This early Later-day Saint woman’s story is one that has really touched my heart. As I did research for our book it was the longest and most detailed birth account I found written in the personal words of an early Later-day Saint woman. Her account is just rich with historical glimpses into early LDS health practices and beliefs and while I loved it for those reasons (among others) we chose not to include her story in the book because it is a bit of a “horror” story. We tried hard to share stories in the book that would paint a more positive picture of birth– women are already afraid enough of birth, we didn’t want to make it worse! Yet ever since I found this woman’s story I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that her story needs to be shared and that she wants it to be shared. I am not sure why, but there is someone out there who needs this story.
I think it is important to note thought that this woman’s experience is (and was) out of the ordinary. During my research I read enough historical birth stories that even 150 years ago many babies and moms made it safely and happily through childbirth (though many of them did die later from infection and disease due to lack of knowledge). What this woman went through was as unusual for her day as it is for ours, which is why she probably wrote it down in detail. Perhaps it was her way of processing and dealing with a traumatic birth experience and healing from it.
I hope that as you read her words you will hear her voice and feel of the testimony of strength of a noble woman. Then afterward I want to share with you what I have learned from her extraordinarily hard experience.
“ My oldest son, Willard G. Smith, was born September 11, 1870. In the winter of ’69 and ’70, my husband, Willard G. Smith, Sr., again spent about two months in the Territorial Legislature. My mother and two youngest brothers spent the time with me. I came near to dying with measles. My two little girls also had the measles. We finally got through without loss. However, it left me rather delicate, and my little son was born about five months later. He was a fine, husky little fellow; I remained delicate. I seemed to have all the weakness to contend with that females are heir to, and my work and care of three babies kept me drilled down.
“Yet nothing very serious happened until July 29, 1873, when my second son, David Franklin, was born, when I came very nearly losing my life. My doctor was very nice and, I believe, a very capable one. She was a graduate of the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Her diploma had the king’s signature attached. I had a very hard, lingering labor, and I fully believe it was one calling for instrumental assistance, which she understood; but at that time our people were so prejudiced against doctors that even men doctors who dared to use instruments were very much criticized. Being a woman, she was under far greater restrain; few woman had ventured so far from the old and well-beaten path of woman’s true sphere as to step into a professional career. She had, I believe, saved the lives of several people and gained quite a reputation as an M.D. but also had aroused considerable prejudice and unfavorable criticism.
“ When she found my case a difficult one, she tried the old methods of accomplishing the delivery. When all else failed, she caused me to be lifted from the bed and placed in a very trying and unusual position, and finally the strain on the bones became so great that they gave way. The baby burst through with a rush. The pelvic bones were broken in two places. She thought the changed position had worked wonders. ‘Yes,” I said, ‘but it nearly killed me!’ She said, ‘You will feel better soon.’
“ She had me lifted from my bed onto a pallet, wishing to make my bed more comfortable. When she cast an eye on me, she and I both thought I was dying from hemorrhage. She immediately took a cold towel, placed it on my abdomen, bathed my face with cold water, gave me stimulants, and finally, after some time, she had me placed in a bed where, from nerve shock and continued hemorrhage, I lay hovering between life and death. The doctor tried to tell me how the blood was flooding back on my heart because of a clot which had formed preventing the flow. This I but partially understood. I thought that I had lost enough blood; also I had lost confidence in her and wouldn’t allow her to touch me. She went into the next room wringing her hands and saying that I was dying; and she dared not insist on anything, for my life might go out with the least excitement; and I would not let her touch me.
“She came back to me and said, ‘Just let me put my hand on your stomach. I won’t hurt or do anything to you.’ I finally allowed her to place her hand on me. Shortly, her warm hand and a little pressure on the uterus began to give me a little relief. Then as she moved to give a little attention to something else, I feared she would leave me. The uterine contractions checked the hemorrhage. I was so weak that they dared not move me for any purpose. They just tucked dry clothes around me as best they could.
“ My doctor stayed with me all night and watched over me. She never even laid down. She continued to stay with me for three days. She stayed in my room the next night, made a pallet of quilts near my bed, and I could hear her come to me several times during the night and listen to see if I was breathing. I was almost too weak to speak, but sometimes I opened my eyes that she might see that I was all right. I did not lose myself in sleep and heard every sound and remained very weak and nervous and in such a condition that the doctor dared not bathe me or change my bed or clothes until the third day. By that time my fever was alarming.
“They removed my clothing and soiled bedding, put me into a cold, wet sheet pack after soaking my feet in mustard water with a cold cloth on my head; then with hot water bottles, hot bricks, etc., they gave me a sweat for two or three hours, then bathed and rubbed me down, dried my bed, put me into dry clothes, except that I had cold wet cloths on my head and neck, and my body was put into a cold wet pack with dry cloth to keep in the heat and all tightly bandaged. Then with a steaming hot brick to my feet, I felt quite comfortable. My nerves we requited and the fever reduced so that I slept all night except when awakened to have my cold wet pack changed, which must be done every three hours. Up to this time, I had been so weak that I could not raise my hand to my head or feed myself. I now felt a little better but could not move my body or lower limbs one particle, no more than if they did not belong to me. No one imagined the cause of my helplessness.
“This condition continued for four weeks. Every time that I was moved, it was like taking my life, for it pulled apart the broken bones, and the pain was intense. I had no hired nurse to call on, and my ‘sister’ (my husband married her in 1867 under the plural marriage law) had so much to do with caring for me and all the housework to do, and also taking care of my four little children, that it was terrible on her. She was kind to the children and loved them and me, she did all she could do, and I tried to get along with just as little waiting on as possible; and if I thought it possible, would get her to change me less often; and when she was too busy it was omitted entirely. When this was done my fever raged again.
“When my baby was four weeks old, I had a relapse. It happened on a Saturday night. My baby became fretful from nursing feverish milk and I was very sick and alone all night. Along toward morning a complete change came over me and all care and sorrow and responsibility left me. I was shown that I could go from this life. There seemed to be just the thinnest veil between me and the next world. I was perfectly willing to go.
“When Ingree, my husband’s other wife spoke of above, came to me in the morning she said, ‘What has happened? What is the matter? I told her the baby had been very restless all night and asked her to put it on a little bed made of pillows on a chest. This she did, but he wouldn’t lie quietly. After my husband had done a few chores outside, he came in and wanted his breakfast. It was then quite late. Ingree was holding the baby. He said, ‘Take it to Mother.’ This she did not do, saying I was tired, for the baby was fretful all night. He took it from her and brought it to me. I said, ‘No if it must cry, lay it over there out of my way.’ She then got him his meal and they took care of the baby some way.
“He went to Porterville and was gone all day until evening. Ingree, however, was very uneasy. She could see there was something serious the matter and wanted to send for the doctor or my mother or someone. I tried to calm her feelings, told her that she was not to worry. In a short time my brother and his wife and my mother came in to see me. They became very excited and wanted to go for the doctor. I told them to calm themselves and let us have a good visit and a good time while I should be with them, that I was going and was perfectly reconciled to go, and wanted them all the feel all right about it, that there was no blame to be attached to anyone; all that could be done for me had been accomplished.
“They would not be satisfied, and my brother was not long in getting the doctor. She gave the same treatment as before to get the fever down and continued it during the night. The next morning, she have me a thorough examination and found the cause of my trouble to be a broken pelvis, broken in two places; and she gave me treatment for broken bones and bandaged me up. It was then for the first time that I could be moved without tearing apart those bones in there inflamed and painful surroundings. I then commenced to get better and soon began to move my lower limbs and change my position in bed. My recovery was slow; it was three moths before I could stand on my feet and quite a length of time after that before I could walk.”
“This had been a terrible experience for me and for kindhearted, patient, loving Ingree. Never once did she complain or grow impatient with me or the children, whom she petted and loved dearly. She remained with us until sometime in the next February when she went East to visit her people, and I have never seen her since. We corresponded for many years… My doctor lady, a Mrs. Coneley, had long since moved away; and there was no competent help in our county for women. My last two children were born without medical aid. I said to my husband, ‘Go and get a neighbor,’ one that I thought much of, ‘and she will do as I wish her to.’ Others wanted to have their own way and knew nothing. This kind of help made me nervous and through this I had nearly lost my life through hemorrhage twice so he did as I requested, and I got along fine. Yet I realized that the responsibility of my own case was too much for me and an injustice to my good neighbor , who would have been greatly distressed if trouble or death had come to me.”
From “Pioneer Health Care”, Compiled by Emma R. Olsen for the International Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1994, pg. 5-9
I think what impresses me the most about Huldah’s story is that even though she had some very traumatic things happen to her, she kept an amazing attitude. She never once got angry or bitter about what happened to her and she never blamed anyone else. She was long suffering and patient with the attempts that others made to help her, and even in her pain she was filled with gratitude for their help. It amazes me how she got to a point where she felt like she was ready and willing to leave this world and how she came to peace with that decision. I can’t even begin to imagine that amount of faith that an attitude like that would require.
The other thing that impresses me about this story is the amount of personal responsibility she took for the outcome of her birth. It would have been so easy, and fairly justified, for her to have blamed her doctor for not intervening with forceps when they both knew that she should have or being angry and bitter that her doctor didn’t discover she had broken bones for more than a month. Yet instead she took responsibility for her own choices. She was the one who hired the doctor to assist her and she couldn’t blame someone else for doing the best they could to help her. Her attitude impresses me and I think that in a world where women are so often encouraged to turn the responsibility for their birth outcomes over to a care provider or an institution– whether it be a doctor, a midwife, or a nurse– her story is a good reminder that we each have personal agency and that we need to accept the consequences (good and bad) of the choices we make.
It is also interesting to me that both she and the doctor realized that her case was one that required the use of forceps but because cultural prejudices against doctors, espeically female doctors, she was denied the care she needed. I think it is an important lesson that we need to make sure that our own cultural prejudices don’t get in the way of getting the type of care we need– whether that means going with an nontraditional route like a midwife or a birth center or accepting the fact that we need medical assistance, surgery or medications in order to have a successful pregnancy and birth. The Lord knows what each baby and mother need and we can’t let our own prejudices or misconceptions get in the way of getting the type of care we need.
Huldah’s experience, hard thought it was, has really strengthen my testimony of the power that each woman possesses with in her. We are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for! It impressed me beyond anything that even after this traumatic experience she went on to give birth to two more children. What a brave woman.
It is so beautiful to me that on her tombstone (pictured above) her posterity chose the title of “mother” to honor her with. She was a woman who must have truly understood the gift that it is to give life.
What interests you most about her story?