Writing Their Stories...
Researching the lives of the past.
Type your paragraph here.She thought about the church, about her mother and the child her mother had lost,
about the broods of shoeless children playing on the tenement grounds. She thought about the sound of her own heels on the polished wood floors, the blue light through the high windows in the house’s white kitchen and the immaculate white marble dough table. She thought about the smell of candle wicks having just been extinguished, like the smell of the altar after Sunday Mass. Johanna had never thought about abortion, had never seen nor done anything like that before. And she thought about the little baby in the young woman's womb. She imagined the child’s size and shape, how she’d move, what she’d be named if she were to be born in any other house.
Johanna, never being one to make a fuss or raise a question, stood by and watched as Sabine used what looked like a spoon and her hand to reach into the young woman's womb. She saw little else but the look of pain on the faces of everyone gathered in the chamber. The young woman cried out only once; and one of the women with her, the older one, said something to her in German. She sobbed quietly for the rest of the hour or so they were there. Johanna and the other midwife cleaned up the blood and wrapped up the sheets. They used rags and buckets of water on the floor. The two servants of the household wiped down the girl with wet, pink washcloths and wrapped a towel around her, between her legs and around her waist. They pulled a dark beige nightgown over her head, and one of the servants walked her through the kitchen to a stairway nearby. The older woman handed Sabine several bills, spoke again in German, and the night’s work was finished. As the three women left the house, Sabine gave Johanna her share of the fee, more than Johanna had earned in weeks.
For Johanna, it had been like a bad dream; it was nothing she’d ever imagined doing. She'd heard stories in the tenements about mothers who asked their midwives to take their babies away, to hide them, to take them and leave them at churches. She'd heard stories of crying women who begged their midwives to smother their babies, sometimes praying their children would be stillborn. But these were women crazy from pain. These were babies whose mothers were poor and facing more financial hardship with the birth of each child. These mothers were burdened economically, physically, and spiritually. Giving birth to another child meant watching another child be hungry, cold, and facing a future, if lucky, as a servant for people like those in that house across the river. Hearts were broken by the birth of another child... the women in the tenements had no hard wood floors and no warm water; they had no pink washcloths.
Johanna began to sing a Sunday song softly to herself: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die. Rock of Ages, cleft for me…”
There was no judgment in Johanna’s heart for the young woman whose child had been taken. In many ways, she was like the tenement women: without options, without choices. Someone else in that house had decided that child should not be born, could not be born. Neither did she judge Sabine who seemed so skilled at the task, so resolute. In truth, she felt the only sin, if a sin had been committed at all, was in the exchange of dollars.
How can a child unwelcome in the world grow to live a life pleasing to God? she asked herself. Death must be a welcome relief for the
unloved, she decided.
There was no carriage to take them home so they walked the 50 or so blocks to their neighborhood. Sabine told the two midwives in-training that they had done a good job, and there would be many such jobs in the future; such nighttime operations were plentiful and midwives with the skills to end pregnancies were always in demand in the wealthier areas of town.
Johanna decided that night that she no longer wanted to be a midwife. She thought she'd look for work as a maid in one of the nice hotels, perhaps near the theaters... somewhere where she wouldn't have to wonder whether bodies are burdens, whether she’d be happier in death.
“While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyes shall close in death, when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee…”
The following week, Johanna began helping in the blacksmith shop on Leroy Street where her father once worked while she looked for a more permanent employment situation. A few months after she began working there, Johanna heard the story of a young Brooklyn girl who’d taken her own life by jumping off a steamer in the mid-Atlantic during a storm at sea. She felt the ominous presence of complicity in the story and scanned the New York papers for details. She found one article about the young woman’s death on August 31, 1880.
"The steamer Evergreen arrived in London Tuesday last from New York City. Mr. Winslow, Purser of
the vessel, said the effects of a young women from Brooklyn, who had committed suicide by jumping
overboard, had been left at the office. The suicide had happened in mid-ocean, four days after the
Evergreen had left port. On the evening of her death, she was sitting on the deck and was observed
by several other passengers. It was about 8:00 o’clock and the weather was rather rough. An older
gentleman seated a distance away stated that he saw the young woman stand, move to the rail, and
jump. The alarm was given too late. On going to her cabin a note was found addressed to the purser.
She directed that the contents of her satchel should be forwarded to her friends in London. The
contents were several bibles, two hymn books, and a gold watch and chain."
Although in her heart she felt certain about the identity of the young woman, Johanna asked a fellow who worked at the blacksmith shop, Mr. McGill, to drive her to Brooklyn to a particular house on or near Garfield Street… she knew she’d recognize the house when she saw it again. The two spoke little during the drive, but McGill tried to break the silence by introducing his horses to her by name.
“This one is George and this one is Martha… Martha is prettier, and she’s the harder worker, too.”
When they reached Garfield Place, Johanna recognized the house, right off Garfield to the right. On the door was a black mourning wreath, and men and women were entering with baskets. McGill asked Johanna if she’d like to pay her respects, she told him she already had. On the drive back to Leroy Street, Johanna began to feel a great sense of relief…that unhappy girl, she thought, she no longer has to live in the world that took her baby. She doesn’t have to watch the white dough rise on that beautiful but often cold marble dough table or hear the boot heel clicks on the hard wood in the magnificent by hollow home where she spent her days and long nights. By the time Johanna and her new friend reached the dust of Leroy Street, she felt a great sense of joy at the ascension of two souls, the young woman who took her life and her unborn child.
This story is based on the life of Johanna Fitzgerald, a first generation American born in 1863 in New York City.
Johanna was a smart girl who dreamed of being a doctor but knew that very few women had that opportunity in 1880. There was a training school for nurses at Bellevue Hospital, but there was the matter of tuition and earning a regular living while studying. So Johanna began an unofficial training program, a kind of internship, with three of the midwives from her tenement building and the tenements around it. She’d always loved babies and was so excited that she would be present when a child was born. She thought birth was a messy but magical thing... a new life... a tiny body and a big soul. She loved to hold the newborns and wipe their faces with a bit of oil and a bit of water, wipe the fluid from their little eyes and do her best to clear their tiny airways. Midwifing was a job that required a lot of cleanup, but Johanna had gotten used to cleaning; she’d cared for babies and children, her brothers and sisters, her fragile mother. She didn't mind hard work and she didn't mind the cry of a child. It was a language to her.
But what Johanna realized immediately as she began her career as a midwife was that she was there to help the poorest of the poor. Many women in her neighborhood couldn't afford to pay their midwives, but the midwives would commit to their best. She often went home without money, sometimes with a few pennies, sometimes with the promises of money in the future. The tenement midwives worked for the tenement women. It seemed the way of the world.
One night, however, Sabine, a Prussian woman in her fifties who lived in one of the tenement buildings closer to Broadway asked for midwives to assist her as she traveled to one of the finer homes across the East River. Sabine, Johanna and another midwife in training took a carriage to a house near Garfield Street and entered through the back door. The large house was quiet, all three floors were quiet, the only sounds filling the high-ceilinged rooms were whispers and the clicking of heels on hard wood floors.
In a room behind the kitchen there was a wooden table with a sheet spread across it. There were three women in the room; one young woman, perhaps 18, was sobbing quietly while two older women, probably servants, sat next to her on either side. Johanna noticed that she did not look pregnant; no one seemed to be ready to give birth. She soon realized that the midwives were there to give the young woman an abortion. Johanna had heard that midwives often assisted in terminating pregnancies, but she was shocked and frightened.