Midwives – and witchcraft?

As Lydia, one of the principle characters (married to my detective Will Rees) prepares to deliver their first baby, my thoughts turned to births. In that time both maternal and infant mortality was high. It was not uncommon for a man to be buried in a church yard with several wives.

Most women, especially those in the country, had their babies delivered by a midwife. For one thing, it was considered indecent for a man to witness the birth. Male physicians were just beginning to make inroads in delivering babies in the cities. Thousands of women who were burned in Europe as witches were midwives and healers . Why? Well. everyone knew women, who were ill-educated to begin with,¬† were too stupid to learn something like this so the knowledge had to have a supernatural origin, i.e. the Devil. This in spite of the fact that midwives have been part of human history for millennia and there were less deaths when midwives delivered the babies. They washed their hands. Male doctors, according to the history I’ve read, did not and they passed bacteria from one woman to another, with maternal death following.

What did midwives do? Think about this: there were no pain killers other than alcohol and opium and anyway it was thought women should suffer. After all, they were guilty of listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden and persuading Adam to eat the forbidden apple. Queen Victoria popularized pain killers during birth. (Smart woman).

There were no stethoscopes. They were not invented until 1816 and then looked like a long tube. Forceps were invented centuries earlier but were risky. Obstetric tools discovered in 1813 included forceps used by a male physician so they were known and used by then.

But midwives helped with the breathing, cut the cord, and some experienced midwives could turn a baby who was in a breech position. After the birth, they cleaned the baby, removing the mucous from nose and mouth, and made sure the cry was robust. Usually the midwife had an apprentice or two.

Now, with an interest in ‘natural birth’, we have come full circle back to midwives.

Witches and witch hunts after Salem

Although the witch craze in Salem ended, with many consequences as I have mentioned in an earlier post, the belief in witches did not end. With an increasing interest and belief in science, a belief in witches faded but did not disappear, either in Europe or in the Colonies – new United States. Legally, a witch trial and a judicial solution to perceived witch craft became unlikely (and I imagine that the uncritical acceptance of spectral evidence by Samuel Parris in Salem had a lot to do with increasing skepticism) hanging by lynch mobs could still happen.

In Europe women were still attacked and in some cases executed for witchcraft. In Denmanrk (1800), in Poland in 1836 and even in Britain in 1863. Violence continued in France through the 1830’s. And in the United States, as previously mentioned, Ann Lee of the Shakers was arrested and charged for blasphemy in 1783. But she was released.

In the 1830s a prosecution was begun against a man (yes) in Tennessee. Even as recently as 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured members of her family for the use of folk magic against them.

Why am I blogging about witchcraft? Well, one of the comments about one of my earlier posts talked about the influence of one person in swaying a community to hunting a witch. No matter how you look at it, most of the motivations behind witch hunts show the worst of human nature. Readings I’ve done point to class warfare and gender conflict. And while it is true that in some European countries men have been accused, in most of Europe and the United States the ones hunted have been women. There are a variety of opinions: control of a woman’s sexuality for one. The control of women’s reproductive life (and the eradication of midwives) for another. Considering what is still happening here I believe it. But some of the other motivations are equally as unflattering: greed, malice, revenge.

With all of this bouncing around in my head, I’ve decided that my next Will Rees (after Death in Salem) will look at some of these themes. You heard it here first.

Salem Witches – Personal relationships

I wonder what happened when officials stepped in from outside put a halt to the goings on in Salem. Think what it must have been like living there at this time. Actions have consequences. Salem ( a misnomer since the action really took place in a small town named Danvers and, later, Salem Village) was a small community. Those accused were friends, family and neighbors of their accusers. How could you forgive the ones who hanged one of your family members as a witch and terrorized the others? What kind of amends would be enough? Speaking for myself, I am not sure this is something I could ever forgive. I would guess that, despite the end of the witch hunts, this village remained troubled for years.
Some believe that the curses laid upon the accusers, the judges, and the ones who executed the alleged witches are in effect to this day. Giles Corey was pressed to death, the only one not hanged. He cursed all the Sheriffs to die before their time forever. Oddly enough, quite a few have died from various chest related illnesses.
Financial reparations were paid beginning in the early 1700s. Would this be enough to ease the grief? Many of those whose family members had been accused or hanged moved away to a new Village called Salem’s End. We can’t know what they are feeling but I would guess PTSD would be the least of it. How could one every trust anyone ever again? People on both sides: the accused and the accusers, changed their names. One of the hanging judges was a Hathorne; Nathaniel Hawthorne added the w. And the Nurse family, right in the thick of the storm, moved away and became Nourses.
And what about those who remained firm in their belief that the accusations had merit? That the hangings were valid?
Reverend Parris was one who continued to defend his actions, refusing to believe – or behave as though he believed – that he had been in the wrong. Right from the beginning he was a believer in the girls’ tales. He accepted the testimony of ‘spectral evidence’. He remained in his post in the village. (Can you imagine what Sunday morning in church must have been like? All the hard looks and muttered comments and the minister who had really supported the crisis sermonizing from the pulpit.) It must have been a nightmare.
Anyway, those who opposed Parris (and I would guess there would be many) tried to force him to leave. The battle went on for several years. Finally ministers and other important personages from Boston were called in to render an opinion. But it was not until 1696, four years later, that Parris finally stepped down.
Parrish had a very hard time finding another post. (Consequences, remember?) He finally ended up in a tiny town in western Mass, the frontier at that time and the target of regular Indian attacks. Salem had trouble finding a replacement. (Anyone surprised?) The village finally accepted a young man just out of school.
In the wider political world, the storm in Salem adversely affected the futures of both Cotton and Increase Mather, destroying their influence. Admittedly, I am not as conversant with the politics of that time as perhaps I could be but in my view there was some duplicity in Cotton Mather’s behavior during the witch trials. In any event, the witch trials and all the consequences stemming from them destroyed the hold of Puritanism on New England and the developing country.

More about Salem and the 1692 witches

A lot has been written about the Witch Terror in Salem in 1692. To a modern eyes, the easy belief in the veracity of a group of girls is incredible. (Obviously, mean girls have been around for a long time). In another post I talked about the possibility of ergot poisoning (i.e. LSD) which I am sure would be terrifying, especially to a person who couldn’t explain to himself what was happening. But was this the whole story?

I think we all want to know what happened. It seems as though the town lost its collective mind.


We know it was a superstitious age. But I can’t believe EVERYONE believed in the supernatural. In fact, one of the essayists of the time, Robert Calef, believed that the trials had been engineered by Cotton Mather for personal gain. (I doubt that. Evidently fighting out different opinions in print is not a new phenomenon). And anyway, other motivations for accusing someone of witchcraft have been documented. It wasn’t only ergot poisoning or fear of the devil. Sometimes it was for gain:The old biddy hasn’t died and I want her little farm, for example. Sometimes it was to settle scores. Apparently at least part of the reason behind the accusations directed at the Nurse family had resentment and the desire for payback at the bottom.

I wonder about the girls. Clearly, once the excitement began, they kept upping the ante. I suspect they didn’t want to lose the attention. And, considering that girls were supposed to be docile and subservient then, one can understand why they would want to break out. Be the center of attention for once. Accusing half the town of consorting with the devil seems a tad extreme though. And if you look at their futures – what happens after the big crisis and the turn of the century – they pretty much disappear. Some are documented as getting married, several moved out of Salem. (No surprise there, right?) Was there a leader among the girls with followers too frightened to say anything? I wouldn’t be surprised.

What happened to Tituba, the black slave whose stories of her past are widely credited with starting the whole witch craze. Since the stories she told about her life and her religion, voodoo, found fertile ground among the girls and seems to have served as part of the bedrock, it is surprising to me that Tituba wasn’t hanged. But although she went to jail she was not hanged.

Salem Tunnels -late eighteenth century

So there were already some tunnels in Salem linking the fine houses, the docks, the brothels and the counting houses. Many of the men who had made their fortunes running privateers became Senators, a Secretary of State, and other wealthy and influential men. As Salem shipping imported cargo from Russia, India, the East Indies, and finally China, Salem became not only the sixth largest city in the U.S. but the wealthiest. Custom duties to a large degree supported the Federal Government.
To collect these duties during the time Rees visited Salem, the merchant ships were required to tie up about three miles out. The customs inspector would row out to inspect the cargo and assess the duties. Do I believe that this prevented smuggling? Not a chance. I’m sure a number of shippers found ways to circumvent these efforts and used the already existing tunnels to transport goods to the counting houses out of sight of the prying eyes.
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States and began, not only enforcing the already existing laws on the books but put in new strict laws on the collection of duties. The harbor was silting up and New Bedford, Boston, and other ports would soon become more prominent. Elias Haskell Derby Jr. found it difficult to maintain his lifestyle. He embarked on a building program in the Commons, and put in tunnels to the wharves, the counting houses and the banks. But isn’t 1801 is several years after Death in Salem? Yes, that is so but a number of the houses listed as having tunnels connected to them were built before 1797.
I made a leap and decided to claim there were many tunnels prior to the Derby scion in 1801. The tunnels would have been helpful during the Revolutionary War and the British incursion, especially when it would have been important to move goods without British knowledge.
Finally, my excuse for this bit of slippery history is: Well, the story is fiction and I think the tunnels could have been there and been used as I described.

Tunnels in Salem – Privateers

As the conflict between the Colonies and Great Britain heated up, privateers began smuggling goods into the colonies. What is a privateer? Basically a legal pirate. Privateer ships were privately owned and armed ship bearing a letter of marque from the State legalizing piracy.

Salem ships would stream out of port in the mornings and many would return with prizes by evening. Even the fishing shallops joined in the fun. Two-thirds of the square-rigged ships were captured by the British but the faster  sloops did much better. Many of the captains of the shipping industry got their start with the prizes captured (or stolen depending upon your point of view) from the British.

In defense of the British, they were having financial problems, due mainly to the almost continual wars with France. And it must have been frustrating to have Ships, little more than pirates, stopping their ships and taking the cargo.

The Brand new United States of America found itself in a similar situation after the War of Independence. The new country was broke. Soldiers in the Continental Army had not been paid and there was no money to pay them so they were offered land on the frontier (which was western Pennsylvania at that time.) Some of these soldiers sold the land at rock bottom prices but many moved west to claim their property, adding themselves to the sparse population already there. To fill the empty coffers of this new country, Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on whiskey. This became the seed for one of the first challenges to face the new government – the Whiskey Rebellion of 1793. But I digress. That’s the lure and excitement of history – everything is so interlinked.