Sunday, April 07, 2013

Illegal Deaths, Before and After Antibiotics

Today, our anniversaries are all of women who died from criminal abortions. Three died under the care of doctors, one under the care of a midwife.

The earliest death is of 31-year-old widow Sarah Hall at the Grand Central Hotel in Chicago in 1874. Sarah, who was one of many boarders at the hotel, had been keeping company with "a prominent merchant" when she took ill. She was cared for primarily by her aunt and cousin under the direction of a Dr. Reynolds, which was an arrangement typical for sick people at the time. Reynolds went into a panic at Sarah's death, according to witnesses. He did the embalming himself at the hotel and prepared to ship Sarah's body to her family in Connecticut. The hotel proprietor and other residents thought the whole thing was fishy and notified the authorities, who intercepted the shipment and convened a coroner's inquest, which revealed that an abortion had been the cause of death. I've been unable to determine if Reynolds was definitively identified as the perpetrator.

Those involved in the 1880 death of Anna Clemens did far more to arouse suspicions than did the people involved in Sarah's death. Rather than simply try to arrange a quiet burial, they dumped her body into the River Rough, just south of the village of Delray, Michigan, near Detroit. Anna's bloody cloak, with clumps of hair clinging to it, had caught on a spike on the bridge and thus prompted the search for her body. She was found dressed in black, bound and gagged. A stone had been tied to the clothesline which had been used to tie her hands behind her back. Anna had left her home on March 31, in good health and "excellent spirits." An investigation found that Anna and her fiance, businessman Thomas Merritt, had arranged an abortion to be done by Dr. W. G. Cox, who had been assisted by an elderly furniture repairman in dumping Anna's body.

We have even scantier information on the 1906 death of Bessie Braun, a 22-year-old homemaker and immigrant from Austria, who died April 6 at Michael Reese Hospital. The source says that she died at the scene of the crime, but that's highly unlikely since Michael Reese Hospital was a reputable hospital. Midwife Julia Gibson was arrested in the Bessie's death.

Sarah, Anna, and Bessie died in the pre-modern era, before antibiotics were available and when medical care could just as easily kill a patient as cure her, so it's difficult to argue that the legal status of abortion played a role in their deaths. During the first two thirds of the 20th Century, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality, including mortality from abortion. Most researches attribute this plunge to improvements in public health and hygiene, the development of blood transfusion techniques, and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.

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During the 1940s, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality from abortion. The death toll fell from 1,407 in 1940, to 744 in 1945, to 263 in 1950. Most researches attribute this plunge to the development of blood transfusion techniques and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.
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Catherine Barnard of Arvada, Colorado died in 1969. By this time, abortion mortality had resumed the downward trend it had followed for the previous century with the bewildering exception of the 1950s. Catherine had flown from her home to visit the Oklahoma City office of Dr. Virgil Roy Jobe. A cab driver testified that he'd picked Catherine up at Jobe's office and to take her back to the airport, but she ended up instead at South Community Hospital. There, doctors found her gravely ill from a punctured uterus and small intestine. They told her prior to surgery that they needed to know what had happened to her, and she told them Jobe had perpetrated an abortion. Other evidence also pointed to Jobe, including two prescriptions written by Jobe  in Catherine's purse. Around 40 women, identified as abortion patients from Jobe's records, were questioned about his practice, and offered immunity in exchange for their testimony. Jobe, who was later also charged with performing an abortion on a 17-year-old Oklahoma girl, was convicted in Catherine's death. His office assistant, Mrs. Dorothy Ellen Whitten, was also charged with murder for Catherine's death.

Other than the legal repercussions for those involved, the deaths of Joyce and Catherine seem no different from the post-legalization deaths of women who underwent abortions at the hands of licensed physicians.

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