Sunday, September 27, 2009

Puritan Monster

The other day, I finished Eve LaPlante's American Jezebel, a biography of Anne Hutchinson:

I won't review it now, and may not do so here at all. Still haven't decided, though I'll recommend it generally. (I will give in to the temptation to yet again recommend Linebaugh and Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra:)

But I did want to share one story from the book that struck me. It concerns a stillbirth of Mary Dyer in Boston in 1637 and the responses to it:

Only three weeks before her trial, on a balmy October night in 1637, Hutchinson had sought and received private advice from [John] Cotton about a matter that, had the other ministers learned of it, would have caused an outcry. The matter was the birth of a deformed stillborn to a Boston couple, an event that most of their neighbors would have seen as evidence of God’s displeasure with the baby’s parents.

On October 17, Mary Dyer, the twenty-six-year-old wife of the milliner, William Dyer, went into labor two months before her due date and lost consciousness. The midwife Jane Hawkins, who was attending her at home, sent a man on horseback to summon Mistress Anne Hutchinson to assist in the birth. Later that evening, with both midwives present, Mary Dyer delivered a stillborn female with extensive deformities of the head, spinal column, and extremities.

To protect Mary and her husband from public shame, Hutchinson and Hawkins swaddled the tiny corpse, concealing its deformities. When Mary Dyer regained consciousness, the midwives told her only that her baby had died. But what to do with the body? Anne Hutchinson proposed that they bury it and not speak of it again. The risk of this, as both she and Jane Hawkins knew, was that if townspeople heard what had happened, they would suspect evil intent, which would only intensify the Dyers’ shame. English common law allowed a midwife to bury a dead baby in private, as long as ‘neither hog nor dog nor any other beast come into it’, but the Massachusetts court had forbidden this practice as a way of preventing attempts at abortion. Anne Hutchinson thought to ask Reverend Cotton for his advice.

Well past midnight, she walked from the Dyers’ house, at the corner of what is now Summer Street, to the Cottons’ gabled mansion…

…Anne tapped on the parlor window, and the minister let her in. in the candlelight, she described Mary Dyer’s birthing and requested his counsel.

Yes, conceal it, Cotton agreed, aware of the English custom and law. She thanked him and went back out into the night. Before dawn, she and Jane Hawkins buried the baby. According to one account, Cotton accompanied the midwives and dug the grave. A few other women who had been present at the difficult birth knew of the baby’s state. But no man in the colony save John Cotton, William Dyer, and probably Will Hutchinson knew that the midwives and the minister had conspired to save the Dyers additional pain (pp. 88-9).
This seemed to me so compassionate and moral. Hutchinson and the others weren't just concerned with protecting Dyer socially, but emotionally as well. There was nothing to be gained from their actions socially or - to their imaginations - with their deity, and in fact they took a great risk, motivated only, it appears, by the desire to spare others pain. Which is why I found the denouement so sickening:

[At the conclusion of her church trial, at which she was publicly excummunicated] Holding her head high, [Hutchinson] stood, turned, and walked swiftly to the meetinghouse door. Now she took the proffered hand of her friend Mary Dyer, whom she had aided after her difficult birth. A group of Anne’s supporters, shrunken by the many banishments, disenfranchisements, and voluntary exiles from the colony, clustered around the rude wooden door that led out to the late-winter light.

[John] Winthrop was unaware, as he watched Mistresses Hutchinson and Dyer in the rear of the meetinghouse, of the events in October that had followed Dyer’s stillbirth. Within a week, however, word of the ‘monster’ that Dyer had borne – and that Hutchinson and Hawkins, with Cotton’s support, had secretly buried – would reach the governor, horrifying him. He had always admired the charming and attractive young Mary Dyer, but now she seemed ‘of a very proud spirit’, ‘much addicted to revelations’, and ‘notoriously infected with Mistress Hutchinson’s errors’. Of the Dyer baby, he would report in his journal:

It was so monstrous and misshapen as the like that scarce been heard of. It had no head but a face, which stood so low upon the breast, as the ears, which were like an ape’s, grew upon the shoulders.

The eyes stood far out, so did the mouth. The nose was hooking upward. The breast and back was full of sharp prickles, like a thornback [an ocean dweller with thornlike spines]. The navel and all the belly with the distinction of the sex were where lower part of the back and hips should have been, and those back parts were on the side the face stood.

The arms and hands, with the thighs and legs, were as other children’s, but instead of toes it had upon each foot three claws, with talons like a young fowl. Upon the back above the belly it had two great holes, like mouths, and in each of them stuck out a piece of flesh.

It had no forehead, but in the place thereof, above the eyes, four horns, whereof two were above an inch long, hard, and sharp.

The infant’s condition is consistent with a severe birth anomaly, anencephaly, the partial or total absence of the brain, according to modern medical experts. The horns, talons, and prickles are, however, embellishment.

‘Many things were observable in the birth and discovery of this monster’, the governor would note. The Dyers were ‘Familists, and very active in maintaining their party. The midwife, one Hawkin’s wife, of St. Ives, was notorious for familiarity with the Devil, and is now a prime Familist. This monster was concealed by three persons about five months’. Intimating a communal revulsion like that later associated with the witches of Salem Village, Winthrop reported that most women present at the birth ‘were suddenly taken with such a violent vomiting, as they were forced to go home, others had their children taken with convulsions, and so were sent home, so as none were left at the time of the birth but the midwife and two others, whereof one fell asleep. At such time as the child died, the bed where in the mother lay shook so violently as all in the room perceived it’.

Learning of the birth, Winthrop would order that Mistress Hawkins be questioned and the corpse exhumed. ‘The child was taken up’ from its grave, he reported, ‘and though it was much corrupted, yet the horns and claws and holes in the back and some scales were found and seen of above a hundred persons’ (pp. 205-6).
Monster, indeed.

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