On Dec. 30, 1776, Mary Vial Holyoke lost her seventh child, 25-day-old Henrietta, nicknamed Harriet. Six years later she would lose another infant, 5-month-old Edward Augustus. Seven years after that, her 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth would die.
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. In one span of less than five years they lost five.
Mary Vial Holyoke kept a diary from the time of her marriage to her death, making 2,488 short entries from 1760 to 1800. In it, she stoically recorded the births and deaths of her children, never giving way to bitterness.
Mary Vial Holyoke was born Dec. 19, 1737, the only child of Nathaniel and Mary Simpson Vial, Boston shopkeepers. At 21 she married Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke of Salem, a well-to-do and well-respected widower.
A little more than 10 months after their marriage she gave birth to a daughter. Mary, or Polly, was born on Sept. 14, 1760. Another daughter, Margaret, was born 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.
Four more of her children would die in the next four-and-a-half years.
Exactly one year after Polly took ill, another Mary, also called Polly, was born. She lived only nine months. On Oct. 28, 1765, Mary Vial Holyoke’s two girls were ‘very poorly.’ Three days later, the second Polly was dead.
She was soon 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 5o in the morning & then Died.
Nov. 4. My Dear Child Buried.
On Sept. 5, 1767, she delivered her fifth child. “I was brought to bed about 2oClock A. M. of a daughter,” she wrote.
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 in October 1768 and lived 19 days. Her seventh child, another Edward, was born in May 1770 and lived only four.
Her eighth child, Elizabeth, was born 16 months later on Sept. 11, 1771. She lived to be 17. Judith was born on Jan. 20, 1774, and survived her mother. Judith married and had eight children, four of whom died young.
When Henrietta was born on Dec. 5, 1776, she had two older sisters: 13-year-old Margaret and two-year-old Judith. Henrietta, or Harriet, 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. She also lived to adulthood, married and had seven children. Two died young. Her husband, Charles Osgood, was a Salem artist who painted a well-known portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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.
Apr. 25. Fast Day. Dr. at Reading. Dr. Goodhue very Bad.
Apr. 28. Sitting up week.
Sept. 1. My Dear Child Died 9 A.M., which makes the 8th Child.
Mary Vial Holyoke died April 15, 1802. Her eldest daughter, Margaret, never married. Her husband lived another 27 years and died at 101.
With thanks to Social Childbirth and Communities of Women in Early America by Jocelyn Jessop.