Monday, April 27, 2009

An abortion death in 1871

Dr. Charles P. Wood admitted that Elvira Woodward had come to his house in Manchester, new Hampshire, on April 1 and remained there until her death. He said that she'd expelled a dead fetus on April 3, and that she suffered from puerperal fever. Elvira took ill, languishing and finally dying on April 27, 1871, at about 2:30 PM, at Wood's house.

Dr. Wood said that on the morning of the 27th, Elvira had told him that she had a sense of impending death. A Daniel K. White testified on Wood's behalf, saying, "I knew Elvira Woodward; saw her at Dr. Wood's house the morning of the day she died; found very large gash in her throat; Dr. Wood stepped to the bed and removed a towel from her throat. I saw Dr. Ferguson there; Dr. Wood went for him about ten minutes after I got there; she looked pale, quite so; apparently recognized me by a nod of the head; I observed nothing else, except that her throat was cut, and there was a good deal of blood upon her bed-clothes; she said she did not expect to live till noon; that she was sorry she didn't do the deed at once, and go where her mother was; that she would be glad to die; that she didn't expect to live till noon, and probably shouldn't."

White said that only he was present when Elvira made that statement, because Dr. Wood had gone to fetch Dr. Ferguson.

Elvira's sister, Florence Woodward, testified in a deposition that she'd seen Elvira at Dr. Wood's house twice on the day she died. She made the first visit at around 10 or 11 in the morning. Dr. Wood and his wife were there, and a Mrs. Eaton had accompanied Florence. They stayed with Elvira about an hour, but Elvira didn't speak to them, but seemed to recognize her visitors. A man who Florence believed to be Dr. Ferguson passed through Elvira's room briefly.

Florence visited her sister again between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, at which time her Elvira was unconscious and clearly dying. Florence said that she'd never seen Elvira at Dr. Wood's house before that day. Florence also indicated that it wasn't until after Elvira's death that she knew her sister died from any cause other than fever.

Dr. Ferguson was called in Dr. Wood's defense. He testified that Dr. Wood had summoned him and he found Elvira looking "very pale, worn, emaciated, and desponding." He removed a cloth from her throat and found it wounded. "I asked her why she had attempted to hasten death by suicide. Told her that her condition was so low already that a few hours would extinguish life. I said to others in her presence and hearing that she would possibly die in the morning, or in the early part of the afternoon. She said she did not much care; that she had no desire to live."

On cross-examination, Dr. Ferguson said that the cut on Elvira's throat was superficial. Nevertheless, he didn't expect her to survive the day. He sutured Elvira's throat at Dr. Wood's request. He aslo noted that Elvira was frequently vomiting.

One of Dr. Wood's defense witnesses said that on the morning of her death, Elvira said that she'd been operated on previously by a Dr. McCooms for an abortion. Dr. McCooms had operated on her three times at a place in Manchester and once at Suncook. She also reportedly told the witness that Dr. McCoombs had prescribed oil of savin for her, which she ingested. She said that she'd expelled a fetus on April 3.

Mrs. Merrill, Elvira's landlady, testified that she'd accompanied Elvira to Dr. McCoomb's rooms at the Manchester House on February 8. Elvira spent about an hour with Dr. McCoomb in an inner room. Mrs. Merrill said that she herself only briefly been in the inner room herself, at which time she saw Dr. McCoomb performing an abortion on Elvira.

A man named Joseph Ferrin testified that he'd lent Elvira a shawl on March 29. She told him that she was going to Lowell. When she returned the shawl, Ferrin testfied, she said that she'd gone to have an operation performed.

Dr. Ferguson testified that all he knew of oil of savin is what he'd elarned from reading, and that it was supposed to be capable of causing abortion. He thought that oil of savin might be responsible for Elvira's condition when he saw her.

Dr. Webb of Boston testified that at the request of an attorny, he'd examined Elvira on March 20, 1871. He said her uterus was enlarged and he could feel movement in the womb and he heard a fetal heartbeat. He estimated that she was four or five months pregnant.

Dr. Buck testified that he performed a post-mortem examination of Elvira's body at North Troy, Vermont, on May 2. He said that there was no fetus, but that there was evidence that she'd been "delivered by artificial means." Dr. Buck said that he saw no signs that Elvira's kidneys or stomach had been damaged by any kind of poison, and that any drug that would cause an abortion that far advanced into a pregnancy would also damage the mother's organs. A Dr. Gilman Kimball concurred in his testimony.

A Mr. Ober testified that he'd heard reports prior to the trial that Dr. Wood had once had an office or lying-in hospital in Hollis, and that it was reported that Dr. Wood performed abortions there.

Dr. Wood was convicted of performing the fatal abortion on Elvira. It is unclear how the prosecutor or the jury identified him, from among all the doctors who had attended Elvira, as the guilty party. Still, Elvira's abortion was typical of pre-legalization abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

I have no information on overall maternal mortality, or abortion mortality, in the 19th century. I imagine it can't be too much different from maternal and abortion mortality at the very beginning of the 20th Century.

Note, please, that with issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good.

For more on this era, see Abortion Deaths in the 19th Century.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion

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