Wanda Henry is a doctoral candidate in the Brown History Department. Previously, she enjoyed a twenty-five year teaching career in secondary school mathematics and held the Helen Boyden Chair in Distinguished Teaching at Deerfield Academy. Before pursuing a PhD in history, she briefly taught calculus at Mt Holyoke College. Awarded the Peter Green Doctoral Fellowship by the History Department in 2013-2014 and the Steinhaus/Zisson Research Grant by the Pembroke Center in 2015, she currently is finishing a dissertation on England’s sextonesses and women searchers of the dead. During the fall 2015, she will be a Brown/Wheaton faculty fellows.
What are you working on for your dissertation, and how did you settle on your topic? What kinds of sources are you using, and how have your findings in the archives changed the project from what you had planned out in your prospectus?
My dissertation considers the intersection of gender, politics of the parish, and public health in early modern English cities. Specifically, I am writing the history of the women who examined and buried the dead from the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Contemporaries called the women “searchers of the dead,” and their job was to inspect dead bodies to determine cause of death for Bills of Mortality. Initially, crown and city officials wanted information about plague and charged city parishes with creating networks to accumulate death data. In cities outside London, officials engaged searchers only during times of plague and discontinued the practice in the late seventeenth century while in London, the bills came to include all causes of death. Women searchers fit within a broad category of medical practitioners, although eventually vestrymen expanded the women’s responsibilities by appointing them as pew keepers and sextonesses, which meant they cleaned the church, buried the dead, took church of buildings and grounds, and attended baptisms and marriages. The women acted as eye- and ear-witnesses for London’s parishes until the mid-nineteenth century when the parish lost its place in the death business and an emerging professional identity excluded women from roles as public officers. Ultimately, undertakers and registrars replaced searchers as reporters of cause of death.
I learned about London’s Bills of Mortality while teaching AP Statistics. The bills offered students an interesting dataset for analysis. After arriving at Brown, I discovered that women had collected the information. My curiosity about these women led me to consider questions about their medical experience and authority within their parishes.Research for this project has taken me to archives in twenty-one different English towns and cities, although I have spent the bulk of my time in London at the London Metropolitan Archives, the Westminster Archives, and the Guildhall Library. I have mostly read parish documents, especially vestry minutes and churchwarden account-books. Reading those same materials at city archives outside London quickly revealed that the politics of the parish operated differently throughout England. London’s parishes exercised considerable autonomy, independent of the Corporation of London, while local governments in other cities tried to maintain control of public health measures and social services. To account for these municipal practices, I needed to adjust my research strategies for archives inside and outside London.
When working on my prospectus, I never imagined that I would spend so much time investigating the undertaking industry. The few historians, who have written about women searchers, focus on elderly pensioners, midwives, and nurses, but in collecting information, I discovered that family dynasties of parish clerks, sextons, and searchers turned to undertaking as a way to supplement their incomes. These individuals had no medical training but learned about dead bodies from family tradition. Ultimately, I needed to follow the evidence, even when it led me to track funereal carriages and the London Necropolis railroad to Brookwood Cemetery in Woking.
Another aspect of this project, which took me by surprise, was the amount of digitized resources. The British Library and LMA have put early modern newspapers, census materials, and parish burial registers online. I could not write my dissertation without almost daily access to those resources. Of course, visiting locations has helped too. While traveling to archives throughout England, I made a point of going to parish churches where I found plaques dedicated to sextonesses; no mention of those memorials appear in the records. On one visit to York, I sat in a church that still had old box pews, settled higgledy-piggledy above buckled flagstones, which barely covered the graves of past parishioners. The close proximity of the living and the dead underscored the urgency of the sanitary movement. Also, that particular church was unheated, and it was really cold, even in March. In the archives, I had come across stories about searcher-sextonesses lighting buzaglos, which were proto-furnaces. They really needed those heaters!
You have been working closely with the staff at the Digital Scholarship Lab on a database of searchers that you have been developing over your last two years of research. How have they enhanced your understanding of the data you have collected?
At this juncture, I have biographical information for more than one thousand men and women, who examined and buried the dead. The scale of this project has overwhelmed me at times, but the staff at the Digital Scholarship Lab have helped me not only see patterns but develop an array of descriptive statistics to support my thesis. When I initially met with the staff, they impressed me by spending more time considering my ideas than looking at my Excel spreadsheets. By the time we turned to data clean-up, column-splitting, and number-crunching, they had a clear sense of my thesis and what I hoped to accomplish with the databases. Their advice has saved me an incredible amount of time, and we are currently working on some digital mapping ideas. I only wish that I had consulted with them earlier in the process.
Next year, you will be teaching at Wheaton College as one of four Brown graduate students selected for the Brown/Wheaton faculty fellows program. What will you be teaching, and what are you most looking forward to about the experience?
The course is called “A Social History of Death and Dead Bodies in Early Modern Europe.” Death is one of two universal experiences. Yet, reactions and interpretations vary by culture and have changed over time. We will consider how European attitudes, reactions, and traditions about death developed by reading about commemoration practices, murder, execution, purgatory, body snatching, autopsies, and ghosts. I started thinking about this course after Rebecca Nedostup invited me to a conference about the social history of death in China.
Research for my dissertation overlaps with several of the course topics, but I have engaged with this material mostly on my own, and I am looking forward to hearing student perspectives. It is odd. We rarely discuss death, but it fascinates us. Consider how frequently literature and film engage with ideas about death. Yes, death is scary and creepy, but this course could be fun. I am excited about integrating artwork and material culture into the course. No actual corpses, but maybe I can find a skeleton…
You've taken a unconventional path to getting your PhD in history, having taught math at Deerfield Academy and Mount Holyoke College before deciding to change careers. How has your training in math shaped your approach as a historian? How has your teaching experience in math informed the way you teach history?
My mathematical training means that my first impulse is to gather quantitative evidence. With my dissertation, I wanted to know how old these women were and how long their tenures as searchers lasted, and of course, I wanted to analyze the data about death. Ultimately, the statistical analysis I use is pretty basic stuff. However, I suspect that I am better positioned to read some of the historiography related to my topic because much of the previous research relates to demography and political arithmetic.
As for pedagogy, one advantage I have in embarking on a career in history is that while I bring twenty-five years of teaching experience to the classroom, I possess the enthusiasm of a beginner in history. I think that means I will listen to my students with an open mind. Amy Remensnyder recently told me that the key to engaging students in discussion is asking questions about which you want to know the answers. I have lots of questions that need answering. Also, in making the jump from mathematics to history, I discovered that writing a good essay is hard work. In mathematics, one can sometimes simplify a solution to make it more elegant but not often. When writing, one can always revise and revise some more. Furthermore, an effective argument depends almost entirely upon developing a clear thesis. With my own writing, I have appreciated the guidance of my advisors, especially Hal Cook and Tara Nummedal, and I plan to give explicit instructions about writing to my students. Such an approach served me well in teaching mathematics, where the best solutions involve organized steps. Elegance emerges from clarity. Therefore, I hope to encourage my students to write clear, elegant prose.