“Strange Newes from the Isle of Rogues”
© 2013 Christy K Robinson
|Anne Hutchinson statue|
In books, transatlantic letters, and journals, Mary Dyer’s 1637 “monstrous birth” story was kept alive for decades, not just because it was an unusual deformation and the people of Boston had nothing else horribly fascinating to gossip about. The premature stillbirth of an anencephalic fetus with spina bifida was the first recorded in the American colonies. See Mary Dyer’s “monster.”
But the monsters of Mary Dyer and her mentor and friend, Anne Hutchinson, were spoken of as a pair. Mary’s travail took place in October 1637 in Boston, and Anne’s probably in June 1638 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
Deformed babies, dead or alive, were called monsters for several centuries, and seen as evidence of the mother’s heresy, sexual immorality, or that she had left her proper place in subjection to her husband and ministers, and the monstrous birth was punishment from God.
Mercury, a.k.a. quicksilver, was often used as a medication for various ills, and drinking vessels and lead or pewter dishware poisoned those who used them regularly—particularly pregnant women. Mercury or lead poisoning might have been the cause of Mary’s fetus suffering an in utero stroke in her first weeks of pregnancy. Anne’s monster, which is now known to be hydatidiform moles, or a molar pregnancy, was probably due to her age, 47, as women over 40 years of age are five to ten times more likely to develop the condition.
Anne had been imprisoned at the home of Joseph Welde of Roxbury, Mass., between November 2, 1637, and her heresy trial in March 1638, when she was released to prepare to move out of Massachusetts Bay Colony by the end of April. She could not have been pregnant during her house arrest, or she would have borne the “monster” during that period; nor was she allowed conjugal visits during the time in Welde’s house. So she conceived in late March, probably, when she and William reunited. She had borne 15 babies that survived infancy by then, the youngest being two years old.
Anne, her family, and scores of other families, including the Dyers, made their exodus from Boston on foot, and walked 44 miles through fresh, deep snow to the tiny town of Providence. Shortly after that, they set up a camp in Pocasset/Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and began to build their town.
On June 1, 1638, when they’d only been there a few weeks, they experienced the largest earthquake New England has produced in recorded memory. By its description, seismologists today think it might have registered 6.5 to 7.0 on the Richter scale.
Probably soon after the earthquake, while they were still experiencing aftershocks, Anne, an experienced midwife, began feeling weak, and consulted the young doctor in their company because she feared for either her or her baby’s life.
Molar pregnancies can last three months or less before they spontaneously abort (as in Anne’s case) or are removed by surgical procedure. A hydatidiform mole is an abnormal growth of placental tissue, or it could be from a non-viable fertilized egg. It develops as a cluster of water-filled sacs, and it’s not a baby. Complications can include anemia, toxemia of pregnancy, heart failure, hemorrhage, and sepsis. If the moles invade the uterine wall, they can lead to deadly thromboses and even cancer. It seems from the description of Anne’s case, that she was very lucky or very blessed not to have suffered the latter.
The women most likely to have delivered Anne’s moles would be midwife Jane Hawkins, Mary Dyer, and Anne’s sister Katherine Marbury Scott. Doctors did not deliver babies at that time.
Even Dr. Clarke had never heard of such a delivery as Anne Hutchinson’s. Once he’d examined her and was sure that her womb was clear and she’d recover, he went home to study and record the pathology. Reverend Doctor John Clarke was the same age as William Dyer: twenty-nine. He’d emigrated to Boston in 1637, immediately joined the Hutchinson side in the Antinomian controversy, and traveled to Portsmouth with them when all were banished. He’d received his doctorate in theology at Oxford, but his subsequent training in the Netherlands had included medicine.
William Hutchinson wrote a letter to his friend and pastor of more than twenty years, Reverend John Cotton, telling him the news of their new settlement, that he’d been elected governor of Portsmouth, and that Anne’s pregnancy had ended in grief.
In his next sermon at Boston First Church, Rev. Cotton preached about the monstrous birth, proclaiming that it signified Anne’s error in “denying inherent righteousness but that all Christ was in us, and nothing of our faith, love, et cetera.” Reverend Cotton protested that goodness could not be human nature because it could only be imparted to a faithful believer by the grace of Christ, and the evidence of Christ in one’s heart was one’s faithfulness to and love for the laws of Moses. Anne Hutchinson, the heretic, said that the necessity of law-keeping had been abolished at the cross. Her heresy had been confirmed by Almighty God with this monstrous birth.
Governor John Winthrop, hearing of Anne’s miscarriage, seized upon the opportunity to write to John Clarke, to ask if the story was true.
|Hydatidiform molar mass with placenta, resembling |
the description by Dr. Clarke.
Dr. Clarke wrote in reply: “Mrs. Hutchinson, six weeks before her delivery, perceived her body to be greatly distempered, and her spirits failing, and in that regard doubtful of life, she sent to me, etc., and not long after (in a heavy discharge from the womb) it was brought to light, and I was called to see it, where I beheld, first unwashed, (and afterwards in warm water,) several lumps, every one of them greatly confused, and if you consider each of them according to the representation of the whole, they were altogether without form; but if they were considered in respect of the parts of each lump of flesh, then there was a representation of innumerable distinct bodies in the form of a globe, not much unlike the swims of some fish, so confusedly knit together by so many several strings, (which I conceive were the beginning of veins and nerves,) so that it was impossible either to number the small round pieces in every lump, much less to discern from whence every string did fetch its original, they were so snarled one within another. The small globes I likewise opened, and perceived the matter of them (setting aside the membrane in which it was involved,) to be partly wind [air] and partly water. Of these several lumps there were about twenty-six, according to the relation of those, who more narrowly searched into the number of them. I took notice of six or seven of some bigness; the rest were small; but all as I have declared, except one or two, which differed much from the rest both in matter and form; and the whole [afterbirth] was like the lobe of the liver, being similar everywhere like itself. When I had opened it, the matter seemed to be blood congealed.”
This was not enough for John Winthrop, who wasn’t after the gory pathology report, but a moral reason for Anne’s miscarriage. And Clarke’s report seemed to be at variance with Cotton’s sermon. Winthrop later spoke to Dr. Clarke, who confirmed and summarized his report. Cotton corrected himself in the pulpit, saying he’d gotten his information from William Hutchinson.
Winthrop recorded his impressions. “Thus it hath pleased the Lord to have compassion of his poor churches here, and to discover this great imposter, an instrument of Satan so fitted and trained to his service for interrupting the passage of the Kingdom in this part of the world, and poisoning the Churches here planted, as no story records the like of a woman, since that mentioned in the Revelation…”
As a result of the letters, the private meetings and public sermons to discuss Anne’s obvious divine punishment, the news of the monstrous births, including Mary’s miscarriage, spread over all of New England, and tales were told across the Atlantic as well. Anne’s teachings and prophetic authority, which brought so many to Rhode Island, lost so much respect that dissension grew among her followers. William Hutchinson had been made governor of Portsmouth, but a split had formed. Some of the Pocasset founders, led by William Coddington, prepared to begin a new town, Newport, on the south side of the island, where there was a deeper harbor and better land for development.
In the months after Anne’s molar pregnancy, or monster birth, her authority and ministry suffered, perhaps because she was ill and recovering; or that once the Antinomians were out of reach of the Boston magistrates and ministers, her message lost some urgency; or it could be that the people of Pocasset still held the superstitious beliefs of their parents and grandparents: that monsters were the proof of a woman’s heresy.
By the 1650s, when scandalous women were speaking in public as sectarian preachers and missionaries, there was a caution that women who preached, or even who listened to women preachers, gave birth to monsters. This was a direct reference to Hutchinson and Dyer, who were famous on both sides of the Atlantic not for what they might have taught or spoken of, but because of their wombs.
Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson were by no means the only English women to bear monsters, but they were and are the most famous of them.
More articles in this blog featuring Anne Hutchinson:
Does America have founding mothers? by Eve LaPlante
The great New England earthquake of 1638 by Christy K Robinson
Where is God when we suffer? by Christy K Robinson