J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Abortion case in 1742 Connecticut

I didn't expect to stay so long on the topic of American Revolutionaries' religious views, but this morning I learned that Prof. Larry Cebula of Missouri Southern State has posted some more primary sources on the topic on a page called Faiths of the Founders.

Prof. Cebula is coming from an environment where many students have simply assumed the founders basically shared their own form of Christianity. To help them examine those assumptions, he's chosen several documents in which big-name founders express deistic and Unitarian views. Traditional eighteenth-century Anglicanism, Congregationalism, and Presbyterianism are therefore underrepresented relative to their dominance at the time. We should also remember the minority religions of the colonies: Quaker, Baptist, Sephardic Jewish, Moravian, Sandemanian, Native American, West African, &c. Finally, I think it might be too easy to assume that, say, a Presbyterian service of the 1800s would feel familiar to a Presbyterian today; customs and values have changed so much that it would probably be more like going into a completely new church or temple and trying to follow along.

Prof. Cebula also has a page of primary documents on A Colonial Abortion Drama. This case was first studied by Cornelia Hughes Dayton in a 1991 article for the William & Mary Quarterly. In 1742, Sarah Grosvenor of Pomfret, Connecticut, died, apparently from the effects of a combined medicinal-surgical abortion that had produced a miscarriage. Four years later, Grosvenor's sexual partner, Amasa Davis, and the abortion provider, Dr. John Hallowell of Killingley, were indicted for her murder.

Prof. Cebula has posted the grand jury indictment, written testimony, jury verdict, and notes on what became of the principal figures in the case. I won't give away the ending of the story since the point of his webpage is for visitors to use the documents to figure out what happened for themselves.

But here are some observations:

  • This example of abortion in colonial America would never have come to light without the court case. If Grosvenor had survived and/or if the families had decided to keep the situation private, there would have been no public record to examine. Davis and Hallowell were tried to killing Grosvenor, not for inducing the miscarriage.
  • It was quite common for couples like Grosvenor and Davis to conceive a child before marrying. Indeed, in the mid-1700s historians have counted 30% of New England couples' first children being born within seven months of their marriage. That number is considerably higher than for the late 1600s, telling me that the oppressive moral regime of the Puritans did affect people's private behavior.
  • In eighteenth-century New England, if a young unmarried woman became pregnant, the father-to-be was expected to marry her. Then they'd have as many more children as they could, with little said about the circumstances of the first pregnancy. In some cases, such as Ebenezer Richardson, the father-to-be couldn't marry the mother-to-be because he already had a wife. Amasa Davis was unusual in being free to marry Sarah Grosvenor, but refusing.
  • The four-year lag between Grosvenor's death and the legal move is intriguing—as is the jury's focus on Dr. Hallowell. In cases like these, I wonder if there was some knowledge in the community that didn't get into the legal record. For instance, had Grosvenor's family become upset by Davis's behavior in the years after she died? Had townspeople come to distrust Hallowell as a doctor? We'll never know.
[Special apologies to Prof. Cebula and anyone from Missouri Southern State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi Southern University {which may not even exist}, and the states of Missouri and Mississippi, especially the southern parts, for getting them mixed up twice. Up here we pronounce any long state beginning with M as "Massachusetts."]


Larry said...

Thanks for the post! I really need to do some more work on this project and incorporate some of the suggestions and observations that you and others have made. It needs to be repeated, as I write on the web page, that I only became aware of these documents via the amazing work of Cornelia Dayton, whose William and Mary Quarterly article "Taking the Trade" is must reading for any historian of early America.

And a small correction--I am at Missouri Southern State University, not Mississippi State!

Cordially, Larry Cebula

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Prof. Cebula, for the correction on Mississippi Southern versus Mississippi State. From this distance, it's too easy to miss that distinction. I've corrected the essay to reflect it.

Anonymous said...

No, Missouri Southern, MISSOURI! I so love Boston, but the world ends where the T stops for you people doesn't it?

Anyway, I just discovered your blog today and I can see it is going to be one of my daily reads. Wonderful work you are doing.

--Larry Cebula

J. L. Bell said...

As an excuse, all I can do is quote Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr's Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table:

A jaunty-looking person, who had come in with the young fellow they call John,—evidently a stranger,—said there was one more wise man's saying that he had heard; it was about our place, but he didn't know who said it. . . .

"Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar."

Sir,—said I,—I am gratified with your remark. It expresses with pleasing vivacity that which I have sometimes heard uttered with malignant dulness. The satire of the remark is essentially true of Boston,—and of all other considerable—and inconsiderable—places with which I have had the privilege of being acquainted. Cockneys think London is the only place in the world. Frenchmen—you remember the line about Paris, the Court, the World, etc.—I recollect well, by the way, a sign in that city which ran thus: "Hôtel de l'Univers et des États Unis"; and as Paris is the universe to a Frenchman, of course the United States are outside of it.—"See Naples and then die."—It is quite as bad with smaller places. I have been about, lecturing, you know, and have found the following propositions to hold true of all of them.

1. The axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the centre of each and every town or city.

2. If more than fifty years have passed since its foundation, it is affectionately styled by the inhabitants the "good old town of ----(whatever its name may happen to be.)"

3. Every collection of its inhabitants that comes together to listen to a stranger is invariably declared to be a "remarkably intelligent audience."

4. The climate of the place is particularly favorable to longevity.

5. It contains several persons of vast talent little known to the world. (One or two of them, you may perhaps chance to remember, sent short pieces to the "Pactolian" some time since, which were "respectfully declined.")

Boston is just like other places of its size;—only perhaps, considering its excellent fish-market, paid fire-department, superior monthly publications, and correct habit of spelling the English language, it has some right to look down on the mob of cities.

[Oh, the irony.]