Sunday, September 19, 2010

I learn of another historic abortion death

In December of 1880, just four months after the botched-abortion death of Mary Ann Faulkner, Ellen Stack sought an abortion from Dr. Thomas Neil Cream.

Cream's usual MO was to have a "midwife" act as a go-between, renting a room where he and the woman would meet for the performance of the abortion. However, after the death of Mary Ann Faulkner, Cream evidently changed his tactics. He gave Ellen pills that were promised to get rid of her unwanted fetus. But Cream had evidently laced his pills with strychnine. He was able to avoid prosecution by attempting to pass the blame off to a pharmacist who Cream said had prepared the drugs. Cream's later doings indicate that he was undoubtedly the guilty party.

Cream had emigrated to Canada with his parents as a small child. Though he was set up to inherit his father's lumber mill, he instead chose to become a physician. The first abortion attributed to him was in April of 1876, shortly after his graduation from medical school. The woman was Flora Elizabeth Brooks, who evidently had been pregnant by Cream. An angry mob stormed the hotel where Flora had taken ill after the abortion, and to escape the wrath of the mob and the girl's family, Cream married her. The next day he left for Edinburgh, Scotland, whence he sent his bride some abortifacients, and settled down to study midwifery (obstetrics). Flora died, reportedly from consumption, shortly thereafter. Cream then returned to Canada, and faced another scandal when a young woman, Kate Gardener, was found dead of an overdose of chloroform -- a substance Cream had studied for his doctor thesis. Cream tried to claim that Kate had committed suicide with chloroform because he'd refused to perform an abortion on her, but scratches on her face indicated that she had struggled with whoever had administered the fatal dose. After an unsavory career in North America, and a murder conviction for killing the husband of his wealthy mistress, Cream eventually returned to the UK, was hanged on November 16, 1892 for poisoning prostitutes and trying to blackmail men with threats of accusing them of the killings.

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 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


  • Homicide in Chicago Interactive

  • Thomas Cream on Find-a-Grave

  • Thomas Neil Cream on Wikipedia

  • Thomas Neil Cream at Crime Library
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