Thursday, September 03, 2009

1859: Two docs, one dead patient

Miss Mary E. Visscher, who worked at a hoop-skirt factory in Brooklyn, was keeping company with a man named Mr. Wright. On August 23, 1859, she left the home of Mrs. C. Perrine, where she had been a boarder, saying that she ws going first to Jersey City, then to Philadelphia. She asked Mrs. Perrine to keep the trip a secret.

Mrs. Perrine said that Mary "always behaved like a lady" and had been in good health as long as she had been at her home. Mrs. Perrine had never seen Mary take any medine except salts for headaches.

Mrs. Mary Sherman, who owned the hoop-skirt factory, said that Mary had worked for her for about a year. She said that Mary had come to her saying she was going to New Jersey and Philadelphia and asking her to keep the trip a secret. Like Mrs. Perrine, Mrs. Sherman had no idea that Mary might be pregnant.

Mary did not, however, go to New Jersey or Philadelphia. She instead went to the "stylish" house of two female physicians, Elizabeth Byrns and Mary E. Smith, who practiced midwifery. Byrns and Smith said that Mary had come to their home to be treated for back pain due to a fall, and that they'd not even know she was pregnant until after the abortion, which they attributed the abortion "to the imprudence of deceased herself." The abortion took place on August 27, and Mary "lingered" until her death from peritonitis on Saturday, September 3.

The coroner's jury decided that Byrnes had performed the abortion, with the prior knowledge of Smith, who was charged as an accessory before the fact.

Note, please, that with overall public health 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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