Monday, August 24, 2009

1955: The body in the morgue

On August 24, 1955, the body of a young woman identified as Shirley Silver was brought to the morgue in Philadelphia from the North Philadelphia apartment of bartender Milton Schwarts and his beautician wife, Rosalie. The young woman, they said, had suddenly taken ill and collapsed while sitting on a sofa in their living room. But when machinations began to try to remove the young woman's body without an autopsy, her real identity was revealed, and a scandal rocked the city.

The dead woman was Doris Jean Silver Ostreicher, a 22-year-old heiress. Doris had made front page news when she eloped in a "fairy tale romance" with Earl Ostreicher, a 29-year-old motorcycle cop from Miami Beach, in late June of 1955. Ostreicher was the son of a Chicago fuel dealer. He held that he'd not known that his beautiful red-haired bride was wealthy. She'd told him, he said, that her father was a butcher, not vice president of the Food Fair chain of grocery stores.

But fairy tale romances don't always lead to fairy tale marriages. Within a few weeks, Doris evidently was disillusioned, and had separated from her husband, returning to her family's Philadelphia home.

On August 23 and 24, Doris' mother, Gertrude Silver, had taken her daughter to an obstetrician, Dr. Jacob Hoffman. Mrs. Silver had been "very unhappy" about the possibility that her daughter was pregnant. Hoffman himself was not certain that Doris was pregnant, since at that time a 6-week pregnancy was difficult to definitively diagnose.

Hoffman didn't indicate that Mrs. Silver was seeking an abortion for Doris, but seek one she did, taking her to the Schwartz's apartment on August 24. Somebody had used some sort of instrument, augmented with some "vegetable compound" to try to induce an abortion. Within an hour, Doris reported feeling unwell, along with chest pains. She collapsed and died. Her pregnancy, along with the attempt to abort the baby, was confirmed at autopsy. She had died from collapsed lungs and overwhelming shock.

When police searched the Schwartz apartment, they found abortion instruments there, including syringes, medications, dry mustard, absorbent cotton, mineral oil, and olive oil, along with a metal tube that was believed to be the fatal instrument in Doris' abortion.

Rosalie Schwartz had tried to claim that she and her husband had known the Silver family for at least ten years, but Doris' father, Herman, indicated that he'd never seen or heard of either of the Schwartzes.

The Schwartzes pleaded no contest for their role in the young woman's death. Rosalie got a sentence of indeterminate length, while Milton was sentenced to 3-10 years. Both were paroled after 11 months, based on a "pathetic" letter from their gown son asking that his parents be freed in time for Christmas.

Doris' mother, who was hospitalized for "bereavement shock" in the early days after her daughter's death, was charged as an accessory. She was fined and given a suspended sentence for her role in her daughter's death. The judge said that he considered the memory of how her daughter had died "substantial punishment."

Doris' abortion was unusual in that it was performed by amateurs, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.



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

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2 comments:

OperationCounterstrike said...

So illegal abortions were done by doctors? That means, by definition, that the abortion-bans were poorly-enforced.

"Let's pass a law because it won't be enforced, so it won't hurt anyone!" is not a very good talking point.

GrannyGrump said...

I've been arguing that we need to fix what was wrong with the old laws, which was that they made it too easy for doctors to get away with murder.