For Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, life in Amesbury, Massachusetts, provides equal measures of joy and tribulation. She attends to the needs of mothers and newborns even as she mourns the recent death of her sister.
Likewise, Rose enjoys the giddy feelings that come from being courted by a handsome doctor, but a suspicious fire and two murders leave her fearing for the well-being of her loved ones.
Driven by her desire for safety and justice, Rose Carroll begins asking questions related to the crimes. Consulting with her friends and neighbors―including the famous Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier―Rose draws on her strengths as a counselor and problem solver in trying to bring the perpetrators to light.
Quakers have long been known for being unconventional, though, and New England Friends of the era even more so. Rose’s mother works tirelessly for women’s suffrage. Rose’s friend and mentor, the real John Greenleaf Whittier, was an outspoken abolitionist and supported equality among his fellow humans. Rose addresses everyone by their first name regardless of social class or occupation, and speaks using “thee” and “thy” as Quakers did, so she’s used to traveling outside certain norms. She’s also known for her honesty and clean living. Her clients trust her.
Although there was a New England Female Medical College, which was a training school for midwives, Rose took the traditional route and apprenticed with Orpha Perkins to learn her trade. When the elderly Orpha retires, Rose takes over her business.
The late 1880s is a fascinating period to write about because so much was changing, including the practice of midwifery and medicine. The germ theory of infection was known, so Rose is careful to wash her hands and keep the birthing chamber clean. A new hospital had been built across the river in the bustling seaport town of Newburyport only a few years earlier. Cesarean sections were done, but it was still a very risky procedure.
And male doctors were starting to do deliveries, practicing obstetrics. I read that this practice increased in part because women working in factories were living away from their female relatives who would normally support them through the birth and postpartum period. The husband of one of Rose’s clients insists that his baby be delivered by a male doctor, but most of Rose’s pregnant clients much prefer having a woman attend them. I also read an account of a Massachusetts midwife being sued in 1905 for practicing medicine without a license. I haven’t heard of such accusations twenty years earlier, however.
Of course, being a midwife makes Rose a perfect protagonist. She can go places no male police officer can – women’s bed chambers – and hears secrets the detective isn’t privy to, both during labor and at client visits. I know in earlier times midwives had a obligation to extract information from unwed mothers about the father of the baby and report him to the authorities, but I haven’t been able to unearth whether that practice still stood at the end of the nineteenth century. (See Sam Thomas' excellent post on the role of midwives in 17th century England, for example. -SC)
Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, @edithmaxwell, on Pinterest, and at her web site, edithmaxwell.com.