Wednesday, February 25, 2009

1916: Conflicting evidence in abortion death

Lillian Hobbs was convicted of murder in the 1916 abortion death of 21-year-old Alda Christopherson. The testimony of John K. McDonald, who was granted immunity in exchange, was crucial in the case. He was the father of Alda's aborted baby.

Depending on whose testimony you believe, the whole sordid story began either on February 21, or six weeks earlier.

All the testimony agreed that Alda's lover, John McDonald, had visited Hobbs' office on Monday, February 21, asking if Alda had been there. Testimony agreed that Hobbs denied having seen Alda, even though the girl had indeed been there. Testimony agreed that McDonald had made arrangements for an abortion for Alda, after first inquiring if the procedure would be safe. He had been planning to marry the girl, and although the pregnancy was "an inconvenience" he wasn't willing to pursue an abortion if it would endanger Alda. All the testimony agreed that Hobbs had assured McDonald that as long as Alda followed instructions, an abortion would be perfectly safe.

But Hobbs testified in her trial that when Alda had arrived earlier, she'd admitted to having "taken dope" for six weeks to try to cause an abortion. She also claimed that Alda had admitted to having used a buttonhook on herself the previous Sunday. (It is unclear if she meant the day before, February 20, or the Sunday before that.)

Hobbs, along with her son, William Heyward, and her nurse, Ada Kanter, testified that upon her arrival on the 21st, Alda was very ill, walking slowly and as if in great pain. They all also testified that Alda had spoken of taking dope and trying to self-abort with a buttonhook, and that Hobbs had advised Alda to go to a hospital.

Hobbs also testified that she'd instructed Alda to go home, take some quinine and a hot bath, and gave her permission to return the next day.

A five-and-dime clerk, Lillian Thompson, testified that Alda had come to the store at about 10 a.m. on the 21st to buy sanitary napkins. Thompson testified that when she'd asked Alda what her trouble was -- because Alda seemed to be very ill and in great pain -- Alda ha pointed to a buttonhook on the counter and said she'd used a buttonhook and a crochet hook on herself and was going to see a doctor about it. However, Thompson's employer testified that the clerk's "reputation for truth and veracity was bad."

Whatever Alda's condition on the 21st -- and whatever Hobbs' reason for concealing from McDonald that his lover was supposedly deathly ill and in need of hospitalization when he'd arrived on Tuesday, the 22nd, to arrange an abortion -- McDonald met Alda at about 1:30 that afternoon and brought her to Hobbs' office.

McDonald testified that Alda had been in good health when he'd brought her for the abortion, and that though both he and Alda had been worried, Hobbs had reassured the couple that the girl would be fine as long as she followed instructions.

Here, again, the testimony all agrees. The couple arrived shortly before 2 p.m., entering through the first floor reception area. Alda was sent by the front way down to the basement, while Hobbs went down the back way.

Hobbs testified that during the time she'd been in the basement with Alda, she'd merely examined her to determine how much damage the girl had done with the buttonhook. She said she'd found some oozing blood and signs of great inflammation. She said that she swabbed Alda with antiseptic on a bit of gauze, using small dressing forceps.

Hobbs' daughter-in-law and husband, George, both testified that Alda seemed very sick and miserable. Mr. Hobbs said that Alda was moaning and crying. The daughter-in-law said that Alda was pale and walking slowly, as if in great pain, and asked Hobbs to see how much damage the buttonhook had done.

The daughter-in-law also testified that Hobbs called her in to the exam room. Alda was hysterical, weeping and crying aloud, "Oh, my! If I hadn't used the buttonhook I would not have to be here!"

All testimony agreed that Hobbs had returned within about 15 minutes to the reception area to speak with McDonald, and that the result of the consultation was McDonald giving her $50.

McDonald said that Hobbs had come to get her fee for the abortion. Hobbs said she'd collected money to admit Alda to the hospital. She said she phoned American Theatrical Hospital and arranged to admit Alda.

Nobody testified about whether or not American Theatrical Hospital ever got a call from Hobbs to admit a patient. What everybody did testify to is that McDonald and Alda left Hobbs' office, with Hobbs insisting that Alda was wretchedly ill, and McDonald testifying that she seemed fine.

McDonald sent Alda home by streetcar, to the home of Mrs. G.E. Holmes, where Alda was the housekeeper. Later that evening he went to pick her up for a date. He testified that she seemed well. Her sister, Kitty, noted that Alda seemed to be in good health when McDonald picked her up, as well as later when Kitty joined the couple at the picture show. Their other sister, Nellie, also testified that Alda seemed to be in good health late on the 22nd.

But at about 2:30 on the morning of Wednesday, the 23rd, Alda took ill, with vomiting, cramps, and chills. She improved somewhat over the course of the day, but kept to her bed. Hobbs claimed that McDonald came to her practice at about 2 p.m that day to tell her that Alda was well, prompting her to cancel plans to admit the girl to the hospital.

On Thursday, February 24, somebody summoned Dr. Barnsbach at around 9 a.m. He found Alda collapsed, and, based on what little information he'd been given, he diagnosed ptomaine poisoning and had her removed to Lakeside Hospital. As she was being taken from the house, Hobbs arrived and inquired after the girl. When told that Alda was being taken to the hospital for ptomaine poisoning, she did not mention anything to the attending physician about any abortion, or abortion infection -- a grave omission, regardless of whether she or Alda had performed the abortion in question, and showing little regard for her patient's well-being.

It was Alda's sister Kitty who told told physicians at the hospital the true cause of Alda's sickness. She had learned the truth when she'd called McDonald to tell him of Alda's collapse. Dr. A. R. Johnson performed surgery on Alda. He found her abdomen full of blood and blood clots, an enlarged uterus consistent with 2 to 2 1/2 months of pregnancy, and placental tissue protruding through a large hole in the top of her uterus. He cleaned up the mess in Alda's abdominal cavity and sutured the hole in her uterus. Johnson later testified that a buttonhook can not have done that much damage. The hole, Johnson insisted, must have been made by a much larger instrument, capable of being spread open.

Despite Dr. Johnson's efforts, and no thanks to Dr. Hobbs, Alda died on the 25th. During the post-mortem, her uterus was removed and preserved, to be presented as evidence in the trial. Three other doctors, called as expert witnesses, had examined the uterus after Alda's death and said that a buttonhook could possibly have caused the damage, and estimated that the way the edges of the hole were soughing, the injury had to have occurred prior to Alda's visit to Hobbs' practice to have caused such extensive infection.

The jury evidently decided that Hobbs' story didn't hold together well, for they voted to convict her of murder in Alda's death. Hobbs was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Between the death and the trial, Hobbs had been indicted for the abortion death of Ellen Mastson. Ellen died in early November of 1917.

Hobbs appealed on multiple grounds, including the fairly feeble one that only on court documents, she was referred to once as "Lillian Hobbs otherwise Lillian Seymour", but elsewhere on court documents only as "the said Lillian Hobbs". She also protested that it was inappropriate to bring up the death of Ellen Matson as evidence of her practice as a criminal abortionist, since Ellen died nearly two years after Alda's death and thus her abortion wasn't evidence of prior criminal behavior. She also protested that it would have been sufficient to show evidence that she had performed an abortion Ellen, that introducing the reality of Ellen's death was prejudicial.

The appeal succeeded. The conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered. However, Hobbs' conviction and sentencing for Ellen Matson's death rendered this rather a moot point.

Hobbs was also implicated, but never tried, for the 1917 abortion death of Ruth Lemaire.

These fatal abortions were typical of pre-legalization abortions in that they were performed by a physician.

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 information about early 20th Century abortion mortality, see Abortion Deaths 1910-1919.

And lest you think the sorts of things that happened in Alda's death stopped happening with legalization, consider:

  • When Evelyn Dudley collapsed in the driveway of her home, her safe and legal abortionist tried to claim he'd only been treating her for injuries she'd sustained elsewhere.

  • When Alicia Hannah was caught trying to dump the body of Angela Sanchez in 1993, she claimed Angela had collapsed at her clinic after having an illegal abortion elsewhere.

  • Abortionist Andre Neharoayoff failed to hospitalize "Ellen" Roe, and sent her home with a fetal leg protruding from her uterus, in 1983.

  • Abortionist Suresh Gandotra delayed hospitalizing Magdalena Rodriguez in 1994, sending her to the hospital with the mangled fetus protruding from a tear in her uterus.

    Quackery, it seems, is truly timeless.

    For more abortion deaths, visit the Cemetery of Choice:

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