Policing Women’s Sex Lives is Nothing New

Though the new novel by Yona Zeldis McDonough, The House on Primrose Pond, is fiction, the backstory is rooted in chilling reality: 

I already had my two main characters in mind — Susannah Gilmore (changed from Goldblatt by her grandfather Isaac) and her older neighbor, Alice Renfew.  Then I typed the words “New Hampshire tragedy” into Google, thinking I might find a flood, a fire, or a storm of epic and Biblical proportions. Instead, I found a book entitled Hanging Ruth Blay: An Eighteenth Century New Hampshire Tragedy.  When it showed up, I devoured Blay’s story with fascination and horror, and knew that I had to incorporate these events into the contemporary story of Susannah and Alice.

When Ruth Blay, an unmarried teacher and seamstress in Portsmouth, NH, discovered she was pregnant, she fled to the town of South Hampton, NH, and gave birth to a baby girl on June 10, 1768 — a date that happened to be her own birthday.  As a novelist, it’s my job to imagine the lives of my characters, and imagining Ruth’s life at that juncture was harrowing.  She labored and gave birth by herself, no mother, sister or friend to hold her hand or offer a sip of the “groaning beer” that the women of her time would have prepared. Unsurprisingly, the baby, a girl, was stillborn. In her panic, Ruth wrapped the tiny body in a cloth and brought her out to a barn on the adjoining property, concealing it under loose floorboards.  She later said she intended to return after the shock and trauma had subsided a bit, to give the infant a proper burial.

But the body was discovered — and the bailiff called.  Ruth was jailed in Portsmouth and tried in September, maintaining her innocence. “I never had a Single Thought of murdering the Infant,” she wrote in a letter that was published posthumously, “which makes me even shudder to think that any Mother should be guilty of such Cruelty.”  She went on to mention the tiny clothes and bedding she had sewn in preparation for the birth, using these as proof of her intent to care for, and not harm, her child. Although the murder charge did not stick, she was instead convicted of the lesser offense of concealing the birth of an illegitimate child — a “crime” punishable by death. 

And on December 31, 1768, Ruth was hanged.

Ruth’s life ended back in the eighteenth century, but her story did not. The man who got her pregnant was never even named, let alone charged. Then, as now, women shoulder the lion’s share of sexual blame, as many contemporary rape trials and incidents of slut shaming can attest.  And in a world in which honor killings are not just permitted but in some places lauded, and fathers feel it is their God-given right to cut off the noses of daughters who dare to defy them, Ruth’s tragic end does not seem so distant. In fact, it feels shockingly and stunningly close.


Yona Zeldis McDonough, from The Lilith Blog, February 15, 2016.