Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Mystery Death in 1876

Sarah Jane and her Family

Fifteen-year-old Sarah Jane Beaver lived with her mother, Mrs. Sarah Beaver Spencer, and her two brothers, Andrew and William, on a farm owned by Shepherd Cox in Ursa Township, near Quincy, Indiana.

Sarah Jane and her brothers were the children of their mother's first marriage, prior to the Civil War. Sarah Jane's father was a soldier who died at Vicksburg. The family went north after the war. They were poor and illiterate.

What to Do About Sarah's "Interesting Condition"

In April of 1876, Mrs. Spencer sent Sarah Jane and one of her brothers into town for some medicine. The two parted ways in town, and the boy was unable to find Jane. He went home to his mother alone. Though there were sightings of her with Cox in Texas, Sarah Jane remained at large until late July.

About four weeks after her return, Mrs. Spencer "discovered that the daughter was in an interesting condition".

Oil of Tansy Found

Sarah Jane named Cox, who was there during the conversation, as the responsible party. Shortly after this conversation, Mrs. Spencer said, she discovered a bottle with a few drops of oil of tansy -- a popular abortifacient -- in it. When confronted, Cox reportedly admitted that he had bought it for Sarah Jane.

A Mother's Objection

Shortly after this confrontation, Cox reportedly came to the house indicating that he had two tickets to the Centellian, and he wanted to take Sarah Jane with him so that he could "take her to a doctor who would make things all right". Mrs. Spencer said that she objected to the plan. Sarah Jane did not go with Cox to the Centellial.

A Mysterious Parcel

On about Tuesday, October 17, Mrs. Spencer said, Cox came to the house with something rolled up in a small parcel. Mrs. Spencer said that she went outside to do chores for about 20 minutes, and that when she returned she found her daughter with a broom in her hands and a flushed face. She denied that Cox had said anything to offend her. She was taken sick that night, and the next night expelled her dead baby.

Condition Grave

Mrs. Spencer said she sent for Dr. Duncan, who could not come until the next Wednesday, October 25. Duncan said that Sarah Jane had not miscarried but had undergone an abortion caused by instruments of some sort, used with force. Mrs. Spencer was able to show the fetus to Duncan. It was about three and a half months old.

When Cox came to the house, Mrs. Spencer told him that he had killed her daughter. Cox pointed out that Sarah Jane wasn't dead, and said he expected her to survive her illness.

Dr. Duncan continued to provide care to Sarah Jane, at first expecting her to recover, but her condition deteriorated. He asked her repeatedly to tell him who had gotten her pregnant and who had injured her. She made a statement to him that was not admissible in court because she didn't then believe she was dying.

Deathbed Statements

On the evening of Friday, October 27, Sarah Jane called her brothers to her bedside, told them she was dying, and asked their forgiveness.

She then spoke again to Dr. Duncan, telling him that she knew she was dying. He asked her again who had injured her. Mrs. Spencer was there, telling Sarah Jane to tell Dr. Duncan who had done the deed, but shaking her head all the while as if to warn Sarah Jane not to speak. Sarah Jane told Dr. Duncan, "I did it." After her mother left the room, Duncan again asked Sarah Jane to name the guilty party.
Dr. Duncan: Who did it?
Sarah Jane: I did.
Dr. Duncan: But who helped you?
Sarah Jane: My God, I have done wrong.
Dr. Duncan: Tell me who helped you?
Sarah Jane: I did.
Dr. Duncan: You could not have done it alone. Who helped you?
Sarah Jane: He did it, with instruments.
Sarah Jane died the following morning.

Covering Up

On Sunday, Cox came to the house, crying and lamenting Sarah Jane's death. Mrs. Spencer said Cox told her to keep quiet about the death, since if she said anything about it she would get into trouble. He pointed out that she had no money, but he had money and would help the family and pay the doctor's bills.

Dr. Duncan corroborated that Cox promised to pay the $56 medical bill, although he quibbled about the price.

Andrew and William corroborated their mother's testimony about Sarah Jane's April disappearance, her return, seeing Cox at the house the night before Sarah Jane took ill, and his visiting twice during her illness. The boys also testified that they'd heard Cox say he'd help with the medical bills. They also testified to Sarah Jane's deathbed plea for their forgiveness.

Indictment, Trial, and Acquittal

Cox was indicted for murder in December, 1876. He fled to avoid prosecution. Eventually his attorney negotiated a deal for him to return for the trial but remain free on bail of $3,000. He was also able to negotiate a change of venue, so that the trial took place in Hancock County.

During the trial, several witnesses placed Cox at a distance from the farm on October 17 -- the day the abortion allegedly was performed.

Dr. Parks, another area physician, testified that Mrs. Spencer had showed him a catheter and a probe asking if they could be used to cause an abortion and lamenting that her daughter was pregnant. Parks told Mrs. Spencer that the instruments would not produce an abortion. Afterward, he testified, he saw the instruments in the possession of Dr. Springer. Springer said he'd bought them from Mrs. Spencer.

Another witness, Mrs. Arnez, stated that while she and Mrs. Spencer were in jail together, Mrs. Spencer had told her that Shep Cox had nothing to do with her daughter's death.

It took the jury a full day of sparring to come back with a verdict of not guilty.


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.

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion.

No comments: