An Incredible Piece of Evidence Analysis

Over the years I have been developing a list of essential, must-read books.  It's a short list. Some of them are genealogy books and some of them are not but they have none-the-less incredibly impacted the way I look at history and how I do research.

The first non-genealogy book that shook my world was In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz. Now another book has joined the ranks of forever changing how I will interpret history.

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I was a little mystified as to how a book about a diary could win such a prize but then I started reading it.

In A Midwife's Tale, the author deconstructs the diary to extract every ounce of relevant meaning and clues.  She sets the story against the backdrop of social context based on extensive supporting contemporary works.

One of the problems genealogists and historians have is being able to interpret the meaning of history in the proper context without coloring it with our own modern interpretation. Ulrich gently but firmly reminds every reader that hidden context abounds down to single word. She challenges all readers, through her own thoroughness, to look more closely and more accurately at original records and manuscripts. She also teaches us that it's not just about analyzing the evidence but seeing the patterns left by the original author (in this case Martha Ballard). It's about using those clues, combined with a knowledge of contemporary history, to lead to a deeper interpretation in evidence analysis.

For instance, Ulrich shows how powerfully one single word can impact the overall text and our interpretation.  Throughout the book Martha Ballard consistently refers to the male home owner when describing a residence such as "I was called to Mr Gillmans." Ulrich teaches us that we can not ignore single deviations.

Ulrich writes, "A second subplot is suggested by a clue so subtle that without long acquaintance with Martha Ballard's habits of deference, it is easily missed. She wrote of going to Mrs rather than to Mr Hussey's house, though in the same section she spoke of going to Mr Bullins, Capt Coxes and Mr Goodins." (p. 25)

It turns out that Mr. Hussey was in prison for debt.  Without the clue of Mrs rather than Mr the casual reader might not dig deeper to determine why Martha Ballard had made that exception. Ulrich then provides more details about the social conditions of the time that would put an eighty year old man in jail for debt.

In a similar situation, Martha Ballard refers consistently to Joseph North by his official title Judge North. Yet after his acquittal at trial for rape she very tellingly leaves off the title when she says, "North acquitted to the great surprise of all that I heard speak of it." (p. 126) Ulrich goes further to explain that for Ballard to make such a statement very compelling evidence against Judge North was likely presented during the trial.

These are two very specific details from the book that don't even begin to reveal the depth of analytical skill that is demonstrated by Ulrich. Her analysis narrows down to the individual word but also broadens to take in social context on many different levels.

It's this level of attention to detail in analysis that will help guide and transform the book's readers from average researcher into astute, advanced researchers.

A Midwife's Tale can be beneficial in two ways. It can be read as way to learn about social context and the world of New Englanders in the rapidly changing times after the American Revolution. Or it can be used as a guide for historical and genealogical researchers to learn how to analyze and interpret an original manuscript, to extract the story it is really telling not the one perceived by our twentieth century minds.

Regardless of what location or time period you normally research, this book will make you a better researcher if you approach it as a way to learn how to improve your research. It has made me realize that most researchers (including myself) aren't even aware of all the clues and details they are missing when they review original manuscripts.

Rarely do I ever consider a book a must-read, but this is one. Read it once, then read it again.


  1. Ulrich and Deetz are two of my favorite authors (as well as David Hackett Fischer). I try to read everything they write.

  2. A Midwife's Tale is one of my all-time favorite herstories.

  3. I'm heading to download the sample now... sounds like it is a great read to add to the list. Thanks!

  4. Thanks! Sound like interesting reads. Am definitely adding those to my summer reading list.

  5. I watched the PBS film based on A Midwife's Tale years ago, ago, and had always wanted to read the book, but never got around to it and had forgotten it completely. Thanks for the reminder - I'm going to request it from my library today!

  6. Thanks for a great review - I just bought the Nook version! More importantly, you've reignited my quest to find the rumored diary of my 3x-gr-grandmother, Deborah (Kelley) Mason of Fairfield, Maine. A distant cousin told me she'd seen it, but can't remember who has it. This could take a while ...

  7. I've added it to my summer reading list. Thanks!

  8. Thank you for this post, Marian. I've heard of this book, "A Midwife's Tale," and after your review I'm seriously interested in reading it. My hub and I just finished listening to a book (we download books from Audible and listen while we're driving) that sounds quite similar to Ulrich in its emphasis on history and analysis. It's "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" by Kate Summerscale, about 18th century culture and detectives in fact and fiction. All about layers of finding the truth. Social context is crucial, but then you start "peeling the onion . . ."

  9. I read and loved this book 20 years ago. It is definitely time to re-read it! Thank you for the reminder. Great review.

  10. I admire your taste in books, Marian! James Deetz taught at my college. I read In Small Things Forgotten long ago and have kept it on my bookshelf to re-read regularly. I was intrigued by Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale because I was researching family in Hallowell, ME. It turned out that she wrote about delivering a baby who grew up to be one of my stepdad's several-times-great grandparents. After noting the recording of that birth, I was hooked and read the whole book because it was, as you say, a terrific example of mining every bit of the diaries for clues to the people and the culture and the context of Ballard's working life.

    I don't know if it will do much for your genealogy, but another of my favorites is Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins by Elizabeth Stone. For a wake-up call (or at least a reminder) about the impact of family stories on how we see ourselves and our families, it has no equal. Or if it has, I haven't found it yet.

  11. Thanks Marian adding it to my summer list along with bjs suggestion Black Sheep and Kissing Cousin

  12. I have owned "In Small Things Forgotten" for years, but I didn't read it the way you have.

    Since first reading this post, I looked up my copy of Deetz and stored it in my genealogy shelf. Then I looked up your earlier post about how you learned to learn from this book. Now I will reread it in greater depth.

    Thank you for a "lesson" I was much in need of.


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