so much anguish during childbirth that they would make a confession to the trusted midwife, thereby saving the community from the expense of raising a child.

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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 Massachusetts Bay Colony. Despite its rigid legal system, the New Jerusalem could not temper the fever to frolic. The first guilty dallier on record was a Newbury fellow named Robert Cocker. (RFQCEC:1641)

The majority of cases were married couples. Usually a 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 of Salem 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 (RFQCEC:1654). Zerubbabel was the brother of John Endicott, colonial magistrate, soldier, and governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Drew had no defense against the big-gun Endicott, and neither did the various women whom he “examined” for witch marks in 1692.

Marie Chandler daughter of a Boston shoemaker was sentenced to be whipped for fornication. She had “unlicensed familiarity” with John Croxton, John Hudson, Roger Deuhurst, and William Clarke. Although it was not “officially” documented, a few of the descendants claim Chandler had visited the men on a French frigate in Salem Harbor.

The court had an open confession from Chandler, but postponed punishment until her “sore breasts and boyles” healed. (RFQCEC:1645) The court obviously could not enforce custody payments, but the putative fathers to her unborn child were fined 40s each.

Hannah Goffe, daughter of Colonel John Goffe of Roxbury did not go before magistrates, but instead was excommunicated by her church and disowned by her family. The records record the following: ” Hannah Goffe for great scandalous sins “wicked fornication, and baudery,” (REHB) Hannah was left to fend for herself and child.

Hannah skirted to Rhode Island and gave birth to her son Joseph. She married Mr. William Hopkins from Providence Plantation and returned to Roxbury in October 1679 were she was accepted back in. The records note she did “confesse her sins & manifest her repentance for fornication & runing away to Road Iland & was absolved & received to take hold on the covenant.” (RFQCEC).

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 he knew he have to part with some heavy 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. The midwives would “adjudicate” for the courts on behalf of the mothers too ill to attend sessions or in cases of premature births. One thing for sure the midwives did not mess around and took on a “quasi-judicial, inquisitorial role.”

When Essex County 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, Jacques was nowhere to be found. The judge ordered Jacques “to appear in court upon penalty of having 30 percent of his estate seized and of being disenfranchised” (RFQCEC:1666:). 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 James Allen. He had forced himself on the young lass while she was working at a Salisbury, Massachusetts 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” (RFQCEC:1670).

Joseph Mayo found himself on the wrong side of the law. He was pinned by midwives Sarah Dole, Anne Thurley and Constance Moores. They delivered this chap and rallied firm and hard to get a conviction. All were present during the birth of Hannah Adams‘s child and gave sworn testimony that Mayo was the father. (RFQCEC:1678)

Samuel Appleton

Adams’s 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.” Additionally, in a November 1679 session, the court ordered him “to pay 30s. per week until further notice.” However, Mayo’s daddy drama did not end here. (RFQCEC:1679)

Mayo also shared his love potion with Adams’s half-sister, Sarah Short, listed on the September 1679 court docket next to Hannah Adams (RFQCEC). 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 Elizabeth Hawthorne gave quite a scandalous testimony. According to her, “the child was the image of Mr. Samuell Appleton from the crowne to the foote” (RFQCRC:1670). 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.

One thing is for certain the Massachusetts Bay Colony judges owe much to the midwives who solved these crimes by a simple kiss and tell!

Sources to Consult

Chandler, Abby, At the Magistrates Discretion: Sexual Crime and New England Law, 1636—1718, Electronic Thesis and Dissertations 2008.
Ulrich, Laurel, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650—1750. 1982.
Hambleton, Else L. Daughters of Eve: Pregnant Brides and Unwed Mothers in Seventeenth Century Essex County, Massachusetts. 2004.
Smith, Merrill D. Sex and Sexuality in Early America. 1998.
Dow, George Francis. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County [RFEQEC] Massachusetts, published by Essex Institute, 1919.
Cark, Connie. Midwifery in Colonial America, 2011.
Thompson, Roger. “Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649—1699. University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Whitmore, William H. Records Relating to the Early History of Boston [REH]. Boston, Massachusetts Registry, 1884.