Since abortion was illegal for far longer than it was legal, of course I have more illegal than legal abortion deaths in the Cemetery of Choice. Today, we look at four unfortunate pre-legalization victims of the idea that mothers and their children are natural enemies.
I came to know about the death of Ellen Matson in a roundabout way, in studying the case in which Lillian Hobbs was convicted of murder in the 1916 abortion death of 21-year-old Alda Christopherson. During the trial, the prosecution brought up, as evidence of guilty intent, the fact that Hobbs had been indicted already for the abortion death of 29-year-old Ellen. The abortion had been performed on November 1, 1917. Ellen was taken to West End Hospital in Chicago, where she died on November 18. Hobbs was convicted and sentenced to 14 years at Joliet. Hobbs was also implicated, but never tried, for the 1917 abortion death of Ruth Lemaire. I'm still trying to determine if practitioners like Hobbs were so often able to kill their patients was because of lax prosecution, difficulty achieving a conviction, or a "look the other way" attitude toward abortion deaths in Chicago -- were mots of the repeat offenders I've learned about seemed to ply their trade.
Fast forward and move to California. Virginia Hopkins Watson had been on a record-setting relay swimming team with Esther Williams in 1939, and had herself set the world's fifty-meter record in 1938. Virginia was 32 years old and pursuing a Hollywood career when she became pregnant in 1954. Deciding that a baby would hurt her career, Virginia arranged to have an abortion on November 18. Her husband learned of the pregnancy and the abortion a few hours before Virginia's death from peritonitis at General Hospital in Los Angeles, California.
Now we move to the other coast. On November 18, 1942, 26-year-old Madeline McGeehan died at Prospect Hospital in New York after an illegal abortion. Arrested were Dr. Joseph Nisonoff; his nurse, Camille Ewald; his receptionist, Pearl Tense; and Dr. Max J. Weinstein, who was thought to have referred Madeline to Nisonoff. Nisonoff was out on bail after being charged with performing another abortion, which the woman survived. A man identified as Madeline's friend, Henry Elters, was held as a material witness. Nisonoff was sentenced to 5 years in state prison, and Weinstein was sentenced to the city penitentiary. Madeline's abortion was typical of pre-legalization abortions in that it was performed by a physician.
Still in New York, we move forward a little more than a decade. Joyce Chorney, age 25, died Wednesday, November 18, 1953. An autopsy was performed at Bellevue Hospital. It showed that she had died of an induced abortion. Fifty-four-year-old Dr. Alfred Joseph was charged with criminal abortion in her death.
It might be tempting to blame these deaths on the criminal status of abortion, but during the first two thirds of the 20th Century, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality, including mortality from abortion. Most researches attribute this plunge to improvements in public health and hygiene, the development of blood transfusion techniques, and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.