Ep 141 – Plight of the Unwed Mother
On this episode, I bother all of you with a Facebook fight. Yes, really. Don’t worry, it’s just to springboard into the controversial issue of abortion in Nauvoo Mormonism. We read through a court document from March 1843 of a woman who suffered abuse at the hands of a Thomsonian herbal physician after he gave her ergot and injected cayenne pepper into her veins. Then we opine on the plight of women in 19th-century America. The outro includes a brief conversation with Kimberly Anderson, the featured guest of our next NaMo Home Evening!
Dana v. Brink March 1843
1831 Thomsonian Family Vegetable Medicine
William Bicking Brink
Charles Root Dana
Albert Hoffman LSD-25
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Where are all the children of polygamous marriages in Nauvoo? Brigham Young had 56 wives in Utah and nearly as many children, but with polygamy being practiced in Nauvoo, wouldn’t we expect to see some children as a result? I’ve dealt with this on the show repeatedly because I think a very simple answer exists, but a lot of people are blocked from accessing that answer.
Back in November I tangled with a few people in the Mormon historians facebook group on the subject. A person asked the simple question: “Is there any evidence that Joseph Smith fathered children with anyone other than Emma? I’ve heard contradictory things.”
15 different comment threads all opined on the fact that DNA studies have been inconclusive, a few women claimed to have Joseph’s children, but it can’t be proven, and a few other points. Another central point of discussion was that if he didn’t have children with any of his wives then either the marriages didn’t include sex, or they didn’t happen altogether and that Nauvoo polygamy was a result of a propaganda campaign by Brigham Young. A lot of people hold to that last point, but it’s old scholarship mostly coming out of the RLDS who thought Joseph fought polygamy. It’s nonsense. So then, the question remains, is there any evidence that Joseph Smith fathered children with anyone other than Emma? After seeing all these comments I decided to chime in with this: “Is the topic of abortion completely off the table in this comment thread? It sure would explain the lack of progeny and comport with multiple testimonies and interviews that claimed it was happening.”
My comment continued a little further with talking about Sarah Pratt and her being controversial, but ended with “Are there any solid arguments against the [multiple] claims of abortions? Please educate me.”
I know, I’m sitting here on a podcast talking about a facebook argument I had, I’m the worst kind of podcaster. But I promise this is driving at a point, so please lend me your ears for a moment as I meander my way there.
A few people chimed in. The argument posed against abortions taking place in Nauvoo first came from a person commenting on the general ages and marital status of his wives. If Joseph was having sexual relations with his wives who were already married, it wouldn’t be necessary to cause them to have abortions as they could raise the children with their first husbands and nobody would be any the wiser. Of course, John C. Bennett was a focus of the conversation and that after Wreck-it Bennett left the majority of Jo’s new marriages were younger and unmarried women, which would make it much more challenging to hide resulting children. If Bennett was performing abortions, we would expect it to be flipped, that Jo took younger girls while Bennett was around so he could cause them to have abortions, then when Bennett left the church Jo took older already married women as his abortionist-in-chief was no longer there to perform abortions and conceal the inevitable results of these affairs. Because this discrepancy in a simplistic timeline, a few people chiming in said they simply couldn’t buy it, not adding the subtle undertone that I read into their statements of “because the prophet would never kill a baby!”
This timeline discrepancy poses absolutely no issue for the plausibility of Bennett, or any other physicians in Nauvoo performing abortions at the time. I stated that I’m of the opinion that it wasn’t black or white. That if a child could be raised by another couple as their own then we would expect to see DNA evidence of that emerge at some point, but nothing conclusive has yet. However, I’m also of the opinion that Jo was motivated by self-preservation, and if a pregnancy couldn’t be explained without pointing a finger at the prophet, he would do whatever necessary to keep his public persona intact. A person asked for some resources on abortions in the mid 19th-century, to which I replied with a Women’s Health journal 1979 publication which detailed exactly what the person was looking for, then they understandably ghosted the conversation.
However, after this exchange had been happening for a while, Will Bagley chimed in. Will Bagley has been on this show talking about his book, Blood of the Prophets, and within the Mormon historians group he’s been lovingly dubbed as a strong shot of whiskey that’ll burn going down and probably set your hair on fire when he absolutely destroyed somebody who was being quite disrespectful in the group. If you’ve read Blood of the Prophets or any of Bagley’s Utah history books you know how fitting a description this is. Bagley chimed into the thread saying, “why else invite abortionist and General Bennett into the First Presidency? I mean—in addition to the masonic motivations.” It seems Bagley doesn’t have any issue with abortions being performed in Nauvoo to conceal polygyny. Somebody chimed in under his comment asking if there’s a specific woman we thought had an abortion of Joseph’s child. The person simply asked for evidence, which is hard to come by on this subject.
My response was as follows, and once again, I promise this is driving to a point, I’m not just talking about a facebook argument for the fun of it.
That's a really good question and I wish I knew more about the topic to answer with some level of certainty. I can't put a finger on who it would have been, nor can I put a finger on the documentary evidence for it.
With that in mind, however, what evidence would we expect to find if abortions did happen? We have a few statements, contemporary and later, which claim they were happening, but that's far from documentary evidence. If abortions were happening contrary to what was socially acceptable, for the sole purpose of covering up polygamous marriages, would we expect that documentary evidence to survive? Would we even expect documentary evidence of it to have been created in the first place?
My entire reason behind chiming in on this thread was to point out that any conversation about Joseph's progeny, or lack thereof, isn't complete without carving out the possibility that he deliberately never had children with polygamous wives, as it would tarnish his public persona. To wonder where his children from these marriages are, absent of the possibility that he made sure to not have any, seems to be lacking a substantive aspect of the conversation.
I'm sorry I don't have a better answer than that.
The thread went dark after that comment. I think it’s important that the multiple allegations of abortion taking place in Nauvoo be corroborated by documentary evidence beyond contemporary testimonies by Sarah Pratt, Hyrum Smith, and a few others, as well as later accounts by Sarah Pratt and Lucinda Morgan Harris that we’ve discussed on this show. Well, the point to telling all of you about this facebook fiasco is to tell you that I may have found something noteworthy that provides exactly the documentary evidence required to substantiate the possibility that abortions were happening in Nauvoo, which will be the focus of our episode today.
A few points to preface this conversation. First, why is this important? Whether or not Joseph Smith was sexually intimate with at least some of his wives is a subject of considerable debate in the field of Nauvoo history. Why? Well, it casts his motivations into question. Believe it or not, many of Jo’s biographers think that sexual intimacy in his polygamous marriages was a rare phenomenon, not a general theme. Some of his biographers think he never had sexual relations with these women and that he was only getting married to them to begrudgingly fulfill the commandment given to him by God. That’s just what we should expect when the majority of his biographers view him as a pious prophet who literally spoke as the mouthpiece of God. If Jo never wanted to have multiple wives, but God commanded him to do so, he was merely fulfilling the commandments of god the way biblical prophets did. However, once his personal desires and libido are factored into the equation it leads to some crucial questions. If Jo wanted to have sexual intimacy with multiple women, then how can we be sure that the commandment actually came from God; that Jo was acting as a prophet and not a man when he said the men should take multiple wives in order to reach the highest kingdom of the celestial kingdom? Now, if you’re listening to this show, I’d be willing to bet that this isn’t a personal issue with you, dear listener. You probably view Jo similar to the way I do, a despot with an ever-increasing greed for wealth and power who viewed women as a commodity. But, if we can’t find common ground in this conversation about sexual dynamics in Nauvoo polygamy, we’re talking past each other, so we need to understand where everybody’s coming from. I’m personally of the opinion that Jo probably had far more sexual partners than his wife-count reveals, but that’s only speculation so we can leave it aside for today.
Second point to preface this discussion: This shouldn’t be an issue. If you want to have multiple sexual partners, then have multiple sexual partners. It’s not hard. Make sure everybody involved are informed, consenting adults and then have the time of your life. Your sexuality, sexual desires, gender identity, have absolutely no bearing on who you are, or your value to society. That’s just an unequivocally true statement. The way a person acts on those sexual desires is how they affect others and where we should cast judgement. If a person engages in sexual activity with somebody who isn’t consenting, isn’t informed, or isn’t an adult, that’s cause for judgement from other people. That’s how a person’s sexuality affects their personality. Informed, consenting adults. Those are the criteria. Check those boxes, then everybody’s on the up-and-up and have a good time while being safe.
Point number three: This conversation can never be couched in a way that’s fair to everybody involved. What I mean by that is these conversations always center on whether or not Joseph Smith had sex with his wives. By definition, these conversations rarely take into account the women’s perspective in it. Society has simply never been truly equal for men and women. There was absolutely no fairness among sexes in 19th-century America. Any social barriers experienced by women and gender minorities today were inconceivably worse in the time period this podcast studies. We could never understand the plight of women in early Mormonism. Unfortunately, this conversation suffers from many of the biases of the field of Mormon history, which suffers from the biases of the time in which it occurred. It’s very tough to overcome these male-centric biases.
Which leads perfectly into point number four: parsing out informed and consenting in these relationships is a bucket of monkeys. Multiple polygamous relationships in Nauvoo were with women many years before adulthood, which is utterly reprehensible. The marriages involving adult women were only agreed upon with a social structure and power dynamic that is terribly complicated. That’s not to say that a woman was incapable of being informed and consenting to these relationships. What I’m saying is, when you have one guy who’s the ultimate religious and government authority with his own army and shadow enforcement squad and you become one of his marks, there really wasn’t much a woman could do. There could have been some women like Eliza Snow and Elizabeth Ann Whitney who openly consented to being Jo’s clandestine polygamous wives, who knew the extent of his relationships, informed consenting adults may have all been checked in a few of these relationships. However, at the end of the day, Joseph Smith was still the prophet of God and the highest-ranking government authority in Nauvoo. He was the gatekeeper to the kingdom of heaven and it often became the case that the key to unlock that kingdom for you and your whole family was by giving in to the coercion and becoming his next wife. Informed and consenting simply cannot be achieved with this social structure. I would also point out that nearly every despotic alpha-male empire builder like Joseph Smith treated women as a commodity to be collected and added to his personal wealth. Joseph Smith fits many patterns exhibited by the most objectively immoral people in human history in this regard. I’ll just say again, if you want to have multiple sexual partners, go ahead, there’s nothing stopping you and that has no bearing on how good or bad of a person you are. The way you acquire those relationships is what casts your character into question. Also, if you’re a Puritanical religious leader crusading against immorality and you consider sex outside of marriage immoral, and then go on to have multiple sexual relations outside marriage, that makes you a hypocrite and a liar and nobody should trust anything you say about anything in the world.
And, the fifth and final point to preface this conversation: It’s very likely that the women had absolutely no choice in whether or not to have these abortions, let alone the sexual intimacy in the first place. If a woman who was coerced into these polygamous marriages began to show with child, it could tarnish the reputation of the prophet and his most trusted polygamous acolytes, which they wouldn’t allow to happen. The woman’s desires and well-being likely never factored into the decision-making process, which is unequivocally and objectively wrong. Abortion, and the larger point of women’s health, is often a hot-button issue today, but it may surprise some of you to learn that women have been aborting their children for justifiable reasons for just as long as physicians have been around, which is to say probably longer than we have written evidence of. The last century has brought a lot of scientific advancements which have rendered these procedures much safer and much less painful. We happen to live in a day and age where women’s health is better than it has ever been, but that’s only come as a result of constant advocating and fighting, largely by disenfranchised women, to acquire those advancements. And, most importantly, the fight is never over. Elections have consequences, people.
This entire issue is a thorny one with a lot of angles to consider. When we’re talking about the real-world effects of polygamy within the ranks of the criminal empire of Nauvoo Mormonism, this subject is important and the willful ignorance exhibited by people who don’t want to deal with the issue renders the historical record incomplete, biased, and unfair.
I’m going to do my best to navigate polygamy and abortions fairly today as I always try to do when these issues are the focus of an episode. Hopefully I’ve made my personal biases clear with these preface points. Now, on to the documentary evidence that abortions were happening in Nauvoo.
This evidence comes as a result of a court proceeding, chaired by Joseph Smith as mayor of Nauvoo, in March 1843. The underlying details of this hearing are a bit vague. This evidence does not conclude that Joseph Smith himself was causing his polygamous wives to have abortions, I doubt that documentary evidence was ever created in the first place, let alone preserved 175 years later, but it does exhibit that people other than John C. Wreck-it Bennett were capable of performing abortions and that they did take place even after his departure.
Before reading the actual document, I want to place a trigger warning here. This is a completely unabashed take on women’s health in the 19th-century and what this woman suffered is horrendous. Let’s get into it.
This trial was cut from the History of the Church during is compilation phase. Since I’m reading the Dan Vogel version of the History of the Church, it has been restored from the original document, which was initially published in the Wasp of 22 March 1843. You’ll find the original handwritten document in the show notes.
The facts of the case are as follows: Margaret Kennedy Lusk Dana was pregnant and very close to giving birth. A physician named William Bicking Brink attended to her after she complained of fever or diarrhea. The physician, Brink, decided her child was ill and that an abortion needed to be performed, which he did against Magaret Dana’s will. Because she was a woman and couldn’t testify against a physician in court, her husband, Charles Dana, filed a complaint on her behalf for malpractice with the municipal Court of Nauvoo. The plaintiff sought damages of $99.00 for malfeasance and misfeasance in her treatment.
We’ll be taking a couple detours while we read through this, but the details of this case are fascinating, and I hope to share with you why that is as we go through it.
The initial complain is as follows:
This is an action of assumpsit commenced by summons, and brought by the plaintiff to recover damages, as he avers in his bill of particulars, sustained by the plaintiff by reason of the defendant’s failing to perform his undertakings as physician, in a usual and skillful manner, which he had undertaken by his employment and his engagement in attending as such physician, the wife of the plaintiff in the city of Nauvoo, in the year 1842, to do. $99.00
Also, for damage sustained from the malfeasance and misfeasance of the defendant in the treatment of the plaintiff’s wife, while employed as physician by the plaintiff to attend his said wife at Nauvoo in 1842; contrary to the defendant’s undertaking as such physician, by reason of which bad acts and treatment of the defendant to plaintiff’s said wife, in the premises, plaintiff’s said wife is greatly injured in her health and put to lasting pain and suffering; and the plaintiff has thereby lost the services, company and comfort of his said wife, since said bad treatment of defendant; and been put to pain, trouble, expense and anxiety, not only from the present loss of his said wife’s health, but also from well grounded apprehensions of the fatal consequences of the injury done to his said wife, by said defendant, in the premises, to his damage. $99.00
Once the charges were presented, Dr. Brink’s counsel raised an objection to them, claiming that different schools of physicians were arrayed against each other. This is an interesting point that is true, which we’ll get into momentarily. The counsel then argued that they would need to call in expert witnesses, other physicians, once the witnesses had testified, to determine if any malpractice had actually occurred. The witnesses on behalf of the plaintiff were called to the stand to state what Dr. Brink had done which could be perceived as malpractice.
What did the counsel mean by that? Well, medicine and midwifery were hotly disputed in the early 1800s. Dr. Brink was a Thomsonian herbal physician and had administered a controversial medicine to Mrs. Dana during his visit, which we’ll get to, but prior to the early 1800s, midwifery and physicians tended to stay in their lane. However, in the 1810s and 20s physicians began to take more of a role in the childbirth process. Thomson himself notes this in his book, lamenting how midwifery used to be handled exclusively by females with great success and relatively cheap, but then physicians came in and ruined everything and began charging a bunch of money for their services. His final line I quote here seems almost prophetic
From the 1831 edition of New Guide to Health, or, Botanic Family Physician, written by Samuel Thomson p. 130
The practice of midwifery at this time, appears to be altogether a matter of speculation with the medical faculty, by their exorbitant price for attendance. The tax on the poor classes is very heavy; and this is not the greatest grievance that they have to bear, for they are often deprived of their wives and children, by such ignorant and unnatural practice as is very common in all parts of the country.
Thirty years ago the practice of midwifery was principally in the hands of experienced women, who had no difficulty; and there was scarce an instance known in those days of a woman dying in child-bed, and it was very uncommon for them to lose the child; but at the present time these things are so common that it is hardly talked about. There must be some cause for this difference, and I can account for it in no other way than the unskillful treatment they experience from the doctors, who have now got most of the practice into their own hands. In the country where I was born and where I brought up a family of children, there was no such thing thought of as calling the assistance of a doctor; a midwife was all that was thought necessary, and the instances were very rare that they were not successful, for they used no art, but afforded such assistance as nature required; gave herb tea to keep them in a perspiration and to quiet the nerves. Their price was one dollar; when the doctors began to practice midwifery in the country, their price was three dollars, but they soon after raised it to five; and now they charge from twelve to twenty dollars. If they go on in this ratio, it will soon take all the people can earn to pay for their children.
Weird, it turns out when women were caring for other women during childbirth that the success rates were higher and injury was less common. Then the dudes come in and begin charging exorbitant fees, inflicting permanent harm, and cause higher rates of infant mortality. I’ll be reading a bit more from a later edition of Thomson’s herbal medicine once we read a few of the witness statements.
Mrs. Miles: Was at plaintiff’s house on Saturday, the 22nd of October, 1842, when Dr. Brink, the defendant, was called to administer to plaintiff’s wife, in a case of fever or diarrhea; this was about noon; plaintiff’s wife had some pains then, witness thought they were labor pains; defendant said he had given her medicine,--that her child was pitched on one side—had given her smut rye (ergot); said the amnion fluids were discharged. Witness thought the doctor hurt Mrs. Dana in his operations; he used force and violence; she screeched, and begged him to desist. Mrs. Dana said she did not expect to be confined, and did not known when she should be, nor did she know that the amnion fluids had discharged. Witness saw the doctor introduce his hand per vagina; patient manifested great pain, and urged him to quit; said he was hurrying her too fast; witness proposed having somebody else; has heard Mrs. Dana say that defendant’s treatment to her was the cause of her sickness since that time.
Another witness was called to the stand who was called after the first day of medicine was administered by Dr. Brink. This witness, Mrs. Duel, says:
When witness came, Mrs. Dana was in considerable distress; defendant thought she was ready for parturition, and would be delivered by three pains more. Defendant resorted to unusual means. Witness remonstrated against his course, to let nature have time; while Mrs. Dana screamed, “do let me alone! You will kill me! Do let go!” but defendant was then plying his hand, and said he could not, for something would go back: had given ergot and pepper, said the child was wrong, and must be turned before it could be born; that it was necessary to keep up irritation in order to create pains and hasten delivery. Witness proposed to have some one else called. Defendant opposed it, but finally consented.
After Mrs. Duel’s witness statement, Sylvia Sessions was called to the stand as she had been called in by Dr. Brink to help him deliver the child. According to Mrs. Sessions, Dr. Brink noted how small her hands were and that he needed her small hands to turn the child in order to deliver it. Apparently his hands were too large to perform the procedure. Sessions delivered the premature child who died soon after its birth. The childbirth nearly killed Mrs. Dana. Next to the stand was Mrs. Dana herself, to which the defendant’s counsel objected because husband and wife were considered one legal entity and Mr. Dana had already made the complaint. The objection was overruled and Mrs. Dana took the stand.
Mrs. Dana: Testified that defendant, Dr. Brink, was called on the morning of the 22nd of October last, to administer to witness in case of a fever, but did not arrive till noon. He then mixed some medicine, in which was pepper, which gave her great pain. Got a syringe and administered two injections himself, to witness, in which she thinks there was pepper, they were very hot and gave her great pain, seemed almost in a flame; actually gave her the cramp. Defendant stayed all the afternoon: during the night he insisted the patient’s time had come, and that she should be delivered. He continued to give doses from time to time, which gave her great pain every time she took them. Patient told defendant it was not her time under four weeks, told him her labor pains were not on her. Defendant told her the child was dead, and every thing wrong. He interfered in such a way ass to cause great pain; said an inflammation had taken place in her bowels, which had caused the death of the child; and used force which gave greater pain than she had ever endured before; patient begged of defendant to desist, and let her alone, saying, there was nothing unnatural before taking his medicine, and that she believed the child was right. The blood mentioned by the former witness, Mrs. Sessions, was discharged from no other cause than the violence which the doctor used in his operations. After he let her alone she was easier. Patient had no labor pains till Monday, 24th. Had had six children, and her reckoning had always been regular. Never endured such suffering before; since then has been troubled with weakness, a difficulty of retaining her urine, was never troubled so before; has not been able to do anything since her confinement; has not been free from pain. Defendant used an unusual means in his operations, he placed his head on the patient’s abdomen, and exerted his strength otherwise, which caused the most severe pain.
So, if you were within a few weeks of giving birth and you happened to call a physician for fever, it could easily become a death sentence. And people wonder why women turn to alternative medicine when this is the way the world of medicine has historically treated them. My partner, Annie, has been watching a Netflix series lately, Call the Midwife, which tackles these issues head on. The few episodes I’ve seen have been horrific and informative of the sphere of women’s health just a century after the time period we’re discussing on the show here.
To the claims made in the witness statements, it seems as if Mrs. Dana did just that, was suffering from fever and called a Thomsonian physician to administer herbal remedies. Dr. Brink came into her house, told her the baby was ready to come and that it was dead, gave her ergot to hasten her labor, which I’ll discuss in a second here, injected an ointment of cayenne pepper directly to her bloodstream repeatedly, then tried to turn her baby, which he thought was dead, to get it into birthing position, possibly even before the baby had reached the quickening phase, and then inserted his hand into her vagina to manually turn the baby, while applying pressure on her abdomen to force the child out, all of this while her child was still 4 weeks early. Dr. Brink thought the amnion fluid had discharged, but it turns out that was just blood from the injuries he’d caused her. Finally, Mrs. Session was called in with her expertise and small hands and she delivered the premature child who died soon after. It’s likely that Sessions’ presence saved the life of Mrs. Dana. Had she been left solely in the care of Dr. Brink it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that she likely would have died in his care.
So those are the facts according to witnesses. Now it was left to the court to determine if it rose to the level of malpractice or malfeasance. For that purpose, they called Drs. Bennett, Weld, Foster, and Higbee to the stand, who stated:
That defendant’s treatment to Mrs. Dana was unusual and uncalled for, and had they operated in like manner it would be unjustifiable, and that it was contrary to the general practice of physicians.
The court found the facts convincing and laid everything out before a witness was called to the stand on behalf of the defendant.
That Dr. Brink the defendant, was called to administer to Mrs. Dana, in a case of fever or diarrhea, and not for parturition:
That his doses of ergot, or something else, to hasten delivery; were not expected, but was an imposition; as he was informed that her time had not come:
That he declared the child was dead without justifiable evidence, and practiced violence upon supposition, to bring on a speedy delivery; thus endangering the health and constitution, if not the life of the patient:
That he practiced a fraud upon a sick woman, declaring things wrong that were right:
That he pronounced the amnion fluids discharged, before they were gathered:
That he gave hot injections, himself, which (aside from the over heat, which caused great pain), was beneath the dignity of a gentleman:
That he gave ergot and mixtures, which, in connection with the force and violence which he used (leaving out the dangerous idea of using such poisonous potions, even “in extreme cases”), produced great pain:
That he introduced his hand, per vagina, without any necessity therefor; and by so doing made three ruptures in the tincae os, thereby endangering life:
And, that the whole treatment has resulted in weakness, and other impediments to health and comfort.
Let’s deal with the ergot for a minute. By the late 1700s, ergot had been used in very light dosages by midwives for parturition, but that was usually used only rarely in light doses, or after birth as a coagulant to stop post partem bleeding. Into the early 1800s, America and other Western countries were experiencing a shift in the field of medicine. When local apothecaries and physicians were running wild in the expanding frontier, the early 1800s saw the formation of multiple medical societies to streamline and codify medical practices. This was a mixed bag of results. On the one hand, small localities saw the dwindling of folk medicine in lieu of larger mass-produced medicines delivered in ready-made bottles. Local doctors foraging through the forest and making potions lost business while larger conglomerates produced hundreds or thousands of bottles of chemically similar potions in factories. These medical societies frequently published journals on the newest findings in medicine. They held large symposia where physicians would get together and share their newest research, science was being done on medicine and the medical world today largely owes the miracles they perform on a daily basis to this shift in the early 1800s. However, it also meant that some possibly more effective but less profitable medicines fell by the wayside as massive companies like Bayer began to flourish through mass-production and influence medical practices worldwide.
Into this world a man named John Stearns was elected to the office of Secretary of the Medical Society of New York, which published the New York Medical Repository annual journal. Stearns was elected to his position in 1807 and published an article the next year on the medical properties of ergot in facilitating parturition. What used to be a folk remedy in occult magic books was now cast into the light of modern botanic physicians who began employing it frequently during childbirth to hasten delivery. Two years later Stearns was elected a Senator of New York where he continued to fiercely lobby on behalf of growing medical establishments. His article, however, had ripple effects for years to come.
Samuel Thomson, in his 1835 edition of the Botanic Family Physician, devoted a few paragraphs to midwifery, and even weighed in on the controversy of using ergot in childbirth. He even said that physicians were good to keep around during the childbirth process, but not for the reasons you’d think. He related a few stories where physicians attending to women giving birth had done much more damage than good, much like this Dr. Brink character in the Nauvoo court, and goes on to say that midwives know best. This passage I’m reading begins with Thomson relating a story of his attending to a woman after a very hard birth in getting her healthy again. No, Thomson apparently didn’t interfere in the birthing process itself, but used this as an example of how physicians tend to ruin childbirth. He used this story to illustrate the point that physicians should be there only to nurse women back to health after birth.
On the tenth day, she rode the same distance; and I have no doubt that, had she been attended in the common way, she would have had the child-bed fever, broken breasts, and poor health afterwards.
This case caused much conversation. Why so? It was the different mode of treatment, reversing every mode commonly attended to. What shall we do? Say the people, we shall never dare to employ a doctor again. I answer. Call the doctor, and obtain his advice; and then reverse every prescription given by him in a case of child-bed. If he tells you to have a doctor, have a midwife. If he says, “be bled,” keep your blood for other uses. If he says, “keep yourself cold,” sweat yourself. If he says, “put cold water on your bowels,” take hot medicine inside, and a steaming stone at your feet. If he says, “take physic,” use warm injections. If he says, “starve yourself,” eat what your appetite craves. By strict observance of the foregoing anti-directions, you may enjoy your health, and save the heavy bill for the many visits of the doctor, besides saving him from the trouble of keeping you sick.
In another case a few pages before what we just read, is where Thomson weighed in on the use of ergot.
The argot [sic] or rye spur, which is a very improper medicine, was also frequently given in this case; but it ought to be particularly guarded against, in all cases.
Let’s stay on this ergot train for a minute before getting back to the 1843 case of Dana vs. Brink. Ergot actually has a long history of being used in childbirth prior to John Stearns writing about it in the New York Medical Repository in 1808. It was first included in a botanic physician’s book from Germany in 1582. It had been used by midwives infrequently since then until it gained a resurgence in mainstream medicine with the help of the John Stearns guy.
Ergot is some nasty stuff. It’s a fungus that grows on grains and turns them black in appearance, even though the actual fruiting bodies themselves are purple. Bread or beer made from these ergotized grains carry with them the psychoactive effects of the ergot. Some historians have hypothesized that ergot played a role in the Salem witch trials. The convulsions and hallucinations experienced by the accused in the trials can easily be explained by ergot as such happen to be symptoms of ergot poisoning. People with ergot poisoning frequently experience hallucinations, gangrenous loss of limbs, and finally death in high enough doses. Beyond just the Salem witch trials, ergot may have even played a role in the accusations of witchcraft during multiple inquisitions in Europe. It’s nasty. It’s powerful. Farmers can pick it out from a mile away in a field, its frequently called smut of whatever grain it happens to be growing on. It can easily plague small patches or even entire fields if conditions are just right, causing those crops to be lost if dealt with responsibly, or consumed causing ergotism outbreaks when not dealt with responsibly.
Moving forward from that, in the early 1930s, chemists across the world were attempting to isolate the convulsive alkaloids in the fungus. The Rockefeller Institute of New York first succeeded in isolating and naming the common nucleus in ergot alkaloids, Lysergic Acid. Here, in the late 1930s, enter Albert Hoffman in Switzerland. Hoffman was studying lysergic acid and producing derivatives of it for the pharmacology department of Sandoz in Basel. Through some complicated chemistry I’m far from able to understand, Hoffman was finally able to derive diethylamide from the lysergic acid, becoming the first person to synthesize lysergic acid diethylamide, which he designated LSD-25. Hoffman noted that the animals which were given the chemical exhibited “restless[ness] during the narcosis.”
Five years later, at the end of his shift, Hoffman took his first hit of acid. He recorded this in his journal “17:00 Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.” Then he hopped on his bike and rode home, asking his lab assistant to accompany him to make sure he made it safe. This famous bike ride has become a bit of an inciting incident in the psychedelics movement. His journal of that day contains no more entries, but he did record what happened the following Monday.
“The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk - in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask."
So to trace this thought train all the way back to the station, LSD, or acid as many people call it, was first synthesized from ergot, which is what this Dr. Brink had administered to Mrs. Dana to induce her premature birth. Yes, ergot is a poison, however, lysergic acid diethylamide, acid, doesn’t contain the convulsive and necrotic alkaloids that cause paralysis, limbs falling off, and death. Samuel Thomson, the father of herbal medicine, was quite familiar with it and said it ought to be guarded against in all cases, even though John Stearns had advocated for its usage in hastening childbirth in 1808. Ergot was a source of contention for many botanic physicians as it undeniably holds medicinal properties, but the poisonous effects were never reliably removed from it until the late 1930s when Albert Hoffman produced LSD. Some kitchen chemists and botanic physicians had tried manipulating it to reduce how toxic it is when Thomsonian medicine was gaining traction, but the majority of people trying to use it had simply plucked ergotized grains and made beer or cake with it in hopes it wasn’t too potent to kill whoever happened to consume it.
I also want to add in to the mix a quick read from the Sunstone pamphlet Cody and I handed out and presented on in 2017 on the Smith-entheogen theory.
Amanita muscaria and psilocybes are certainly not the only suspected mycological entheogen in the early American psychedelic toolbox. Ergot remains an undiscussed candidate for the events witnessed in the early Mormon church. A secret allegedly held by the Adepts, St. Anthony’s Fire could have been transmitted to Smith via a number of sources to be discussed later. If properly prepared, this method has a long and well established history of eliciting the reactions we see from the early church members in Ohio: swoonings, violent seizure-like physical movements, delirium, pupil dilations, etc. A tincture or beer made from ergotized grain heads can be produced, requiring only slightly more skill and attention than with the psilocybe or amanita muscaria mushrooms.
What I’m saying is Cody and I predicted nearly 2 years ago that ergot may have played a role in early Mormonism, and in this court case we see a Thomsonian physician administering it for parturition. I want to clarify, just because I found ergot being used for medicinal purposes in 1843, that in no way proves that it was used for entheogenic purposes in the early church. What it does prove, however, is that early Mormonism contained a number of people who were familiar with its usage and knew how to render it in such a way that it wouldn’t be poisonous enough to kill a mother or child during birth, which exhibits a certain expertise required to use it in a religious or entheogenic context. That old canard comes into play from Parcelsus himself in the 1530s, “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.” It’s the set and setting that allows ergot to be versatile as an entheogen, a medicine to help women give birth more quickly, or to cause death very quickly if that’s what the botanist requires.
With that little rabbit hole explored, let’s resurface back to Dana vs. Dr. Brink of Nauvoo 1843.
The foregoing summary of facts, relating to the case before the court, is deemed sufficiently full, without bringing in every minutiae, in the recital and cross examination of witnesses…
The law knows no person till he comes within its purview; and injuries, affecting health, are among the most important cases that call for redress; such “as the neglect, or unskillful management of physicians, surgeons, or apothecaries. For it has been solemnly resolved that mala praxis is a great misdemeanor and offense at common law.” 2 Blackstone, 122. The law implies a contract on the part of a medical man, as well as those of other professions, to discharge their duty in a skillful and attentive manner, and the law will grant redress to the party injured by their neglect or ignorance, by an action on the case, as for a tortuous misconduct. 1 Sanders, 312. (2 Blackstone, 122 n.7).
Independent of usage or practice, poisonous potions should not be administered to females in any case whatever. The law for such offences declares, that “To kill a child in utero is now no murder, but a great misprison; but if the child is born alive, and dieth by reason of the potion, or bruises it received in utero, it seems, by the better opinion, to be murder in such as administered or gave them. 2 Blackstone, 198, and note 3. Hawkins’ Pleas of the Crown, 80.
The highest authority upon injuries to women is the law of God: that says, “If men strive and hurt a woman with child, so that the fruit depart, and yet no mischief follow, he shall surely be punished according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine.” Exodus 21 ch. 22 v.
The court decides that the plaintiff recover from the defendant, the sum of his bill, ninety nine dollars and costs.
The summary of the case law is important here. The citation of the bible is interesting, especially the old testament. Why I find it interesting is because there’s literally abortion in the Bible, known as the “Faithful Wife Test” in Numbers 5.
11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest…
16 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord.17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse…
21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
23 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her…
27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. 28 If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
Yeah, it’s pretty horrible. It’s also worth noting that the floor of the tabernacle was a threshing floor that was probably contaminated with ergot, which causes it to become “water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering.” Kinda like gangrene, paralysis, convulsions, and sometimes death. Ergot has probably been used as an abortifacient since biblical times. It’s a good thing the bible doesn’t influence our laws today or who knows what society might look like. Right?...
Back to the findings of the hearing; case law states, according to this document, that abortion for medical purposes wasn’t illegal at the time. A person could cause a child to die in utero and they weren’t held legally liable for it. However, if the child died after birth as a result of the conduct of the physician, they could be held liable for murder.
It’s just worth considering the state of health care and childbirth in the 1840s to put that into context. They didn’t have all the fancy science and machines to keep children alive that we have today. A troubled pregnancy could easily be terminated if an issue was suspected with the child, but they didn’t exactly have in utero biopsies and testing that could be performed to determine the health of an unborn fetus. It could often be the case that a troublesome pregnancy, if not terminated early, could only further endanger the life of the mother as the fetus gestated. Terminating pregnancies was, and still is today, a medically necessary procedure to preserve the life of the mother.
This case is quite revealing of the time. It’s a good thing she had a husband she lived with and didn’t have to hide from society who could sue Dr. Brink on her behalf. How would that have played out if she didn’t have a husband? How would this have played out for her if this Dr. Brink had abused her the way she did and her husband happened to be in another state, or another country on a mission for the church? What recourse would she have? 1839 in Mississippi saw the first Married Woman’s Property Act, which allowed women in the state to hold property, but not necessarily control it in the case of her husband’s death. New York waited until 1848 to adopt a similar bill. An unmarried woman had basically no rights whatsoever. Add into the mix the social dynamics of the Puritanical American frontier and if a woman had a child out of wedlock, her limited options became nearly non-existent. A woman couldn’t petition for divorce until 1923, but that was only in cases of adultery, and the accusation of adultery had to be proven, which was often a he said she said and the law almost always sided with men. It wasn’t until 1937 that women in America could file for divorce on the grounds of drunkenness, insanity, or desertion, but notice that abuse is starkly absent from that.
The important takeaway from all of this is that women handling the birthing process allowed for a level of understanding and empathy that male physicians simply are incapable of attaining. There were midwives and female doctors who would perform abortions on the down low because they knew that a child could absolutely ruin a woman’s life, medically and socially alike. The early 1800s saw sweeping abortion restrictions and such remained the status quo until Roe v. Wade in the 70s. But abortion restrictions don’t stop abortions, they just reduce the safety with which they can be performed. This isn’t a new issue; we’ve been dealing with this for centuries.
My point in all of this is, back when America was great, life was really hard for women and they had extremely limited options and risked social disgrace once they found themselves in a situation outside of the accepted margins of Christian morality. Think of how these social mores affected the clandestine wives of polygamist marriages. Especially younger unmarried women, or teenage brides. It’s not like one of these polygamist teens could start showing with a baby and they would be taken care of. They had no options at that point, as if they had options before then. Once they were marked by one of the Mormon elite men, their lives were already planned for them.
And to wrap this conclusion with how we began the episode, did abortions happen in Nauvoo? This court case doesn’t go anywhere near proving that abortions were done to protect the identity of polygamist wives and protect the reputation of the prophet, but it does exhibit that people at the time knew how to perform them, which shouldn’t be controversial, but that tidbit of information may surprise some. Even this Dr. Brink guy ended up taking another wife in 1870.
Call it spiritual wifery, celestial marriage, or any of the other terms used to obfuscate what was really happening; engaging in an affair wasn’t hard for the men of the day, they risked very little social capital in doing so. But the women had everything to lose. That’s how it’s always been. They were the people who suffered from the consequences of these secretive affairs when society refused to accept anything outside of the approved status quo.
Collectively, as a society, we’ve made progress, but that’s only come through fierce advocacy, marches, public speeches, and lobbying government. However, people exist everyday trying to take that progress away and limit a person’s rights based on antiquated ideals and misinformation. Society today owes a lot to women fiercely fighting for their own rights because they’ve had to wrestle that power away from men who didn’t want to give it up, sometimes even risking their own lives in these fights. It’s not just the suffragettes of the early 20th century in their white pantsuits, this fight for some kind of equality was happening long before Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton were even born. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s always more work to be done. The fight is never truly over as long as there are people trying to take away freedoms that were only begrudgingly afforded in the first place.
But there’s always an impermanence of gaining these rights. Women could vote in Utah but lost right when they didn’t vote the way the people who fought for their vote wanted them to vote. Maybe the conversation could shift to not limiting, but expanding rights of people. All people… not just women’s, men’s or baby’s rights. Maybe we talk about affordable living wages, science-based sex education, affordable or free birth control for everybody, de-stigmatizing women caught in suboptimal situations or unwed parents, expanding adoption and foster-care rights, and so many other ways the conversation can be had that doesn’t involve that scary word of “abortion”. Women have always been getting abortions, the best thing to do is to make them the most safe, humane, and painless procedures as possible, always having the availability of the most possible options.
It’s a deeply nuanced subject and a lot of passions on all sides quickly generate conflict. Conflict definitionally will not result in conclusions. Let’s all try to make the world a better place because if we don’t, there won’t be much of a world to argue about while the sole victor plants their flag atop a smoldering cinder of a planet.
Kimberly Anderson this Monday night 6 p.m. PST 2/11/19 for patrons
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