Friday, August 22, 2008

Elizabeth Phillips, Midwife

Yesterday afternoon was gorgeous, so I took RJO's advice and visited the Phipps St. Cemetery in Charlestown. This is a beautiful graveyard. It's full of stones carved by the Lamson family over the course of a century (including the stones they carved for their own families). Most of the stones are in terrific shape due to both their initial quality and the very tall, very spiky, locked iron fence surrounding the place. Note to prospective visitors: you must call the Boston Parks Department to be let in legally. Good luck with that.

I arrived a little after 3pm and was pleased to find that many of the stones were illuminated by raking sunlight. The stones in this graveyard are arranged in rows, but the rows are all higglety-piggelty, so no matter what time of day you go, some stones will be completely in shadow, some will be blown out in full light and some will catch the raking light.

One that caught my eye was the Elizabeth Phillips stone (1761). Although the epitaph is partially decayed, I could read enough to know that this was a special stone — it belonged to one of the most prolofic midwives in New England.

An 1872 book on English midwives offers a transcription of Phillips' epitaph that contains multiple errors (ex: gives Mr. Phillips' name as John rather than Eleazer). Other books also contain versions of the epitaph. None of these are perfect, but combined with the evidence left on the gravestone, it is possible to recreate an approximate facsimilie of the text:

Here lyes Interred ye Body of
Mrs. Elizabeth Phillips, Wife
to Mr. Eleazer Phillips; Who
was born in Westminster, in Great
Britain & Commission'd by John,
Lord Bishop of London, in ye Year
1718, to the office of a Midwife, & came
into this country in ye Year 1719, and, by
ye blessing of God, has brought into
ye world above [3000] children.
Died May 5, 1761, aged 76 years.

I put the number 3,000 in brackets because it looks like there may be another digit to the left of the 3 on the stone. It could be the edge of the previous letter, though it looks straight, so it can't have been the "e" of "above."

I am inclined to think that 3,000 is a more likely number. In addition to the evidence presented in the 19th-century sources, it means that Phillips attended an average of around 75 births per year over the course of her 40-year career. This still makes her a very busy midwife (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich found that Martha Ballard attended between 45 and 60 births per year during the peak of her practice and over 800 in her career). A figure of 13,000 would mean that Phillips delivered an average of one baby every day for 40 years. Even for a dedicated midwife living in an urban area, that seems unlikely. I'll post the close-up and you can decide for yourself.

From time to time, I'll come across a man's stone that specifies his profession. Ministers' epitaphs nearly always mention it. Women are often praised for being good mothers or pious church members, but very rarely specify a woman's particular skills or tell us what she was known for in her community. In Elizabeth Phillips' case, her work made her a vital and respected part of the town's life and someone — her husband, the Lamsons, or her neighbors — saw fit to memorialize her profession as well as her family connections.


Robert J. said...

Wonderful! It's a remarkable burying ground for its isolation in the middle of the city — or so it seemed to me the one time I made an effort to get past the fence. I have an ancestor in there, Joanna (Goffe Longley) Crispe, d. 18 April 1698, but I couldn't find her.

The rolling landscape and, when I was there, knee-high grass, give a feeling for what most of the Charlestown peninsula must have been like in the 17th and 18th century. Everyone in there would have had a good view of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and would have been enveloped in smoke as the town was burned.

Emily Dickinson wrote one for all of us who visit places like Phipps Street:

After a hundred years
Nobody knows the place,—
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged,
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way,—
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.

DLa Rue said...

I think the number of children might be 1300, I also see the upright line to the left of the "3" which is clearly visible and there are 2 zeros I could be sure of; I am less clear about a third, and even seeing this stone several years ago, I think I read it as 1300, and I believe it might have been a bit less exfoliated then. I also think it's Nathaniel Lamson's work; there are italics by him in Old Cambridge that match very closely. I'm working on an article on medical figures in colonial burying grounds and just got a chance to get pictures of the stone this afternoon, after having seen it several years ago and giving a couple of tours in the yard then. Your contrast on the photo is excellent, and it was interesting to see you had done the same thing I did, close-ups of he delaminated sections to be able to work with them more. So--it sounds like we have some research interests in common. Best regards--DLa Rue

DLa Rue said...

To RJO: There are alphabetized lists for all the Boston grounds, keyed to numbered site maps. I have the Phipps St. ones from a previous research campaign, would be glad to look up the location of your ancestor's stone and either help you find it, or send a picture if you like--DLa Rue

DLa Rue said...

OK, I think I've found the answer to the puzzle about the numbers. The author of the book on Boston booksellers includes Elizabeth's husband Eleazar in his listing and describes her stone, noting that "some mischeivous person has skillfully changed the number on the stone slab so that 3000 reads 13000." and follows with a fully transcribed epitaph:

Here lyes interred ye Body of
Mrs. Elizabeth Phillips wife
to Mr. Eleazar Phillips. Who
was born in Westminster, in Great
Britain. & Commissioned by John
Lord Bishop of London, in ye Year
1718 to ye Office of a Midwife: and came
to this country in ye Year 1719. and by
ye Blessing of God has brought into
this world above 3000 Children.
Died May 6th 1761. Aged 76 Years.

See: Littlefield, G.E., Early Boston Booksellers, p. 219 (It's in G'books but I can't get the blog software to accept the HTML tag...) DL