Sunday, August 24, 2008

1955: Mystery abortion victim is actually heiress

On August 24, 1955, the body of a young woman identified as Shirley Silver was brought the morgue in Philadelphia from the North Philadelphia apartment of bartender Milton Schwarts and his beautician wife, Rosalie. The young woman, they said, had suddenly taken ill and collapsed while sitting on a sofa in their living room. But when machinations were begun the next day to try to remove the young woman's body without an autopsy, her real identity was revealed, and a scandal rocked the city.

The dead woman was Doris Jean Silver Ostreicher, a 22-year-old heiress. Doris had made front page news when she eloped in a "fairy tale romance" with Earl Ostreicher, a 29-year-old motorcycle cop from Miami Beach, in late June of 1955. Ostreicher was the son of a Chicago fuel dealer. He held that he'd not known that his beautiful red-haired bride was wealthy. She'd told him, he said, that her father was a butcher, not vice president of the Food Fair chain of grocery stores.

But fairy tale romances don't always lead to fairy tale marriages. Within a few weeks, Doris evidently was disillusioned, and had separated from her husband, returning to her family's Philadelphia home.

On August 23 and 24, Doris' mother, Gertrude Silver, had taken her daughter to an obstetrician, Dr. Jacob Hoffman. Mrs. Silver had been "very unhappy" about the possibility that her daughter was pregnant. Hoffman himself was not certain that Doris was pregnant, since at that time a 6-week pregnancy was difficult to definitively diagnose.

Hoffman didn't indicate that Mrs. Silver was seeking an abortion for Doris, but seek one she did, taking her to the Schwartz's apartment on August 24. Somebody had used some sort of instrument, augmented with some "vegetable compound" to try to induce an abortion. Within an hour, Doris reported feeling unwell, along with chest pains. She collapsed and died. Her pregnancy, along with the attempt to abort the baby, was confirmed at autopsy. She had died from collapsed lungs and overwhelming shock.

When police searched the Schwartz apartment, they found abortion instruments there, including syringes, medications, dry mustard, absorbent cotton, mineral oil, and olive oil, along with a metal tube that was believed to be the fatal instrument in Doris' abortion.

Rosalie Schwartz had tried to claim that she and her husband had known the Silver family for at least ten years, but Doris' father, Herman, indicated that he'd never seen or heard of either of the Schwartzes.

The Schwartzes pleaded no contest for their role in the young woman's death. Rosalie got a sentence of indeterminate length, while Milton was sentenced to 3-10 years. Both were paroled after 11 months, based on a "pathetic" letter from their grown son asking that his parents be freed in time for Christmas.

Doris' mother, who was hospitalized for "bereavement shock" in the early days after her daughter's death, was charged as an accessory. She was fined and given a suspended sentence for her role in her daughter's death. The judge said that he considered the memory of how her daughter had died "substantial punishment."

  • How common was it before legalization for a woman to resort to somebody like the Schwartzes, with no medical training, for an abortion?
    Well over 70% of the time.
    Roughly half of the time.
    About 1/3 of the time.
    Less than 10% of the time.

    Doris was not the only wealthy woman to die at the hands of an abortionist. Florence Nimick Schnoor, wealthy grand-niece of Andrew Carnegie, arranged a "brutal and inept" illegal abortion for herself in 1942; the perpetrator was never caught. Jane Ward, heiress of the Drake Bakeries fortune, managed to find a physician who fatally bungled her abortion in 1947. Did fear of discovery lead some wealthy women to "slum it" when seeking abortionists? Was there an aspect of deliberately courting danger as a way of self-punishment? Was it sheer crummy luck that led them to quackery, like when Barbara Lofrumento's parents chose a Princeton graduate and got a butcher? Perhaps each dynamic could play a different role in different women's deaths.

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

    For more abortion deaths, visit the Cemetery of Choice:

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