Mending the Past 20: Illegitimate Boy


Russian woman throwing her baby to the wolves, Charles Michel Geoffroy (1845)

In the novel Augusta‘s Daughter by Judit Martin (2012), several generations of Swedish women suffer poverty and discrimination in the last century beginning with Augusta, a poor peasant a bit younger than Maja Lisa. Was Maja Lisa’s experience giving birth in 1838 anything like the fictional Augusta’s in 1854? The story, based on the author’s research, makes it clear that Swedish peasants like Augusta did not get much pampering when giving birth. They kept working right up until labor was advanced. Augusta not only finishes chores like feeding her husband breakfast and milking the cows during early labor she also prepares the cottage by carrying in firewood and laying straw on the floor. Only then, when her cottage is prepared, does she send word to neighbor women to come and help. Augusta puts on a birthing gown, white with lace and embroidery that she had prepared especially for the occasion. Four neighbor women, experienced mothers themselves, come to assist. One of them is a midwife, jordegumma, or local wise woman who takes charge. Augusta’s own mother is not present having died in childbirth years earlier. Augusta labors for a long time and is given cinnamon tea and herbal poultices on her belly to soothe her. The room is kept sauna-warm with a fire kept burning day and night. Finally the midwife catches the baby, suctions the nose with her mouth and cuts the cord, tying it off with thread. She then bathes the baby, bandages the belly button with a copper coin and candle wax and swaddles it toe to shoulders in ten feet of homespun linen before handing the newborn to the mother.

Maja Lisa was 22-years-old, unmarried and aware that her pregnancy was a crime. One wonders if she received any care or preparation for giving birth. Had she collected the swaddling cloth, the diapers and cradle she would need? Labor began on a day in late August, 1838. Was she living in the cottage at Risadråg when she went into labor? Did she call upon her mother Lena to help her, tell her what to do? Did her father and brother leave the cottage so it could become a delivery room? Did she complete her chores even as the first muscle contractions signaled labor? Who warmed the cottage with a fire and lay straw down to protect the floor from blood and fluid? Did Maja Lisa put on a loose gown and unbind her hair as the contractions grew harder? Did women from neighboring farms come over with food, coffee and brandy? Did a jordegumma come to pray, guide her through the pain, supervise her positioning, breathing and pushing and to catch the baby, ensuring the cord was cut and the afterbirth delivered, all according to custom?

This part puzzles me. Unless Maja Lisa gave birth alone, she would have had witnesses to the fact that the child, as she said, was stillborn. How was she suspected or accused of murdering her own baby if she said it was otherwise? Were there not witnesses, birth attendants, who could attest to the condition of the baby when he was born? Had she managed to keep the birth, even the pregnancy secret?

If she had murdered the child at birth, infanticide, was she alone? Did Maja Lisa feel labor coming on and decide that she would tell no one? Where did she go to give birth secretly? Did she walk into a barn or the forest and deliver the child onto a bed of hay or moss? Did she wonder what was happening, her teeth clenched in pain, when suddenly it was done, there was an infant? Did she unwrap the umbilical cord from around his neck, cut it with her own teeth? Did she hold the child in his first moments, not knowing how to help him take a first breath by simply sucking the amniotic fluid still in his nose and throat or massaging him. I cannot imagine the aftermath of such a birth as being one of clear-headed, murderous action. One could simply do nothing or faint from exhaustion for minutes and lose a newborn at that crucial time.

And then what did she do after the baby was dead? Did she try to hide the body? Did she gather it into her arms, wrap it in a shawl, and run to her mother, her father? Help me, what has happened, what shall I do? What could they say, who could they turn to as the authority–the priest, the doctor or the sheriff? What else was there to do? Did Maja Lisa have a postpartum hemorrhage, a fever? Was the doctor called to attend to her? It is possible that whatever secret was meant to be kept was flushed out.

It is interesting to note that as physicians became established along with the state’s involvement in healthcare, by the 1700’s midwifery education was formalized and traditional midwifery and the age old practices of wise women were being edged out. Even in the 1800’s licensed parish midwives attended many births and reported back to county physicians. Sweden led the way in decreasing maternal mortality among western nations thanks to this system.

What was the involvement of midwives, other women or even her own mother in Maja Lisa’s birth experience? In the end, the doctor came. He challenged Maja Lisa’s account. He said that the child had lived. How did he know? Did he examine the infant’s lungs, did he see marks of violence? Or was he guessing. Was he swayed by the fact that Maja Lisa gave birth alone, unmarried and frightened? Did he disapprovingly challenge this löndahoras, this immoral woman’s, version of events? Somewhere there may be a record of the legal proceedings in Skaraborg County. I hope some day to learn more.















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