Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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Our Ancestors, We all have them

“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to these ancestors.”
Edmond Burke, (1729-1797), Reflections the Revolution in France.

We all have ancestors. Some were rich, some were poor. Some had interesting lives and some stood out in society, while others just had regular uneventful lives. We hear about our ancestors from older family members, from one generation to the other. Usually these stories come from grandparents and older aunts or uncles. They all have fascinating narratives, describing the struggles and hardships of the past. And each narrative is unique and part of our blood.

How did I get into ancestry and genealogy at an early age? Here is my story. It’s an unusual story that put me on the path of history. At the time, I did not know that my family has been in this area since the early 1650’s.

My family had friends on Pleasure House Road, Bayside area of Princess Anne County, which is today Virginia Beach. It was in the summer of 1958 and as a small boy I was with my parents to pick up an old family friend, Melville (Melvin) Shellhouse Addison Hobbs (1888-1968). She was visiting with family and friends. They were all in their seventies and eighties and they loved reminiscing about the past. Among these ladies was a woman named Dolly Madison (not to be confused with Dolly Madison of the White House fame) who had fallen on hard times. She lived above an old barbershop on Lafayette Blvd here in Norfolk. She was a lovely person and I still recall some of the blond in her white hair. She needed a ride to Norfolk. The minute she heard the name Hitchings she quickly asked, “How are you related to Martha Hitchings the midwife? I was delivered by Doc. Hitchings many years ago. In fact, she delivered all my brothers and sisters.” My father replied, “That was my great grandmother.” Dolly was so excited! She went on to describe this little woman with a little black bag coming and going all hours of the day and night delivering babies. Doc Hitchings would help the mother-to-be sew old rags and newspaper as paddings to absorb the fluid and blood that might precede the delivery. And after every delivery she always returned the next day to check on her patient and the tiny infant. Dolly remembered the horse and wagon driving alone on the muddy streets of Norfolk to her patients' homes. She was a high-spirited little woman with red hair and was a devoted midwife and friend. Dolly remembered the old house on Queen Street, now Brambleton Avenue, where the old Virginian-Pilot building now stands. That was where Dr. Hitchings lived and many folks made their payments to her at her front door.

This was the first time I had ever heard of my famous ancestor Martha Purcell Hitchings (1821-1888), old Doc Hitchings as she was called. Many would say she delivered at least half of the children of Norfolk and Norfolk County. When I next saw my Grandmother Hitchings, Elizabeth Knight Hitchings (1878-1967), I asked if she remembered this little woman. Old Grandma said, “Of course I remember her. She brought me and my brothers into the world, including your grandfather.”

My grandfather, Louis Eugene Hitchings (1877-1967), a man of little words said, “Many nights as a boy of six, I escorted Grandma to her patients. And many times Grandma returned and found me asleep in the buggy. Grandma delivered many babies in Norfolk and Norfolk County, including many African American infants in the neighborhoods near where we lived. Everyone knew Grandma Hitchings.”

Grandmother Hitchings went on and told me a very interesting story that had been handed down through two generations. It seems that in the middle of March 1879 on a cold and rainy night a man knocked on the front door of Martha's home. He said, “A woman was in need of a doctor and in labor.” Martha quickly got her bag of instruments and her heavy shawl and quickly got into the carriage. In the carriage a man was waiting with a pistol pointing right at her. He had a black mask on and had a deep voice. She was told not to scream and a blindfold was placed over her eyes. The carriage rode around in circles several times until it stopped at an old house. Doc Hitchings was led up some steps to the bedroom where a young woman was in bed and in pain. Labor had begun. Martha required more light after the blindfold was removed. She quickly went to work under the supervision of two men with their faces covered up holding their guns. It was a hard delivery and the infant was born, a still-born male. The baby was dead. The older gentleman quickly took the infant still wrapped up in a flimsy blanket and placed him on the burning logs in the open fireplace. More logs would be added.

Afterwards, Martha was blindfolded again and led down the stairs to the carriage by the two men. Just like before, the carriages went around in circles until they reached her home. She was given a handsome wage in gold and told not to look back nor say anything about what she witnessed.

Some years later, as a young man, I happened to be in Norfolk’s Circuit Court with Hugh Stovall, clerk of the court. I was looking at the Register of Births of Norfolk, Virginia, 1880 to 1890, and came across her entries. In those days it was not required to register births or deaths, but some physicians did. Doc. Martha Hitchings registered every birth she ever delivered.

And on that day in March 1880 she registered the following birth: Stillborn infant, male, white, parents unknown, address unknown, signed Doc. M. A. Hitchings.

Martha was born in King and Queen County, Virginia, near Gloucester, Virginia. Her parents were William & Mary Purcell, farmers. Somehow she ended up in a little place called Gosport (New Town) in Portsmouth, next to the Norfolk shipyard. She was living with her sister Louisa and brother-in-law, Smith Parker (d. 1856). There she met the Hitchings family. Her other sister, Caroline Purcell, becomes the second wife of an elderly man named William George Hitchings (1775-1857), a grocer on Crawford Street. And Martha Ann Purcell married David Davis Hitchings (1820-1862) in Norfolk County, January 1844, a boat and ship builder and the son of William George Hitchings & Elizabeth Williams. Caroline and Martha marry two Hitchings men, father and son. Their youngest sister, Mary Ann Purcell marries William G. Webb of Portsmouth, Virginia.

In 1854, David Hitchings opened up his Boat & Ship Building business at Southgate Terminal off of Main Street and moved his family to Norfolk. Martha, a devoted Baptist, transferred her membership from 4th Street Baptist church in Portsmouth to Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk and remained a member there until she passed away in March 1888. During the Yellow Fever epidemic she nursed the sick and came down with Yellow Fever too. With all the death and dying, Martha was mistakenly reported dead in the Richmond newspapers as a victim of yellow fever.

Where Martha learned to do midwifery we do not know. However, during the Civil War, her husband died of consumption on Christmas Day, December 25, 1862, and Martha had to go to work to support her 8 children. And one must remember there was not many jobs available for women in the work force in those days.

As the years passed by, I have looked back in meeting this interesting woman by the name of Dolly Madison, who triggered my interest in family history. I had met a woman in her eighties who had been delivered by my ancestor Martha Hitchings, and that simple meeting led me into the world of genealogy, family history and eventually history of our area and our state. Interestingly, we meet people for a reason on life's long road. Meeting Dolly Madison started a simple seed of interest in local family history. It was an experience I have never forgotten and which made an important impact in my life. Meeting Dolly Madison was “hands across time.”

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com