Abortion in 19th century New York

by on June 8, 2009  •  In Reproductive rights

From the NY Times:

At first glance, the recent killing of the abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Kansas appears to be a modern phenomenon, the heinous byproduct of the politics of the last several decades. In fact, Dr. Tiller is just the latest in a line of brave people who have died for providing abortions. Perhaps the most infamous of these was a midwife named Ann Lohman, who killed herself in New York in 1878 after decades of harassment.

Lohman, who called herself Madame Restell, was an immigrant from Gloucestershire, England, who started out selling “female pills” to “regulate” women. The medicines — mostly herbs, perhaps some opium — promised relief from an “obstructed womb” and “suppressed” menstruation. “Not to be used when *******,” declared one of the many coy ads she placed, “as miscarriage may occur.”

In the event that the pills did not, in fact, induce miscarriage, Lohman offered a procedure in her offices, charging $20 for poor women, and as much as $100 for her increasingly wealthy clientele. She also boarded pregnant ladies, delivered babies, placed infants for adoption and conducted sex education classes.

In partnership with her husband, Charles Lohman — also known as “Dr. Mauriceau,” to appeal to the Francophile vanities of the carriage trade — Madame Restell grew rich from her thriving mail-order business, and even had agents in Boston, Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. She drove her fine carriage through Central Park, creating a scandal. The press delighted in describing her wardrobe, her dresses of silk and velvet, her hat with its red feather, and her ostentatious five-story house, with its lush gardens and stables, its tessellated marble entry and grand fireplaces, which she had built in 1862 on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. The neighbors were said to ridicule her tacky window dressings.

Lohman’s wealth and unrepentant behavior made her a tabloid favorite. The New York Herald, The National Police Gazette and The Polyanthos called her a “hag of misery,” “a modern Thug of civilized society,” and the lady of “the death’s head and the marrow bones.” Abortion, with its drama of illicit sex and romance gone sour, was, and remains, a sensation that sells news.

It has also long inspired angry protests. In a riot organized in 1846 by the newspaper publisher George Dixon, a mob surrounded Lohman’s house and chanted, “Hanging’s too good for her!” and “This house is built on babies’ skulls.”

Zealous prosecutors pursued Lohman almost from the start, even though abortion laws were weak and violations difficult to prosecute, as witnesses were reluctant to come forward and early pregnancy could not be proved. Even so, from 1839 to 1877, Lohman was arrested at least five times and jailed for months without bail. She spent countless hours and dollars defending herself against charges and rumors (that there was a special sewer built between her house and the Hudson River, to dispose of corpses; that she was responsible for the unsolved murder of a cigar girl, a case that Edgar Allan Poe used as the basis for a story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”).

She was convicted only once, however, and served a year in the penitentiary on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island on misdemeanor charges. It was widely believed that she escaped harsher punishment by threatening to reveal the names of her patients — the mistresses, daughters and wives of the rich and powerful.

Her published letters suggest that Lohman was passionately committed to the idea of providing reproductive health care to women. When the authorities moved to stop the publication of ads for her services — on the grounds that birth control and abortifacients corrupted women — Madame Restell wrote to The Herald: “Would your wives, and your sisters, and your daughters, if once absolved from fear, all become prostitutes? I cannot conceive how men who are husbands, brothers or fathers can give utterance to an idea so intrinsically base and infamous.”

Though abortion by the untrained — then and now — is a dangerous procedure, no woman was ever proved to have died at Lohman’s hands. Indeed, testimony in her trials suggested that Madame Restell was a professional who cared deeply for her patients, staying with them overnight and nursing them with kind words. One patient testified that Lohman “told me to take great care, as she should feel anxious until she saw or heard from me.”

But in the 1870s, Ann Lohman finally met her match in the religious crusader Anthony Comstock, who persuaded Congress to prohibit the sale or distribution of materials that could be used for contraception or abortion, or the sending of such materials by mail. As a special agent of the United States Post Office, Comstock entrapped Lohman by posing as a husband seeking abortion services for a lady. When she provided him with some tablets, he returned and arrested her — accompanied by two reporters. She faced years in jail.

Despondent, fearing the shame that would come upon her family during a long trial and convinced that another stint in prison would kill her, Lohman climbed into her marble bathtub on the April morning her trial was to start, and slit her own throat. She was 66.

“A bloody ending to a bloody life,” Comstock commented upon hearing of her death. The newspapers echoed his sentiments. “The end of sin is death,” wrote The New York Tribune, and The Times editorialized that Lohman’s death was “a fit ending to an odious career.”

Lohman’s death did not put an end to abortion, nor to the battle fought over it. The murder of Dr. George Tiller will not accomplish those ends either.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *