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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Midwives and the Civil War – Specktown’s Becky Rickert

By Norman Gasbarro, 3-10-11


For a 19th century farmer, having many children was considered a blessing, and boys especially were expected to start working the farm along with their father as soon as they were able.  So, Martin and Betsy set out to have a large family.  Unfortunately for them, their two sons Samuel Rickert (1850-1858) and Henry Rickert (1835-1837) died young – leaving only seven daughters who survived into adulthood.

At the time of the Civil War, five of those daughters had married and several of the husbands were serving in the war.  During the war, four of the daughters gave birth to a total of eight children.  The special responsibility that Betsy had to her daughters was to make sure that they learned the ways and methods of childbirth and that they assumed the responsibility of assisting each other when needed.

The youngest daughter of Martin and Betsy, Hannah Rickert, was born in 1847.  Undoubtedly, her oldest sister Elizabeth Rickert, who was about 18 at the time, was present when her mother gave birth for the last time – as was probably also Susannah Rickert who was 14, and Rebecca “Becky” Rickert, who was only 10.

Rebecca “Becky” Rickert (1837-1918), as previously mentioned, was probably present at the birth of her youngest sister Hannah and was able to assist in some ways at that birth.  During Becky’s early years of life, she suffered from scarlet fever, which left her with some mental incapacity, but not enough that she couldn't continue to assist in the births of her sister’s children and perform tasks in the home that all women were expected to perform.

During the Civil War, she undoubtedly performed the role of midwife or midwife’s assistant at the births of her eight nieces and nephews who were born during the war.

When the mother Betsy Rickert died in 1877, Becky moved in with her sister Hannah and assisted Hannah in the births of her later children.  She became especially attached to Hannah’s oldest daughter Elizabeth “Lizzie” Riegle (1872-1942) to whom she passed on her skills.  It was Lizzie who made midwifery her profession and family oral history confirms that she actually used the title and got paid for her services.

As the 19th century closed, Becky was no longer capable of taking charge in childbirth situations nor was she able to do much more than perform simple household task.  Friends and family members visited her and brought her picture post cards, which she collected, and conversed with her in “Dutch.”  She sat on her rocker, smoked a corn cob pipe, and played with her grand nieces and nephews and other children who came by.  Hannah expressed concern that she would die before Becky and that there would be no one to take care of her.  But that was not true, for if that had happened, Lizzie surely would have kept her and nursed her in her last days.  Becky died about a year before Hannah.

Thus it was that the skills of midwifery were passed down through the generations in Specktown, Lykens Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.  Betsy Rickert and her daughters, especially Becky Rickert, performed this invaluable service during the Civil War.  Lizzie Riegle, who learned the skills from her “Aunt Becky,” made her living by charging families $25 for one months service – two weeks before birth, birth, and two weeks after birth.

Although there were country doctors in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the Lykens valley area, and some women chose to rely on their services, the record will show that there was sufficient demand for women who specialized in assisting with childbirth.  The only training they had received was as “apprentices” to elder sisters or to their mothers who also performed the same services.

Today, midwifery is a specialty branch of medicine and is available for those who choose to not have a medical doctor assist in the birthing process.  According to information found on Wikipedia, use of the term “midwife”, common in ancient times, took a long time to return to common usage and that could explain why the Civil War era women did not use it.  In the 18th century and into the 19th century in America, midwifery was associated with witchcraft, particularly because women who practiced it were seen more as “population controllers” because they disseminated birth control information and also performed abortions.  This was the era when it was important to have as many children as possible and anyone who tinkered with that idea was seen as devilish or as a witch.

Excerpted from: civilwar.gratzpa.org



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