Saturday, April 19, 2014

1989: An Abortion Death and a Sensational Trial

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 roommates.)

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 death.

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 Century.
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.

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