A Mennonite Abortion Recipe?

It’s no secret that Mennonite families were historically pretty large. I’d always assumed that before modern birth control, Mennonites simply accepted whatever amount of children they happened to end up with.

But then I saw something that challenged my assumptions.

When Andrew and I were at the Mennonite Heritage Archives the other day, archivist Conrad Stoesz disappeared into a narrow hall filled with boxes, and emerged with Jacob Wall’s diary, from the mid-1800’s. He opened it to a particular page. We peered closer…

…and realized it’s in German.

The translation:

I read it out loud, stumbling over the unfamiliar units of measurement, “A remedy prescribed by Doctor Wilhelm Toews of Rosenthal for women when their monthly period does not occur… Take one quart of yellow muscatel wine, one nutmeg, one loth star aniseed, half loth seasoned cloves, two solotnick fine cinnamon, one loth yellow ginger, 2 spoons horse radish roots. Mix this together in a jar and bury it in horse manure for 24 hours. Then drink two kopecke whiskey glasses of it, morning and evening with brandy.”

Well… what do YOU think it’s for?

As far as I can figure, when a woman is eager for her period to occur, it can only mean one thing: she hopes she’s not pregnant.

Conrad pointed out that this was long before modern science and modern debates about when life begins. In those days people believed life began when you could feel the baby move… so, second trimester, I guess. And so, this was merely “getting the period back”. Women wouldn’t have thought of this as an abortion, per se, even though, to modern eyes, it’s clearly an attempt to induce a miscarriage.

Then there’s the argument as to whether this recipe would’ve even worked, anyway.

And the horse manure thing.

And those measurements. Solotnick. Lothe. Kopecke.

And the wine. And brandy. In whiskey glasses.

I felt like we were looking at someone’s secret… buried at the back of a time machine.

Inside the vault at the Mennonite Heritage Archives, Winnipeg.

I’ve learned since that this wasn’t the only instance of an “abortion recipe” surfacing in Mennonite archives. Conrad sent me an article he wrote for the Journal of Mennonite Studies, entitled Mennonite Midwives and the Control of Fertility. I appreciated this question in the article: “How are we to judge the actions of our ancestors when their understandings and contexts were so vastly different than ours?” (If you’d like to read Conrad’s article, let me know and I’ll send it to you!)

In reading, I was so caught up in the notion of subversive midwives, that it was a bit of a jolt when the article mentioned hey, if this was a woman-to-woman thing… why was Wilhelm sharing this abortion/miscarriage recipe with Jacob?

This goes a long way toward helping me see our ancestors as real people, getting a sense for what they may have struggled with. The stereotype would suggest that Mennonite women were delighted to birth huge families, while this item from the archives demonstrates that it wasn’t quite as simple as that.

The common Mennonite narrative about family and gender roles often follows a certain narrow script. But there’s more to the story than our history books tell us. I think it’s important that artifacts like this are brought to the public’s attention. Our history and the stories we tell about ourselves are not so black and white.