Based on historical records, family archives, and established New Jersey folklore, this story about Deborah Leeds, 18th century midwife and healer, reconstructs the events that led to her being identified as the bearer of the "Jersey devil." An English immigrant brought to Burlington County to marry, "Mother Leeds" worked as herbalist and caregiver in a largely Quaker--and therefore unusually tolerant--community while bearing her own thirteen children. Her extraordinary skill seemed to bespeak not only careful study but powers that some associated with witchcraft.

After 30 years of faithful service, during which time she shared her work with two other women and with her daughter, her position was challenged by a newly arrived Edinburgh-educated physician who undertook to discredit her work and breed distrust among her neighbors by implications of witchcraft. His efforts came to a head when, at the birth of her thirteenth child--who died shortly after birth--he claimed to have seen the child turned to a flying demon, grow scales, and escape into the night. The story is told with great sympathy for the woman's predicament and a lively imagination for the situation of powerful women healers whose mysterious gifts both blessed and threatened their communities.


The empathy with which Lamb tells her ancestor's story is impressive. The Jacobean dialect is beautifully rendered, bringing the characters to life, rather than making them quaint and alien. She does not dismiss the idea of witchcraft, but imagines the kinds of rituals and secrets by which women like Deborah Leeds preserved and transmitted their craft to one another and recognized their own unusual gifts.

The book is a provocative invitation to reflect on a long chapter in the history of medicine during which, in regulating and standardizing medical education, those arts and mysteries of healing least subject to scientific investigation and regulation were effectively suppressed and driven into obscurity, and the women who practiced them vilified. The integration of fact and fiction are carefully explained in the author's afterword, and what was a matter of historical record is faithfully recognized.


This is the author's first published novel.


Bay Island

Place Published

Corte Madera, Calif.



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