Founded in 1629, just before Boston, the town of Charlestown is home to the U.S.S. Constitution, and site of the Bunker Hill monument. Such places, at the end of the Freedom Trail, see many visitors; its burial grounds are less often visited. The earliest yard, on the Town Hill site of John Harvard’s orchard, is lost; there are no extant stones. The Phipps St. Burying Ground, first noted in town records in 1640, has 256 early (17th– E18th century stones, and many more later 18th and 19th c. markers. Two of the 18th c. stones at the back of the yard commemorate midwife Elizabeth Phillips (b. ~1685, Westminster, Eng.; d. 1761, Charlestown MA) and Rebeckah Anderson (b. ~1694, ?Eng. or ?Am.; d. 1743) Owing to 19th c. disturbances of burial patterns in the grounds, it is unclear if these juxtaposed markers correspond to actual nearby burials, but the two women did know each other.
Studying their stones, the probated wills and land records in their names, and the history of the town itself has led to several answers, and several more questions (some of which I’m hoping readers of this blog may be able to help answer). Elizabeth’s inscription reads:
Here lyes interred ye Body of
MRS. ELIZABETH PHILLIPS
Wife to Mr. ELEAZAR PHILLIPS, Who
Was born in Westminster, in Great
Britain, & Commissioned by John
Lord Bishop of London, in ye Year 1718 to ye Office of a
Came to this country in ye Year 1719, and
by ye Blessing of God has brought into
this world above 3000 Children.
Died May 6th 1761 Aged 76 Years
Elizabeth Phillips was among the last few classes of midwives that the Rt. Rev. John Robinson, Bishop of London, licensed in 1718. Formal commissions—permitting extraordinary baptism of stillborns and neonates after six years’ study and several witnesses’ attestations as to her religious fidelity and competence—later lapsed in urban areas; rural licensing continued a while longer. No early American records seem to exist; Ulrich found none in seeking context for A Midwife’s Tale, the diary of 19th c. midwife Martha Ballad of Maine. If, beginning at about age 27, as a deputy under an experienced midwife, Elizabeth delivered one child or two per week over a working life of about 50 years, her lifetime total of over 3000 births is credible.
(This is one area where British-based researchers could help: records for licensed midwives may be in the Lambeth Palace Library, but, working online, I have not yet found documents that name her. Anyone familiar with these is welcome to comment!)
Elizabeth’s stone says she came to Boston in 1719, a year after her licensing in London. She probably arrived married, under another name: possibly as Mrs. Elizabeth Langdon, the name on her First Church marriage record to Charlestown bookbinder Eleazar Phillips in 1751. She was widowed by 1734, when Charlestown schoolteacher Rebeckah Anderson conveyed her home in a deed of gift to ‘my sister,’ ‘widow Mrs. Elizabeth Langdon, midwife.’ This arrangement, usually between parents and a child for health care and upkeep until their death, was given in exchange for title to the house and some or all of the estate, stipulated on quality of care, burial arrangements, etc. The term “sister” may also denote in-laws; the last name may help fill in the time from 1719-51, but so far, other ‘Elizabeth Andersons’ or ‘Langdons’ lived too early or too late, married others, or were never in Westminster, GB. Marriage intentions for an “Elizabeth Meeks/Meakes” of Charlestown to marry a Henry Langton in 1722 might be hers—and a Boston death record in 1723 for a “Mr. Langdon” his—if she landed in Boston unmarried, but no other corroborating references have so far appeared for either individual, so this is inconclusive.
Rebeckah Anderson, a Charlestown schoolteacher, was unmarried, as expected for female teachers, and apparently without descendants or lateral inheritors, judging by her records. She died at 49, leaving her house to Elizabeth; no death record or other documentation has appeared for her. (Her house may also have been on Main St. near Town Hill; I have not yet confirmed that.) Her stone and Elizabeth’s were by the Lamson shop, which may have been alongside what was once called Mill St., near the burying ground. Rebeckah’s stone has the clearer lettering and wider jaw associated with Nathaniel Lamson’s work. Elizabeth died after his death (1755) as well as his brother Caleb’s (d. 1760: both are buried nearby); her stone is probably by John or Joseph Lamson. Rebeckah’s epitaph reads:
Here Lyes Buried
ye Body of Mrs.
(Late School-Mistress in
This Town) Who Died
March 4th Anno Dom
1743/4 in the 49th
Year of Her Age.
Elizabeth’s inventory is lost, so we do not know if she retained Rebeckah’s house in her own name, or (more likely, by usual practice) if it were transferred to Eleazer upon their marriage. Nor does her house appear in Eleazer’s inventory, but some or all of his real estate, not itemized, may have been distributed to his sons by some other conveyance, as yet unfound.
One of the stipulations in Rebeckah’s deed of gift was to make burial arrangements, suggesting that Elizabeth wrote Rebeckah’s inscription—which unlike Elizabeth’s own, does not identify the men in her life in addition to her profession, but defines her by her life’s work alone. Such short texts by females give voice to women who may not have a public audience otherwise.
Elizabeth’s husband may well have written her inscription—or, given its level of detail, she may have also written her own.
Donna La Rue
(Donna La Rue has written a guest blog post with more detail of the background to these stones at https://churchmonumentssociety.org/2019/11/10/elizabeth-phillips-licensed-midwife-1685-1761-lamson-stones-in-phipps-street-burying-ground-charlestown-ma-usa)
Articles and Book Chapters
Chisholm, H., ed. (1911). “Robinson, John (diplomatist).” Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 23 (11th ed.) Cambridge Univ. Press,
Lambeth Palace Library Research Guide: Medical Licences Issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury 1535-1775, (London, UK: Lambeth Palace Lib.) http://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/files/Medical_Licences.pdf (Seen 10.20.19)
Littlefield, G., (1900). “Eleazer Phillips,” in Early Boston Booksellers, 1642-1711, (Boston: The Club of Odd Volumes), p. 219, Accessed online 11.11.11 at: ( http://books.google.com/books?id=q5w1AQAAIAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s)
Tucker, R., (1993). “The Lamson Family Gravestone Carvers of Charlestown and Malden, Massachusetts,” in Markers X, Meyer, R., ed., (Worcester, MA: Asso. of Gravestone Studies), pp. 152-217. https://archive.org/stream/markers10asso#page/150/mode/2up
Evenden, D. (2000). The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press) online at: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99026518.pdf (Accessed 01.11.11).
Forbes, H.M., (1953/1973). Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them (Pyne Press: Univ. of Michigan).
Frothingham, R. (1845) History of Charlestown, (Boston: Little & Brown).
Joslyn, R.G., (1984) Charlestown Vital Records, (Boston, MA: NE Hist. Gen. Soc.) vols I and II.
Ulrich, L., (1991). A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. (Vintage Books).
 Robinson is confirmed as Bishop of London at that time in: Chisholm, H., ed. (1911). “Robinson, John (diplomatist).” Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 23 (11th ed.) Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 422-23.
 Evenden, D. (2000). The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press).
 Ulrich, L., (1991). A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. (Vintage Books).
 Charlestown, MA Vital Records, Vol. 1, pt. 2, p. 103: 1751.10.21: Philips-Langdon Marriage.
 Middlesex D/R bk. 43, pp. 638-9: Rebecca Anderson, deed of gift to Eliz. Langdon (written 1736, recorded 1744).
 Mass. Probated Documents, No. 17312 (1762), Administration of Elizabeth Phillips: this is a bond for a (?lost) inventory to be done.
 Mass. Probated Documents, No. 17310 (1763), Will of Eleazar Phillips, Jr.