Early American Witches: Midwives
By Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS
Imagine you are in midwife in the year 1692, living in Salem, MA. You are a Puritan
in your beliefs and see your role as one of assisting women through the cycles of
life. You see birth as the role of the women; a chance to overcome the evils of Eve
through a type of resurrection brought about by travail (i.e., pain and effort) in
In this culture, you accept your place as the weaker and more vulnerable gender.
Yet, you believe there is female power in the birth process. The women - and only
the women - are central to this process, which takes place in the home. Women
gather at the home of the laboring woman and there is almost a party atmosphere
as early laobr ensues. There are even treats like groaning cake and groaning beer
at these events. Your role as midwife is central to the female life cycles of
pregnancy, birth and lactation.
Perhaps there is some feeling of connection between your world and that of the
modern day home-birth midwife. Yet, there are some real differences in that labor is
seen as rightfully painful in your worldview - this is God's will and a response to
Eve's sin. It is something to be feared and perhaps even dreaded - mothers and
babies die frequently - dependent on God's will. There is also an almost total
exclusion of men. The only men who might have any influence on your work as an
experienced midwife are the ministers and, perhaps, the educated physician.
Imagine now that it is the middle of the night. There it comes - the familiar knock on
your door by a man seeking your assistance at the birth of a woman from Salem
Village. But this knock, sometime in the spring of 1692, is from one of the guards at
the dungeon that houses the "witches" awaiting trial and/or execution in Salem. One
of the first witches named, Sarah Good, is in labor and needs your help.
You know a little about Sarah Good, as the community is abuzz with the news of the
witch trials. You know that Sarah was born into a wealthy family but lost her rights to
inheritance when her father died years ago. She is now married to a simple laborer
in Salem Village. Sarah has become a beggar in order to supplement the family
income. She is not well received by the community - seen as both ungracious and
foul-mouthed. The pipe she smokes is a potential fire hazard in a community with
many haystacks, a place where she frequently naps.
Shortly after her arrest, her young daughter (4-year-old Dorcus Good) was also
named and imprisoned for witchcraft. Just prior to confessing to the crime (perhaps
in order to stay with her mother in prison), Dorcus has provided testimony to help
convict her mother. When young Dorcus confesses, she is found to have a witch's
teat (probably a flea bite by modern medical diagnosis) on her finger, from which
she says she suckles the Devil's familiar.
As a midwife, you remember Dorcus because the court called upon one of the other
midwives you know to examine and confirm her witch's teat. You, too, have been
asked to assist with the physical examinations of many of the accused witches for
such teats. These wart-like teats are often found on a woman's private parts,
requiring a midwife as examiner. Despite this attempt to preserve modesty,
sometimes the exams take place in front of the male magistrates. However, fearing
accusations of witchcraft yourself, you comply with assisting when called upon by
authorities of the church and court.
You have heard that Sarah remained defiant during the trials, despite her
pregnancy. Three times while enroute from Salem to her jail cell in Ipswich, she
threw herself off of her horse - one time attempting suicide. Somehow, on this night,
she has made it to term gestation.
As the midwife, you arrive at the dungeon to find this woman in labor surrounded by
the most deplorable of conditions. Without the support of her close female friends
and relatives or the party atmosphere of early labor, she lies shackled to the ground
in a crowded, filthy cell to give birth to her child. Her young daughter, Dorcus, is
shackled in the same cell, helplessly watching. There is little or no sanitation or
temperature control. The moist, dank stench is overwhelming. While some of the
women are willing to help you provide support to this woman, many find Sarah a
distasteful character and ignore her, her daughter and the newborn infant.
The birth is unremarkable from a midwifery perspective. When your job is done, you
are escorted out of the cell and told to return to your home.
It is not uncommon in your time to have a child precede its mother in death. But,
this time when you hear the news, it seems a little different. Sarah is hung for
witchcraft on July 9th, only 4 months after she was named (and jailed) as one of the
first three witches. Her infant child died during her prison stay and was rumored to
have been malnourished and sickly during his/her short life. Sarah's daughter,
Dorcus, is later freed but never learns to function normally in society.
In 1710, The General Court reviewed a letter from Sarah's husband, which outlined
the injustices done to his family as follows:
1. My wife, Sarah Good, was in prison about four months then executed.
2. A suckling child in prison before the mother's execution.
3. A child of four or five years old (Dorcus Good) was in prison seven or eight
months, and being chained in the dungeon was so hardly used and terrified that she
hath ever since been very chargable, having little or no reason to govern herself.
And I leave unto the honorable Court to judge what damage I have sustained by
destruction of my poor family, and so rest Your honor's humble servant, William
As a midwife, you remember that spring night as you watch the history unfold. You
know you have done all you can and the rest is God's will.
[Editor's Note: According to the author of "The Salem Witch Trials", Marilynne K.
Roach, "Sarah Good's youngest child was born 10 December 1691 before the witch
scare (before Sarah went to prison), as recorded by Reverend Parris in his list of
Salem Village births and deaths. The baby died in Boston jail sometime between 5
April 1692 (when the jailer brought two blankets for Sarah Good's infant) and 2 June
(one of the afflicted reported the baby's ghost - and apparently had heard that the
child had died)." Details of the story are an attempt to closely follow the historic
references and recreate the role of midwifes in this culture and community, as well
as the lives of Sarah, Dorcus and Infant Good.
From a midwifery perspective, it is also noteworthy that the Towne Sisters (Rebecca
Nurse, Sarah Cloyse and Mary Easty) are related through marriage to Martha
Ballard, a midwife from Boston during the mid-to-late 1700's and the main character
in The American Experience's A Midwives Tale. Martha's daughter married Ephraim
Towne (a great nephew to Rebecca, Sarah and Mary). Ephraim Towne and his wife
lived on the Towne estate after they married. Mary Esty is my great X6 grandmother
and the inspiration for much of my writing on this topic.]
Our next issue of Empower! will look at the dichotomy of optimism and pessimist in
the Salem witch hunts.
The Midwives of Salem
Pearl Lake State Park