Saturday, March 1, 2008

Not Northwest History: A Colonial Abortion Drama

Today I am immodestly showing off a web page of my own teaching-oriented research: A Colonial Abortion Drama. The page is a collection of grand jury testimony surrounding a 1741 Connecticut incident in which an unmarried young woman named Sara Grosvenor became pregnant and . . . well, you can read what happens. It is sadly fascinating tale.

I became aware of the Pomfret case from reading Cornelia Hughes Dayton's groundbreaking article, "Taking the Trade: Abortion and Gender Relations in an Eighteenth-Century New England Village," which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1991 (here is the JSTOR link). It was Dayton who uncovered the case and she uses it to show us how gender relations and attitudes towards illegitimacy were changing in 18th-century New England.

Dayton quotes from the grand jury testimony only selectively, but it was clear from the article that the full testimony was riveting. I am from a village in Connecticut a few towns over from Pomfret, so on a trip home I visited the cemetery and made a couple of trips to the Connecticut State Archives to photocopy the documents and do some additional research.

After months of transcribing and editing from the testimony I finally got the webpage up--and discovered that very day that Woody Holton at the University of Richmond had beaten me to it with his own excellent site on the trial. It is interesting to me how we differed in presenting the material. Holton provides not only the testimony but also a "cast of characters" and chronology page. I didn't do these because I want my students to figure out those things for themselves. And yet I hold my students hands with a historical introduction to frame the documents, and an after word about what happened to some of the major characters and how I became interested in the story. I even managed to get George Washington in there.

My page on Sara Grosvenor was to a part of a larger project, tentatively titled Voices from the Margins: A Multicultural Reader for United States History. The idea is to create a primary source reader for college history classes that highlights documents from peoples, regions, and events that are either neglected or misrepresented in standard textbooks. Also, the book is meant to go heavy on sex and violence. I created three chapters about five years ago before I was distracted by my involvement in Teaching American History grants. I hope to get back to the project soon.

(I will feature my other two completed chapters in subsequent posts.)


Jason Navarro said...

I have actually been using this website in my dual credit class at Wheaton. The students really get into this topic.

Larry Cebula said...

Glad to hear it, Jason! Are they surprised to hear about abortion in the colonial period?

Jason Navarro said...

They are very surprised by it. It seems to be a topic that everyone gets interested in and that is why I continue use it.

angie said...

This is a nice web page Dr. Cebula. I found a list of interments that are used in the abortion process and I was wondering if you could tell me if one of these may have been used in the abortion of Sara?

Thank you,

Larry Cebula said...

Angie: I doubt it. Those instruments look very late-19th century to me. Hallowell probably used something closer in appearance to a miniature fireplace poker. It is hard to tell from that web page, however, it is both poorly sourced and sensationalist. I would not consider it a reliable source.

A better source for information about this sort of thing is the site, which is arranged around the diaries of Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine from 1785 to 1812. The site was created under the scholarly direction of Dr. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and others. If you hunt around on the site you will find some descriptions of 18th century abortion procedures.