A TRUE LIGHT UPON A HILL

From The Attic series “The Healers”

June 9, 1785, Hallowell, Massachusetts — I was called in haste to Daniel Bolton’s — his wife being in travail. She was safely delivered at about 12 o’clock of a fine daughter. I left her very comfortable, and returned home before sunset. Fee not paid.

For five decades, during the early America of Federalists and Founding Fathers, a lone woman plied her trade along the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. Traveling by sled, horseback, on foot, Martha Ballard delivered nearly 1,000 babies. She also healed adults, made medicines, and bore witness to life and death. She died in 1812, unknown. But she left a diary.

Writing with a quill pen, using ink she made herself, Ballard recorded the day-to-day workings of a healer. Having lost three children to diphtheria, she had little faith in the men who called themselves doctors. Instead, arriving early, staying long, caring more, Martha Ballard was one of history’s unsung first responders — a midwife.

September 23, 1786: I was called early this morn to see Lidia Savage who was very ill, gave her some urin and honey and some liquric and put a plaster to her stomach. Went up afternoon, find her relieved.“

The work was exhausting, the hours endless. Ballard’s diary groans with the phrase “I am called. . . I am called. . . “ The pay was meager, if at all. Death hovered over each hut, each home. Ballard lost few of the mothers she aided, but 20 percent of newborns died — average for the era. Other patients succumbed to gangrene, drink, falls from a horse. Again and again “the Diarist,” as Ballard calls herself, is “informed of the death of. . .” Another Jacob or Sarah “departing this life.” Another infant body dressed in “grave cloathes.”

But for every departure, the midwife eased many arrivals. Hurrying to help another woman “in travail,” Ballard heated the water, prepared the herbs, then helped another agonizing miracle unfold. Cries rang out at dawn, at noon, late into a winter night. Each mother was “delivered of a fine girl” — or boy. Alone, the midwife trudged home.

June 2, 1786: Called this morn at 8 o’clock to Isaac Cowen’s to see his wife, arrived there at 1 P. M., found her safe delivered of a daughter — born between six and seven o’clock. Left there at 3, returned home at 7 very much fatigued — had two falls from my horse which lamed me some.”

The midwife made medicine from herbs gathered in fields. Potions, tinctures, salves. She treated ghastly burns and frostbite. And when no treatment could be found, she accepted the will of “the Divine.”

March 18, 1799: “We are informed that Mr. George Brown has frozen his feet so that part of them come off. A sad misfortune.”

Meanwhile America rose around her. Ballard’s diary records Down East weather and its three seasons — “blackflies, snow, and mud.” She notes Independence Day fireworks, Thanksgiving dinners, and the arrival in Hallowell of a man with “three persons of color who bore to him the relation of slaves.” Salem, Boston, and Venus were soon freed.

Kept in the family for generations, Ballard’s diary ended up in the Maine State Library. When published in 1961, it struck historians as dull and repetitive. But then the fresh field of Women’s History opened, showing one woman what other historians missed — a window.

“It is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies,” wrote Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. “When I finally was able to connect Martha’s work to her world, I could begin to create stories.”

In 1990, Ulrich published A Midwife’s Tale. The book interweaves Ballard’s stories with the life of early American women — their friendships, their faith, their sorrows. Here was an early America beyond Founding Fathers and Federalists. Here was healing on a heroic scale.

A Midwife’s Tale won about every award a book can win, including for Ulrich, a MacArthur Genius Award and a professorship at Harvard. A PBS “American Experience” was aired. The Diarist finally had her day.

June 2, 1811 — Sunday. I made an attempt to go to meeting, but was so fatigued geting over the fence on the old road that I fell down. Jonathan and Moses Partridge helpt me home.

Ten months later, after dire notations — “felt feeble. . . very unwell” — Martha Ballard made her final diary entry. She died in Augusta, aged 77.

In a statement that has spread far and wide, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Martha Ballard was one exception. “She was a true light upon a hill,” Ulrich wrote. “She was a person of humility, affability, compassion and on whose tongue was the law of kindness. Her ear was open to the complaints of the afflicted, and her hand was open for the supply of the needy.”

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