MUNSON, Mrs LETITIA (Lecitia), herbalist, fortune-teller, and midwife; probably b. c. 1820 in North Carolina, although in 1882 she claimed to be 110; last known to be living in 1882.
Born a slave on a North Carolina plantation, Letitia was sent by her master “to learn the healing art, so as to be useful . . . among the hands.” By her own account she spent five years with doctors and two with Indians, learning all she could of practical medicine and herbal remedies. After gaining her freedom she settled in Woodstock, Canada West, about 1861. She purchased two frame houses just outside the town and lived in one with her husband, a son, and a daughter. By the 1870s she had established herself as a herbalist and fortune-teller. She was also the confidante of women with unwanted pregnancies, whom she often advised to go the United States where they could have their children in the anonymity of poor houses. She also appears to have used her adjacent house to board pregnant women seeking privacy. It was in this house, on the morning of 16 Sept. 1882, that Ellen Weingardner was found dead on a blood-soaked mattress, the victim of an abortion in the eighth month of her pregnancy.
Ellen Weingardner had once been employed at a Woodstock hotel. About 1878 she became pregnant following an affair with one of the men working there. She took refuge at Mrs Munson’s, where a girl was born to her in 1879. She then left Woodstock, only to return in April 1882 with her daughter and a man named John Camp, from Tilsonburg (Tillsonburg), Ont., who claimed to be her husband; she was again pregnant. Camp left in about a week, after making arrangements for Ellen’s board with Mrs Munson. In early September Ellen moved to the adjacent house, where she was later found dead.
Evidence given at the inquest which followed the discovery of her body did not rule out the possibility of a self-inflicted abortion, but the doctors questioned were of the opinion that the pain entailed made such an action unlikely; there must have been an accomplice. The people of Woodstock had little doubt about the identity of the guilty party. It was reported at the time that “half remembered stories of alleged horrors connected with the Munson family were revived, and were one-half of what is said believed, this old negress must be the incarnation of untold villainy.” There was, as well, a fair amount of circumstantial evidence against Mrs Munson. Her house, when searched, was found to contain objects which might be used in the performance of an abortion: a large quantity of clothes and bedding, several books and papers on medical subjects, various medicines and herbs, and several sharp instruments (one of which had been wrapped in cloth and hidden in a chest). The chief constable told the inquest that prostitutes had informed him “girls went . . . [to Mrs Munson] to get rid of their encumbrances.” Finally, Mrs Munson herself had made contradictory statements concerning her knowledge of Miss Weingardner’s condition. The inquest resulted in a charge against her of conducting or assisting in an abortion.
Mrs Munson was arraigned before the Oxford assizes in November. The evidence against her was presented once more. In defence, she replied that the instruments found in her home were used for lancing boils. She testified that she had counselled pregnant women to have their children in American poor houses and had once been offered a cow to kill a child born in her house, but she denied having ever performed an abortion. At the end of the trial the jury, although reported to be convinced of her “moral guilt,” acquitted her of the charge.
The trial of Mrs Letitia Munson throws light on the lives of women who, because of their sex and poverty, would otherwise remain in shadow. As well, it gives an idea of the straits in which unmarried mothers found themselves during this period. Orphanages did not accept illegitimate offspring. Children might be abandoned to the streets of Toronto or boarded in its “baby farms,” where they often died of neglect or overdoses of laudanum. In attempting to end a life that threatened her own Ellen Weingardner chose the most desperate of the grim options open to her.