Friday, June 20, 2008

The Baby-Mama Witches of Gloucester

The first thing I thought of when I read the story about the 17 wanna-be baby mamas of Gloucester, Massachusetts were the teenage girls who lay at the center of the Salem Witch Trials. No doubt, this was probably because of the proximity of Gloucester to Salem Village (now Danvers, Mass.). Now, I'm simply not well-versed enough in group psychology or the deeper history of the Salem Witch hysteria to draw any conclusions. I just found these parallels interesting (if they are indeed parallel!).

A little digging brought up some statistical similarities: there were 16 girls in Salem Village who claimed they were the victims of witchcraft, and most were teenagers; there are 17 new baby mama teenagers in Gloucester. Maybe both groups of girls were depressed by their surroundings, or at least picked up on the depression from their parents and community.

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum theorized in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft that the Salem Village witchcraft accusations were a sort of psychological projection that exposed tensions between the agrarian and economically poor Salem Village and its more economically successful neighbor Salem Town. As Philip Greven, Jr. wrote in his review of Salem Possessed (Reviews in American History, Vol.2, No.4, 1974; p.516):
Throughout their book, the underlying assumption which shapes their analysis of the Village and its inhabitants is that this community reflects a particular transitional point in a long-term historical process which was transforming precapitalist agrarian society into more urban, commercial, and capitalistic society. As they observe of [Reverend Samuel] Parriss and the Village, "All the elements of their respective histories were deeply rooted in the social realities of late seventeenth century western culture--a culture in which a subsistence, peasant-based economy was being subverted by mercantile capitalism" (p. 178).
The Time piece on the Gloucester 17 noted:
The past decade has been difficult for this mostly white, mostly blue-collar city (pop. 30,000). In Gloucester, perched on scenic Cape Ann, the economy has always depended on a strong fishing industry. But in recent years, such jobs have all but disappeared overseas, and with them much of the community's wherewithal. "Families are broken," says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. "Many of our young people are growing up directionless."

Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. "They're so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally," Ireland says.
Also, its apparent that both groups of teenage girls may have coordinated their actions. Although many believe that the Salem accusers were victims of mass hysteria, perhaps even chemically induced, there is also evidence that they were just "hav[ing] some sport."

Daniel Elliott: Deposition for Elizabeth Proctor

the testimony of Daniel elet aged 27 years or thear abouts who testifieth & saith that I being at the hous of leutennant ingasone one the 28 of march in the year 1692 thear being preasent one of the aflicted persons which cryed out and said thears goody procter William raiment juner being theare present told the garle he beleved she lyed for he saw nothing then goody ingerson told the garl she told aly for thear was nothing: then the garl said that she did it for sport they must have some sport

( Essex County Archives, Salem -- Witchcraft Vol. 1 Page 27 )

The Gloucester baby mamas consciously decided to get pregnant and raise their kids together.
By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," [school principal Joseph] Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.
And once each group embarked on their respective escapades, they knew that adults were in place to provide, shall we say, support. In the case of the Salem girls, society was predisposed to attribute their actions to supernatural causes:
At the time, however, there was another theory to explain the girls' symptoms. Cotton Mather had recently published a popular book, "Memorable Providences," describing the suspected witchcraft of an Irish washerwoman in Boston, and Betty [Parriss]'s behavior in some ways mirrored that of the afflicted person described in Mather's widely read and discussed book. It was easy to believe in 1692 in Salem, with an Indian war raging less than seventy miles away (and many refugees from the war in the area) that the devil was close at hand. Sudden and violent death occupied minds.

Talk of witchcraft increased when other playmates of Betty, including eleven-year-old Ann Putnam, seventeen-year-old Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott, began to exhibit similar unusual behavior. When his own nostrums failed to effect a cure, William Griggs, a doctor called to examine the girls, suggested that the girls' problems might have a supernatural origin. The widespread belief that witches targeted children made the doctor's diagnosis seem increasing likely.

Meanwhile, the number of girls afflicted continued to grow, rising to seven with the addition of Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, and Mary Warren. According to historian Peter Hoffer, the girls "turned themselves from a circle of friends into a gang of juvenile delinquents." ( Many people of the period complained that young people lacked the piety and sense of purpose of the founders' generation.) The girls contorted into grotesque poses, fell down into frozen postures, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. In a village where everyone believed that the devil was real, close at hand, and acted in the real world, the suspected affliction of the girls became an obsession.
The Gloucester girls are surrounded by a support system of a different kind.
The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. "We're proud to help the mothers stay in school," says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.

But by May, after nurse practitioner Kim Daly had administered some 150 pregnancy tests at Gloucester High's student clinic, she and the clinic's medical director, Dr. Brian Orr, a local pediatrician, began to advocate prescribing contraceptives regardless of parental consent, a practice at about 15 public high schools in Massachusetts. Currently Gloucester teens must travel about 20 miles (30 km) to reach the nearest women's health clinic; younger girls have to get a ride or take the train and walk. But the notion of a school handing out birth control pills has met with hostility. Says Mayor Carolyn Kirk: "Dr. Orr and Ms. Daly have no right to decide this for our children." The pair resigned in protest on May 30.

There are also other reports attempting to link the episode to celebrity culture, "abstinence only" education or a reduction in sex education classes in Massachusetts.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that teenage girls are probably the clique-iest species in the world. Perhaps all that can be concluded is that the phenomena of girls behaving badly is really nothing new: its easier to act out against social mores with your peers than by yourself. And there really is safety in numbers. If you are a teenage girl and you and a group of your friends cross the line, many adults--including your own parents--will trip all over themselves to find alternative explanations for your behavior. If you do something stupid all by yourself, then you, young lady, were just being an idiot. But if you are wise enough to get a group together to engage in unacceptable behavior, then the temptation is to shift the burden of responsibility from the individuals to the larger society.


Nathanael said...


I'm not sure if you are treading a fine line. Certainly the group dynamic is important to analyze, one that is meant to reinforce or select between particular social responses by making pregnancy a social, rather than personal, issue. In this context, it would be a collective play for power on their part. But I find it difficult to say that their intention was to abuse the school's support system; it seems just as likely that the teenagers were just savvy in taking advantage of it in realizing their plan. For the most part, the explanations of these pregnancies must return to the teenagers' intentionality and how decisions like this are supported by American culture, both positively and negatively. We may just as well criticize statutory rape laws, which come down unevenly against the older, usually male, partner.

Marc said...

Nathanael, Thanks for the comments. As I indicated at the top, I'm trying to figure this out to, so your input is helpful. I agree that I'm not sure how what kind of factor the "support system" had, though it could be part of the culture that helped support their decision.

I'm still thinking on it. Thanks again.