On Dec. 30, 1776, Mary Vial Holyoke lost her seventh child, 25-day-old Henrietta, nicknamed Harriet. She had lost five of her previous six children within the span of five years.
Six years later she would lose another infant, 5-month-old Edward Augustus.
Only three of her 12 children – Margaret, Judith and Susanna – would outlive her.
The birth rate was high in the 1700s, but so was child mortality. Some estimates put it at 40 percent. Even then, Mary Vial Holyoke and her husband, Edward Augustus Holyoke, suffered an inordinate number of child deaths.
How does one respond to losing eight children? In Mary’s case, she soldiered on. As the busy wife of Salem’s most eminent doctor, she mothered her remaining children, ran a large household and attended the constant round of dances, teas and turtles of Essex County’s upper class.
Mary Vial Holyoke kept a diary from the time of her marriage to her death, making 2,488 entries from 1760 to 1800. In it, she stoically recorded the births and deaths of her children. She used the line-a-day format typical of the era, with little introspection or mention of her feelings.
But long silences generally followed the death of her children.
Marriage and Children
Mary Vial Holyoke was born Dec. 19, 1737, the only child of Nathaniel and Mary Simpson Vial, a well-to-do merchant family from Boston. At 21 she married Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke of Salem, 10 years her senior and the son of the ninth president of Harvard College. He was already no stranger to infant mortality. His first wife died in childbirth at age 19 and their baby daughter soon after.
Dr. Holyoke did pioneering work in the treatment of smallpox. His contemporaries described him as “an unostentatious practitioner of medicine,” diligent and attentive to his duties. He also had a “vivacity of disposition,” which may explain all that socializing.
Mary Vial began her diary shortly after marrying the man she referred to as “ye doctor” on Nov. 22, 1759. A little more than 10 months after their marriage she gave birth to a daughter. Ye doctor had little or nothing to do with birthing babies. Mary Vial Holyoke makes it clear in her diary that childbirth was exclusively the province of female friends and neighbors.
The First Loss
Their first child, Mary, or Polly, was born on Sept. 14, 1760. Another daughter, Margaret, came into the world on March 4, 1763. For nearly a year, Mary Vial Holyoke had two healthy children and no heartache.
Then on Jan. 9, 1764, Polly took ill. “My Daughter Polly first confined with the quinsy. Took a vomit,” wrote her mother. Four days later:
Jan. 13: My Dear Polly Died. Sister Prissy came.
Jan. 14: Buried.
She wrote nothing for three days, then: “Small Pox began to spread at Boston.”
4 Deaths in 5 Years
Four more of her children would die in the next four-and-a-half years.
Exactly one year after Polly took ill and died, another Mary, also called Polly, was born. But she lived only nine months. On Oct. 31, 1765, Polly died.
Within weeks of Polly’s death, Mary Vial Holyoke was pregnant again. A son, Edward Augustus Holyoke, was born on Aug. 12, 1766. He lived less than three months.
Nov. 2. I was out all day at meeting. The Child taken with another turn, lay till 5 in the morning & then Died.
Nov. 4. My Dear Child Buried. Mr. Brown went to new port.
Thirteen months after she gave birth to her son, she delivered her fifth child on Sept. 5, 1767. “I was brought to bed about 2oClock A. M. of a daughter,” she wrote. The child, a third Mary, didn’t live long enough to get a nickname.
Sept. 6. The Child Baptized Mary.
Sept. 7. The Baby very well till ten o’Clock in the evening & then taken with fits.
Sept. 8. The Baby remained very ill all day.
Sept. 9. It Died about 8 o’clock in the morning.
Sept. 10. Was buried.
Her sixth child, Anna, was born 13 months after Mary in October 1768 and lived 19 days. Her seventh child, another Edward, was born in May 1770 and lived only four days.
Mary Vial Holyoke had one surviving daughter, eight-year-old Margaret, when her eighth child, Elizabeth, was born on Sept. 11, 1771. A brief respite from pregnancy, childbirth and death followed until Judith’s birth on Jan. 20, 1774.
By then, revolution loomed. But most of the Holyokes’ social set remained loyal to the Crown. Dt. Holyoke thought the colonies should win independence, only not just yet. As his alarm increased over the threat of armed conflict, he sent his wife and three young daughters to Nantucket for safety.
They sailed about three weeks before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Three months later they returned, remaining in Salem though many of their friends left for Canada or England.
Henrietta, or Harriet, was then born on Dec. 5, 1776. She lived less than a month. On Dec. 30, 1776, Mary Vial Holyoke wrote, ‘My Dear Harriet Died at 9 o’clock in ye morning.’
Susanna was born on April 21, 1779 and survived to adulthood.
My Dear Child Died
On April 8, 1782, 44-year-old Mary Vial Holyoke gave birth to her 12th and last child:
Apr. 8. Sent for Mrs. Jones & Mrs. Carwick. Very Bad till 1/2 past 11 A.M. when I was Dd [Delivered] of a son. Madm & Mrs. Pickman & Mrs. Derby Called in.
Apr. 14. Child Baptized Edward Augustus.
But then less than five months later:
Sept. 1. My Dear Child Died 9 A.M., which makes the 8th Child.
Though Mary Vial Holyoke went for seven years without the loss of a child, her 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth, or Betsey, took sick in February 1789.
22. Betsey taken With vomiting. Very Poorly all Day. I Staid at home.
23. Betsey very Bad. 25. Mrs. Carwick Came to Stay with Betsy.
26. Betsey Died this Day 5 “Clock P. M.
People reacted differently to the death of a teenager than to an infant. The day after Betsey died, her mother wrote the “house full of our condoling friends.” Over the next few weeks, she recorded Betsey’s funeral and the visits of friends and relatives.
Her remaining three daughters survived her. The eldest, Margaret, never married. One wonders whether the death of eight siblings put her off the institution.
Judith married and had eight children, four of whom died young. Susanna married and had seven children. Two died young. Her daughter Susan then married Charles Osgood, a Salem artist who painted a well-known portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mary Vial Holyoke died April 15, 1802. Her eldest daughter, Margaret, never married. Her husband then lived another 27 years and died at 101.
With thanks to Social Childbirth and Communities of Women in Early America by Jocelyn Jessop. You can read Mary Vial Holyoke’s diaries here. This story was updated in 2021. Image: Broad Street Cemetery by Rusty Clark via flickr, CC by SA 2.0.