Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
Ulrich’s organization of the material provides an introduction to the work followed by ten chapters in chronological order. Each chapter is introduced by a short passage from Martha’s diary, and is followed by Ulrich’s narrative essay, which expands on the diary entries. At times, the reader can become lost in the plethora of names that are mentioned and that do not often seem to be closely enough related to the main theme to require their identification.
In chapters 1 and 5, Ulrich deals with Martha’s work as a midwife, which included being a nurse, physician, mortician, and pharmacist. Her diary also made her a chronicler of the medical history of the area. Martha’s chief concern was to give her patients what she called “ease.” Although Martha at times worked under the direction of a doctor, she most often worked alone. In the eighteenth century, the work of doctors was beginning to include delivering babies. Working with other women, Martha cared not only for the pregnant and newly delivered but also for those who had had accidents or who were suffering from a multitude of diseases. In chapter 5, Ulrich records that by 1793 Martha was experiencing more competition from physician Benjamin Page, who seemed bent on making midwifery a part of his full-time practice. Martha was not reticent in reporting Page’s errors in the Sally Cock case, whereby Sally was delivered of a dead daughter with dislocated legs. Despite his inexperience but because of his gender, Dr. Page was paid $6.00 for a delivery; Martha was paid $2.00. Despite this competition, by the end of the century, Martha was delivering two-thirds of the babies born in Hallowell. During the second stage of labor, other women were called in to witness the birth. This was important both to certify that the midwife did all that was possible to ensure a safe delivery and to take testimony in the case of illegitimacy. Although midwifery paid well for females, it was an arduous occupation, as Martha’s many trips across the Kennebec River in all sorts of weather proved.
Chapter 2 centers on the female-managed economy and the importance of weaving, which was both a family and a community activity. From this chapter, it becomes obvious that in the Ballard household there were two family economies: one managed by Martha’s husband Ephraim and one managed by Martha herself. Part of Martha’s economy was the money she made from her midwifery work.
Martha was not one to record scandals, but there is enough in the diary for Ulrich to find the rest of the story in other records. In chapter 3, it is the rape of the fired minister’s wife, Rebecca Foster. Here Martha’s diary provides some insight into the sexual mores of the era. The Reverend Mr. Isaac Foster was dismissed because he was too liberal in his theology and given to complaints and lawsuits against his neighbors. About a year after his dismissal but before the Fosters left town, Rebecca Foster accused Judge North and others of rape. Martha was called to testify at the trial based on what Rebecca had confided to her ten days after the assault and before her resulting pregnancy was confirmed. Whoever was responsible for the deed, then, as often is still true, it was a case of “he said, she said”; Judge North was acquitted. Martha offered her opinion in one sentence: “North acquitted to the great surprise of all that I heard speak of it.” The second scandal is the James Purrinton mass killing in chapter 9. Purrinton went mad and killed himself and every member of his family save one. Martha was at the scene and helped to lay out the bodies, one of her duties as a midwife.
The incidence of premarital sex was a theme in chapters 4 and 7. Martha’s own son Jonathan was named in a paternity suit by Sally Pierce, whom he eventually married. Although not all instances of premarital sex resulted in suits, there was plenty of evidence that many first children were born “early.” If a child was born to a single mother, the midwife played an important role in determining the identity of the father. Testimony was taken at the time of birth and reported to the authorities to ensure that the father would support his child. Since death was always a possibility when delivering, it was generally thought that a woman would not lie while in the throes of labor. Premarital sex knew no class lines; 87 percent of the men who married their pregnant lovers were sons of established families, as the case of John Vassall Davis shows. Davis had seduced Mehettable Pierce, sister to Martha’s daughter-in-law Sally. Martha’s diary is the only surviving record of Davis’ dalliance with Pierce and the only confirming evidence that he gloried in the shame of his illegitimate son, whom he did support. Chapter 7 tells the story of the birth and then that of the child’s death from burns. It also includes the record of Martha’s attendance at the autopsy of the child, which was merely one of many that she attended.
Whereas the South had slaves and the Middle Atlantic states had indentured servants, New England had only family labor. Once the children were grown and on their own, the parents were left to find the help they needed. Generational problems of this type are covered in chapters 6 and 8. While Ephraim was out surveying, Martha was left to tend both to his work and her own, seeking help from whomever she could find. Despite having children in the area, Martha was often left to fend for herself. By 1804, Martha and Ephraim, now elderly though active, were living in semidependence on their son Jonathan’s farm. Ephraim was imprisoned for debt; as tax collector, he had failed to collect enough taxes for the town. Even though the younger members of the family could have discharged the debt, they did not. This made Martha even more dependent on Jonathan, who soon moved his family into the house where Martha was living. Finally, Ephraim was released and Jonathan built a new house, but for months Martha was a virtual prisoner in her own home.
The tenth chapter centers on the last years of Martha and the changes occurring in Maine. By 1809, Ephraim was eighty-four years old and Martha was seventy-four. Both were still active, with Martha continuing to deliver babies, work in her garden, and record the activities of the Indians who were in revolt against the proprietors who owned most of the land. Despite her age, Martha delivered as many babies in the last four months of her life as she did in the first year of her diary. One reason for this was that she and Ephraim needed the money for necessities. Martha died in 1812 at age seventy-seven, a gentle, courageous, and practical woman.