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HomeLife In the BerkshiresConnections: Legislating Morality,...

Connections: Legislating Morality, Part II: The 18th century paternity test

In order to secure child support, the unwed mother had to repeatedly say the name the father in the hearing of the midwife during labor. During labor, over and over again, the midwife asked any unmarried mother to identify the father. It was believed that any answer given during “her travail” was equivalent to a deathbed confession.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century. (To read Part I of “Legislating Morality” click here.

Few women escaped fine or punishment for fornication; most men did, even though, by the nature of the crime, it took two. Once in awhile the woman could sue for support, meet “the prerequisites of law,” and win.

In 1762, Amy Coleman of Pittsfield met the prerequisites of law. To do that, she had to repeatedly say the name the father in the hearing of the midwife during labor. During labor, over and over again, the midwife asked any unmarried mother to identify the father. It was believed that any answer given during “her travail” was equivalent to a deathbed confession. That is how traumatic labor was in the 18th century. During labor, every woman was facing death, and therefore would not dare lie. Even if the man denied the charge, when the woman repeatedly gave the same name during labor, and the midwife testified in court to what she heard, the man was convicted.

 

midewifeCROPPEDWhy was the court involved in fornication trials? Were they upholding the morals of the community?

The reason is apparent in the second part of the ruling in the case of Coleman. In addition to money paid to support mother and child, the father was ordered to “pay to Pittsfield the sum of 200 pounds in lawful money to save and spare the town of Pittsfield from any charge that might hereafter arise by reason of said child being born.” Prosecution of fornication cases had as much to do with money as morality.

Eighteenth-century Berkshire was a series of small communities: knots of 138 families, or fewer, living in wide clearings in the woods connected by narrow dirt roads. They were vulnerable. Fatherless children were a potential financial burden on the community. The court was making sure that the responsible party paid, thus “easing of the towns where bastards are born [the cost] of the child and the education thereof.”

There was another financial interest in the fornication trials. In 1762, Sarah Joyner of Egremont “was brought to answer” a charge of fornication made by members of the community. Since she did not come forward of her own accord, when she was found guilty, her fine was larger, 20 shillings 4 pence.

Joyner could not pay the fine and therefore was to “stand committed till that sentence be performed.” Anyone could come forward and pay the fine. By virtue of payment, Sarah was bonded to that person until she repaid the debt.

Joyner tried valiantly to get the money from her lover. She filed a suit Sarah Joyner v. Joseph Taylor.

Taylor “recognized before Justice John Apley Esq. to make his personal appearance here at this time to answer to a complaint of said Sarah against him…wherein she charges him of having carnal knowledge of her…begating a bastard child on her body…now recognized anew in the sum of 50 pounds with sureties James Smith and Abraham Root… personally to appear at the next court of general sessions of the peace to be at Pittsfield for and within our county of Berkshire on the first Tuesday next to answer to said complaint and to perform the judgment of said court thereon and not depart without license [permission].”

Taylor denied the charge and was exonerated. Joyner could not pay her fine. When another man paid it she was in bond to him. Further, it was he who could determine when she had satisfied the debt. She was at the mercy of his calculations unless she could find her way back into court – few women could. In the 18th century, if the fine for fornication was unpaid by the woman, the price of pre-marital sex for her could be slavery.

Men came before the court and admitted to other moral infractions. In 1760 and 1761 Samuel Lee “did keep an inn and house of entertainment in his dwelling contrary to the law of this province.” Mr. Root, a tavern keeper, “suffered dancing in his tavern.” One man “labored and did his ordinary calling [on Sunday] therefore profaned the Lord’s Day.” Were there houses of “evil fame” in Berkshire? If there were, they were probably at stage coach inns where there were lots of bedrooms. Could “house of entertainment” or “suffering dancing and merry making” be euphemisms for prostitution? Perhaps, but no charges in the early court records stated that a Berkshire innkeeper “suffered fornication to occur on his premises.”

There would have been a court case because, in that world, the concern was a balance of both the economic sustainability of the community, and the morality of the community members. The dual concern was to both tax sin and curb sinful behavior. In our world and in theirs: sin has always been a profit center.

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