Thursday, February 29, 2024

Duology: Martha Ballard Was Amazing

In college, I read A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for a class on Women in American History. Martha Ballard was a midwife in rural Maine just as the new country of the United States was being formed. I was riveted by this book when I read it in the late 1990s and thought it was not only a genius work from Martha Ballard to write about her paid work, domestic life, and the details of what it was like in a small town at the turn of the nineteenth century, but also a genius work on behalf of Ulrich to dig into those details and create a narrative of what women's lives were like during a time when we don't have a lot of access to primary documents on that subject. 

So I took it out of the library as a re-read and I was once again impressed with both Ballard and Ulrich and wonder why I don't own this book. 

To introduce to the marvel that is Martha Ballard (AKA pioneering lady of amazing strength), I'm going to just quote a paragraph from page 4.

The year Old Lady Cony had her stroke, Martha Ballard crossed the river in a canoe on December 2, pushing through ice in several places. On December 20 of another year, summoned by a woman in labor, she walked across, almost reaching shore before breaking through to her waist at Sewall's Eddy. She dragged herself out, mounted a neighbor's horse, and rode dripping to the delivery. Necessity and a fickle river cultivated a kind of bravado among Hallowell folks. "People Crost the river on a Cake of ice which swong round from the Eddy East side & stopt at the point below Mr Westons," Martha wrote on December 15 of one year. On April 1 of another she reported walking across on the ice after breakfast, adding drily in the margin of the day's entry, "the river opened at 4 hour pm"

I mean, this paragraph was meant to illustrate how the river's freezing and thawing was unpredictable and just how long winter was, rendering their small town quite isolated, but I read it as admiring the fortitude of Martha Ballard. If I fell into a frozen river, you best believe I wouldn't be delivering a baby while still soaking wet!

Also, let's just check the reality of knowing anything about Martha Ballard at all. 

Without the diary, her biography would be little more than a succession of dates. Her birth in 1735. Her marriage to Ephraim Ballard in 1754. The births of their nine children in 1756, 1758, 1761, 1765, 1767, 1769, 1772, and 1779, and the deaths of three of them in 1769. Her own death in 1812. The American Advocate for June 9, 1812, summed up her life in one sentence: "Died in Augusta, Mrs. Martha, consort of Mr. Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years." Without the diary we would know nothing of her life after the last of her children was born, nothing of the 816 deliveries she performed between 1785 and 1812. We would not even be certain she had been a midwife. (page 5) 

Not all women (or men, for that matter) were literate at this time and not everyone took the time to write down daily activities. This diary is a true marvel. Martha Ballard used the diary as a daybook of sorts. She wrote down the weather, who her visitors were, where she went, and she also recorded debts contracted and her payments. She rarely wrote about her feelings - it was really just a list of facts - but sometimes there would be interjections to let you know that some events impacted her more than others. 

Ulrich's ability to take these basic facts and create a fascinating, rich narrative is also unparalleled. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and her ability to weave in other primary and secondary sources in context with the diary itself is definitely the reason why. The research and synthesis of information from so many sources is intimidating to this social scientist. 

5/5 stars

Lines of note:

(Dairy entry) I am at Mrs Howards watching with her son. Went out about day, discovered our saw mill in flames. The men at the fort went over. Found it consumd together with some plank & Bords. I tarried till Evening. Left James Exceeding Dangerously ill. My daughter Hannah is 18 years old this day. Mrs Williams here when I came home. Hannah Cool gott Mrs Norths web out at the Loome. Mr Ballard complains of a soar through this night. He has been to take Mr gardners hors home. (page 36-37)

See what I mean about just the facts? The mill burning down gets just as much attention here as does Mrs. Williams visiting!

"Thee Matrimonial writes were cellibrated between Mr Moses Pollard off this Town and my daughter Hannah." Despite the verb there is little evidence of celebration in Martha's scanty description. Here was no gathering of far-flung (or even immediate) family and friends. Cyrus wasn't there, though it was a Sunday, his usual day at hoe, nor did Lucy and Ezra Towne ride down from Winslow. Except for Jonathan and his family, there seem to have been no other guests, not even the groom's parents, who were, after all, good friends of the Ballards. If anyone baked pies or cakes, Martha Ballard didn't say so, nor did the roast turkey appear until Tuesday, two days after the wedding. There is no more sign of special festivity in the entry for November 18: "Mr Pollard & Pitt dind here. Thee latter was joind in the Bands off wedlock with Parthenia Barton." In Martha's description, the wedding appears almost as an afterthought to the0 young men's presence at dinner. (page 140)

This diary tells us so much about marriage, sex, and love in this time period. Weddings weren't the big thing - it was when couples went "off to housekeeping" that the wedding started in earnest. While Martha herself went off to housekeeping with her husband the same day, that was unusual. Most couples waited weeks to months after the ceremony to move in together. How did we get from this type of lowkey celebration to the crazy weddings we see today?!

Things I looked up:

decoction (page 50) - the liquor resulting from concentrating the essence of a substance by heating or boiling, especially a medicinal preparation made from a plant

clister (page 50) - enema

cataplasm (page 50) - (archaic) term for poultice

jacquardian (page 89) - a Jacquard attachment for a loom allows for more complex patterns to be made

Hat mentions (why hats?):

One explains that during the pre-Revolutionary boycotts, when Stephen Barton was on the committee to see that no tea was bought in the town, he "was wont to put on his hat and go without while his sympathetic wife and her sister, Martha Moore Ballard, made a cup of tea in the cellar for some sick mother in the neighborhood whose sufferings patriotism and loyalty failed to heal." (page 11)

You GUYS. The Bartons were Loyalists

On February 22, 1800, he helped organized a parade to commemorate the death of his former commander, General Washington. At the head, following a military escort, were "16 Misses, clad in white, with black hats &  cloaks, & white scarfs," representatives of the then sixteen states in the Union. (page 32)

I love this because in Martha's entry for that day, she talks about her patients and who is sick and barely makes notice of this big parade. 

(Diary entry) They Came up on foot and Jonathan Came here without his hat, took him from his supper, push him out a dors, Drove him home to his house, damning and pushing him down and struck him. (page 263)

Jonathan is her son. There isn't much violence on the pages of Martha's diary, but what is there is often at the hands of her hot-tempered son. 


So then I followed that book up with The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon, which is a fiction book based on Martha Ballard's life. In one of Martha's diary entries, she mentioned how a woman accused men of raping her, but, the diary being what it was, there was no real resolution to that storyline. Lawhon took it upon herself to weave out a potential narrative over the course of one long winter in Maine. 

This Martha Ballard is very different from the original diarist. She's more assertive, more feminist, and has a horse who many men would be afraid to ride. But she's also not that different. She's hardworking, modest, and a true pillar of the community. I was captivated by this story and obsessed with finding parallels between entries from the original diary and how Lawhon used them in her retelling. Some of the best historical fiction I've read in quite some time. 4.5/5 stars

Lines of note:

Some men think in a straight line, like an arrow off the string. They go to logic, to the easy conclusion, and avoid the waterways of the mind. But not Ephraim. His head is all rivers and streams, and with a mind like that a thought could run anywhere. (page 54-55)

I think my head is more like a series of rapids and waterfalls. iykyk

Every midwife I have ever known has cautioned that an abundance of male births for multiple years in a row means looming war. One of them - old, bitter, and widowed - had buried every child of her own and, in the calcification of her grief, would refer to such boys as "the cannon fire of kings." I have never delivered a boy - either from my body or with my hands - and not thought of those words. Of my own nine children, six were girls, and I have always taken that as a good omen. It makes me hopeful that the wars of this country are behind us. (page 161)

Oof. Well, Martha, I hope it reassure you that your children probably didn't see much of war (although I suppose some were potentially alive during the Civil War).

It is the aspen that I like best, however, not just for their pale, speckled bark, and astonishing show of gold each fall, but because every aspen in this great expanse of forest is connected by a single root system. They give life, one to another, and work to replace what the loggers take. There is much that men could learn from nature if we would only listen. (page 168)

Did scientists know about the root system of aspens then? 

Though we have been neighbors for many years, Lidia and I have never been close. Certainly not friends. We have always been cordial, however, each respecting the other's station. What bothers me most about the woman - apart from her unyielding loyalty to a man I despise - is that Lidia North is a weak woman. Timid. Milquetoast. She has no metal in her spine, no opinions of her own. I need my friends to be interesting. To have vim and vigor. (page 250)

Yes. My friends need to be interesting

I follow him to a table at the back and sink onto the bench with a groan. This a new thing I've discovered about myself in recent years. The noises. Stand and groan. Sit and grunt. Some days it seems that I can hardly take a step without some part of my body creaking or cracking and this - even more than the grey hairs and the crow's-feet at my eyes - makes me feel as through I am racing down the final stretch of middle age. (page 267)

Honestly, I can't sit down these days without a huge sigh. This passage spoke to me. Don't even talk to me about getting out of the car. 

I cannot say why it is so important that I make this daily record. Perhaps because I have been doing so for years on end? Or maybe - if I am being honest - it is because these markings of ink and paper will one day be the only proof that I have existed in this world. That I lived and breathed. That I loved a man and the many children he gave me. It is not that I want to be remembered, per se. I have done nothing remarkable. Not by the standards of history, at least. But  I am here. And these words are the mark I will leave behind. So yet, it matters that I continue this ritual. 

As someone who keeps a blog and a pen-and-paper journal, I think about this a lot. Why do I write this down? So I'm not forgotten? Or is it a compulsion? It's an interesting question to ask any journal keeper, I think.

What I looked up:

Mum Bett case (page 167) - Elizabeth Freeman, born as "Mum Bett," was the first African American woman to successfully file a lawsuit for freedom in the state of Massachusetts in 1781. (There's a Let's Go To Court episode about this case, if anyone listens to that pod.) You guys, I feel so much guilt that my knowledge of black history is so terrible. 

hippen (page 254) - a baby's diaper - I've never heard this term, have you?

Hat mentions (why hats?):

Lots of hats in this book (11), but page 113 had three all by itself.

"I thank you for the help," he says, replacing his hat. He tips it, adds "Mistress," then looks over my shoulder. Again, he offers that charming smile and tips his hat a second time. "Miss."


Another tip of the hat. (This same character proceeds to tip his hat several more times in the book. It's his character quirk.)


  1. Oooh this sounds interesting, thanks Engie!

    1. It was a great book combo. Highly recommend either one or both together!

  2. Wow, these both sound fascinating. It must have been interesting reading them back-to-back. The second one sound more "fun" as far as the story goes, but the first one has the original journal entries- it is really funny how she gives all events equal weight. And, it makes sense that weddings weren't a big, showy party- marriage was so different back then. The people getting married probably barely knew each other, the marriage was something practical to help them get through life, and they had a lot of work to do once they went "off to housekeeping." And, nine kids... oof.

    1. Nine births. Three of them didn't make it out of childhood. Sad stuff back then.

  3. I was just about to say I'd love a fictional account of Ballard... and then--of course--you delivered! Thanks, Engie!

    1. I think Lawhon was a genius to make a fictionalized account - such great source material to work with.

  4. The Midwife's Tale was also made into an excellent award winning film that I saw at our film festival back in 1998/99. Here's a link to the details: The story goes back and forth between interviews with the author of the book and actors recreating period scenes. Highly recommend!

    1. I am going to try to fit this in to my weekend! I didn't know such a thing existed!

  5. Oh, how fascinating! I have always wanted to be a consistent diarist - it's wild to see how this factual record of her life has inspired so much riveting content for such a specific experience in a different time.

    1. I find her consistency to be very admirable, particularly in light of the low literacy rates and how hard it must have been to get paper and ink. Martha Ballard is a true inspiration.

  6. The Frozen River is definitely on my list of want to reads... and I love the idea of a pairing.
    I always think of all the history that is lost because women and the domestic realm was never thought worth paying attention to. Like in school we learn about wars and elections, but not about cooking and birthing.

    1. Yes! I always wanted to know details about how people lived - how did they cook? make clothes? meet new people? and all I ever got in history class was wars and presidents. *sigh* At least this is an attempt to undo all that!

  7. I think to write fiction an author sometimes need to twist the facts a bit to make the story more readable. I enjoyed this post, especially since I read one of the books and have the other.

    1. Yes, I really enjoyed the fiction aspect of the historical fiction book. It's such a well of intriguing history to delve into!

  8. OK, these sound fascinating. I love the idea of diaries and notes about every day life. That's what we'll forget, right? I can't remember things that I swore, at the time, that I would always remember. Mundane stuff, especially. If it's not written down, well, it's likely to drift away after a while. Might have to see if these are available *at the library*. :)

    1. They are such good books. I do hope you read them and love them as much as I did.