Martha Ballard

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Martha Ballard
Martha Moore

DiedMay 1812
OccupationMidwife, healer, mortician
Known forDiary with 10,000 entries kept over 27 years
Spouse(s)Ephraim Ballard (m. 19 December 1754)
RelativesClara Barton
Mary Hobart

Martha Moore Ballard (1735 – May 1812) was an American midwife and healer. Unusually for the time, Ballard kept a diary with thousands of entries over nearly three decades, which has provided historians with invaluable insight into frontier-women's lives.[1] Ballard was made famous by the publication of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812 by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1990.[2]


Martha Moore was born in Oxford, Province of Massachusetts, on February 9, 1735, to the family of Elijah Moore and Dorothy Learned Moore.[3] Nothing is known about her childhood and education, but it is known that her family had medical links; her uncle Abijah Moore and brother-in-law Stephen Barton were physicians.[4] She married Ephraim Ballard in 1754.[5] The couple had nine children between 1756 and 1779, but lost three of them to a diphtheria epidemic in Oxford between June 17 and July 5, 1769.[6]

Ballard delivered 816 babies over the 27 years that she wrote her diary and was present at more than 1,000 births; the mortality rates of infants and mothers that she visited were ordinary for the United States before the 1940s.[4] Her diary also recorded her administering medicines and remedies, which she made herself mostly from local plants and occasionally from ingredients bought from a local physician.[4] Ballard was sometimes called to observe autopsies and recorded 85 instances of what she called "desections" in her diary.[3] She also took testimonies from unwed mothers that was used in paternity suits. She testified in 1789 in a high-profile case of a judge accused of raping a minister's wife.[4] In addition to her medical and judicial responsibilities, Ballard frequently carried out tasks such as trading, weaving, and social visits.[6] She and her family experienced difficult times during 1803–1804, when her husband was imprisoned for debt and her son was indicted for fraud.[7] Ballard's obituary was published on June 9, 1812 in the American Advocate and simply stated:

Died in Augusta, Mrs Martha, consort of Mr Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years.[5]

Ballard was related to Clara Barton, known for her American Civil War work and for founding the American Red Cross.[4] Clara was the granddaughter of Ballard's sister, Dorothy Barton.


From when she was 50 (1785) until her death in 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her work and domestic life in Hallowell on the Kennebec River, District of Maine.[5] The log of daily events, written with a quill pen and homemade ink, records numerous babies delivered and illnesses treated as she travelled by horse or canoe around the Massachusetts frontier in what is today the state of Maine. For 27 years, she wrote in the diary daily, often by candlelight when her family had gone to bed.[5]

The diary consists of more than 1,400 pages, with entries that start with the weather and the time. Many of her early records are short and choppy, but her later entries are longer and detailed.[5] Her writing illustrates struggles and tragedies within her own family and local crimes and scandals. One includes the comment that children in New England are allowed to choose their romantic interest if they were in the same economic class, rare for the time.[5] Many of the people mentioned in the diary do not appear on official records, such as censuses or deeds and probate, and so the diary helps to provide insight into the lives of ordinary people who might otherwise have remained invisible.[5] Because of the scale of the diary, scholars have been able to use digital tools to mine it for information. Such studies have revealed, for instance, that because Ballard's deliveries spike significantly between February and April, her neighbours are most likely to be having sex between May and July.[7]

The last birth that Ballard attended was on April 26, 1812.[4] Ballard's final diary entry, from 1812, states: "made a prayer adapted to my case."[5] After Ballard's death, the diary was kept by [8]Dolly Lambard. The diary was then passed on to Dolly's daughters, Sarah Lambard and Hannah Lambard Walcott after Dolly's death in 1861.[2] Sarah Lambard and Hannah Lambard gifted the diary to Ballard's great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, one of the first female US physicians to graduate from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1884, the same year that she received the diary.

In 1930, Hobart donated the diary to the Maine State Library in Augusta.[4] Maine State Library promised Hobart a transcript of the diary, but the promise was never fulfilled.[2] Charles Elventon Nash included parts of the diary in a proposed two-volume history of Augusta, which was kept in a descendant's home for almost 60 years before the descendant offered it to the Maine State Library. Edith Hary took the papers and published The History of Augusta: First Settlements and Early Days As A Town Including The Diary of Mrs. Martha Moore Ballard in 1961.[2]In July 1982, E. Wheaton of the Maine State Archive created a microfilm copy of the diary.[5] Robert R. McCausland and Cynthia MacAlman McCausland later spent ten years producing a verbatim transcription on the diary, which they made freely available online as well as for purchase in hard-copy.[5][9]

A Midwife's Tale[edit]

For many years, Martha Ballard's diary was not considered to be of scholarly interest since it was generally dismissed as repetitive and ordinary.[3] However, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich saw potential in the diary, realising how rare Ballard's first-hand account was after having researched a previous book on women in early New England.[1] After eight years of research, Ulrich produced A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812. Each chapter in A Midwife's Tale represents one aspect of the life of a woman in the late 18th century.[2] The overriding theme is the nature of women's work in the context and community. Ulrich stated that:

When I finally was able to connect Martha's work to her world, I could begin to create stories.

Supporting documents construct Ulrich's interpretation of terse and circumspect diary entries, dealing with medical practice and the prevalence of violence and crime. In "A Midwife’s Tale", Ulrich highlights ten key entries from Martha's diary. Ulrich places these entries in a historical context, elevating a seemingly-ordinary woman's life into a key figure of Kennebec. Listed below are summaries of each key entry of the diary and its historical significance.

  • Section 1

The first entry in "A Midwife’s Tale" puts midwifery in a broader medical context within the Kennebec region. This chapter establishes the relationship between doctors and midwives during this time period. Doctors were called only to perform extreme medical practices such as bloodletting and typically had 8-10 cases per year. Martha recorded 816 births over 27 years, and midwives were the first called when a woman went into labor. Ulrich also introduces the concept of “social medicine”[10] in this chapter, referring to the sharing of information among midwives and doctors. This is evident in midwife manuals and communities of midwives that gathered and interacted during births.

  • Section 2

This chapter shows the separate economy among women in Hallowell. The economy is facilitated by the "social webs" of production and consumption. Martha's diary separates roles of men and women. Men were involved in the politics of the town whereas women had a separate community where they exchanged textiles. Martha's daughters were able to take over the work of spinning and weaving and helping with harvests when they became older, which allowed Martha to have the time to devote to midwifery. Without Martha's detailed records of her exchanges, historians would lack the knowledge of the economy that existed among women.

  • Section 3

This entry follows an important rape trial in Hallowell. Mrs. Foster accused Judge North of raping her while her husband was away. Historians are able to contrast Martha's account of the trial with Henry Sewall's account. Henry Sewall opposes the Fosters' religious beliefs, but Martha feels sympathetic toward the Fosters because others judged them for their religious beliefs.

  • Section 4

This section is concerned with the three Ballard family marriages that occurred in 1792. Martha describes all three weddings, but it is noteworthy that while two are fairly domestic, one is quite dramatic. The mid-18th century is seen as a turning point in history since children began to choose their own partners, which is supported by Ballard's diary entries. It seems as if all of the Ballard marriages in 1792 were courtships chosen by the children, as opposed to arrangements proposed for economic benefits. Additionally, pre-marital sex is mentioned.

  • Section 5

This chapter details the 53 deliveries that Ballard performed in 1793, an important year for her. She delivers babies from celebrity wives like those of Captain Molloy and Esquire Hayward but also babies of servants. Ballard travels far and wide to deliver babies, which she discusses in her diary entries as well. Ulrich emphasizes that an average of one baby a week seems easy, but Martha often sits for weeks doing nothing and, for others, facing multiple births in a short time during poor weather. Additionally, women have contractions that do not result in labor, forcing them to decide between risking it and not calling for Martha or having her come without actually needing her. That happened at the Parker house, to where she traveled four times before actually delivering the baby, number 51.

  • Section 6

The focus is 1796, a physically taxing year for her and her husband. She is traveling to deliver babies in flea-infested cabins while her husband works in swamps swarming with mosquitos. Their children also have some health issues that year. In November, her husband, Ephraim, is at muskie-point, and all of his instruments were stolen at the outset of a planned extended surveying journey, canceling the trip, but he returns five days later. On the same day or around the same time, Martha delivered her 600th baby, a milestone. Ephraim’s work continues to be difficult. Martha prays for strength to continue faring through her difficult and laborious life.

  • Section 7

This section follows the death and autopsy of John Davis, the son of John Vassall Davis in Kennebec. This is an important death in the diary because John Davis is legally a bastard with a prominent father in Kennebec. Ulrich fleshes out the significance of Martha's presence at the autopsy. Her presence was a common practice for midwives in her time. Ulrich discusses the change in 1820, when a Harvard Medical School professor publishes a treatise stating that women should no longer be midwives as they are too uneducated to practice medicine.

  • Section 8

This chapter tracks Martha's entries while her husband, Ephraim Ballard, is in jail for debt. During this time, Martha's son, Jonathan, takes over Matha and Ephraim's house. Entries highlight Martha and Jonathan's rocky relationship. Additionally, Martha experiences a pseudo-widowhood during this time, acknowledging Ephraim's role in the household that now must be filled by her son. This entry gives important information regarding jail time in Kennebec, as Ephraim is allowed to continue working during the day and must sleep at the jail only at night. There is flexibility regarding cases of debt.

  • Section 9

This chapter is centered around a mass murder that occurred in Hallowell. James Purrinton, one of Martha's neighbors, murdered his wife and all of his children but one, who escaped. Martha's entry adds another viewpoint on this historic event. Ulrich writes, "The economy of Martha's telling contrasts with the more self-conscious narrative published (and probably composed) by Peter Edes, editor of Augusta’s Kennebec Gazette."[11]

  • Section 10

The final chapter focuses on Martha's perspective on the Malta War between settlers and proprietors over land ownership. The insurgents were led by Elijah Barton, Martha's nephew. Additionally, Ulrich discusses the importance of women in field agriculture, as characterized by Martha’s garden and her records of the flowers and vegetables she planted in her time. As Martha grows older, her diary recounts fewer births. Ulrich hypothesizes that the decrease in births is caused by another midwife taking over her work. The midwife is likely Ann Mosier since after Martha records Ann's death, Martha's workload increases. The chapter concludes with Martha's last entry on May 7 and her death approximately three weeks later.


The book received a positive critical response and was praised for its insight into the lives of 18th-century women and life in early New England. In 1991, A Midwife's Tale received the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, the John H. Dunning Prize, the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize, the Society for Historians of the Early Republic Book Prize, the William Henry Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine, and the New England Historical Association Award.[1]

In 1997, the PBS series The American Experience aired A Midwife's Tale. This documentary film was based upon Ulrich’s book, and Ulrich served as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator for the film.[1][12] It was directed by Richard P. Rogers, and produced by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt. Actress Kaiulani Lee played Martha Ballard. It was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. When filming the series, details were given close attention. The production crew chose King's Landing Historical Settlement in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island to capture Maine's three seasons: "black flies, snow and mud." The actors wore mud-soaked shoes below historically-accurate costumes, and replicas were made of the hand sewn booklets that formed the diary, so that Lee could write in them.[5] The music in the film, played by the ensemble Orison, included shape note singing by the Word of Mouth Chorus.


  1. ^ a b c d "Sparknote on A Midwife's Tale: Context". Sparknotes. Sparknotes LLC. 2006. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d e Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (1990). A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 9780679733768.
  3. ^ a b c "Martha Ballard". Maine Memory Network. Maine Historical Society. 2013. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (February 2000). "Ballard, Martha Moore". American National Biography Online. American Council of Learned Societies. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Film Study Centre, George Mason University; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2000). "Martha Ballard's Diary Online". Do History. Archived from the original on 10 June 2019. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  6. ^ a b Hanes, Richard Clay; Hanes, Sharon M.; Rudd, Kelly; Baker, Lawrence W. (2006). Shaping of America: 1783-1815. Gale. ISBN 9781414401812.
  7. ^ a b Blevins, Cameron (September 2009). "Text Analysis of Martha Ballard's Diary". Cameron Blevins. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  8. ^ [1] Dolly Lambard
  9. ^ McCausland, Robert R; McCausland, Cynthia MacAlman (1992). The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812. Camden, Maine: Picton Press. ISBN 9780929539621.
  10. ^ name="Ulrich"
  11. ^ name="Ulrich"
  12. ^ Rogers, Richard P. and Kahn-Leavitt, Laurie (1998). A Midwife’s Tale (film). PBS.

Further reading[edit]

  • McMahon, Sarah F. "Review: [Untitled]." The William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 3 (July 1998): 470.
  • Wolfe, Thomas J. "Review: [Untitled]." Isis 84, no. 2 (June 1993): 390.
  • Rogers, Deborah D. "Review: [Untitled]." Eighteenth-Century Studies 26, no. 1 (Autumn, 1992): 180–182
  • Alison Duncan Hirsch. "Review: [Untitled]." The Public Historian 19, no. 4 (Autumn, 1997): 107.