Hughretta "Etta" Binkley was an unmarried woman about 34 years old. She worked as a stenographer and typist at Patee Bicycle Company in Peoria. She lived in a boardinghouse owned by George H. Lilly, where she shared a room with Lilly's daughter.
At lunchtime on April 1, 1898, she went to the residence/office of Dr. Belle Howard,
about four blocks from the boarding house. After
work the following day, at about 6:30 PM, she returned to Dr. Howard's
house and was sent to a room on the second floor. Etta had a bag packed
with a nightgown, robe, fountain syringe, and a bottle containing about
two ounces of ergot.
According to Ida Kennedy, Dr. Howard's nurse, at about 10:00 the next
morning, Etta went into the doctor's office where she remained about 20
to 30 minutes. She then went upstairs to her room, in Ida's care.
Etta was in pain, and bleeding heavily vaginally. At around 4 or 5 in
the afternoon, Dr. Howard visited her in her room, then had her come
back downstairs to his office where she again remained alone with her
for between 20 and 30 minutes. Again, Ida took Etta to her room.
Soon after returning to her room, Etta suffered from rapid pulse and a
copious discharge of blood and clear fluid. Etta remained at Dr.
Howard's house, attended by the doctor and nurse, until the evening of
Saturday, April 9. At that time, Dr. Howard drove Etta in her buggy back
to the boarding house, where she left her alone on the porch. Mr. Lilly
found her there as he was locking up for the night. He described her as
being in "a very helpless and distressed condition."
Mr. Lilly brought her into the house, where she went to her room and
retired to her usual bed with Lilly's daughter. (It was not uncommon at
that time for adults to share a bed in a boarding house, purely as
The following morning, at about 9:00, Etta went to the nearby Cottage
Hospital, where she was immediately admitted. Staff physician Otho B. Will was immediately summoned to care for her.
Dr. Will found Etta to be trembling, breathing rapidly, suffering a
pulse of 140 and a fever of just over 102 degrees. She was frequently
vomiting. Dr. Will examined her and performed surgery to remove decaying
and fetid retained portions of placenta.
Etta remained hospitalized under Dr. Will's care until April 19, when
she died of septicemia. Her body was sent to her parents in Dublin,
Indiana, for burial, but then exhumed on the 23rd for an autopsy. It was
then confirmed that the septicemia had been caused by an abortion.
Experts estimated that Etta had been four to five months pregnant.
Immediately after Etta's death, Dr. Howard fled the state and had to be
captured and returned for face trial. Dr. Howard maintained her
innocence and insisted that she was merely treating Etta for
complications of an abortion performed either by Etta herself or by some
other party. The prosecution said that up until her arrival at Dr.
Howard's house, Etta had been in good health and had performed her
duties at work. However, Miss Lilly reported that Etta had not seemed to
be in her usual health just prior to the 2nd of April, and that she had
observed bleeding that she took to be Etta's period. Ida Kennedy, the
nurse, also testified that on her way to her room on the 2nd, Etta left
drops of blood on the floor.
Evidently the prosecution witnesses were more convincing than the
defense witnesses. Dr. Howard was convicted of manslaughter in Etta's
Adding to the scandal were allegations that Fred Patee, Etta's employer,
had offered Belle's mother, Mrs. Demree, $2,500 to remain silent about
her daughter's death.
Etta's abortion was typical of criminal abortions in that it was performed by a doctor.
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
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.