Tuesday, April 15, 2014

1932: The Death of Ruth Hall

The Arrangements

Dr. Richard Thacker
Dr. Richard E. Thacker (pictured) maintained an office and operating rooms in the Terminal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In the early part of April, 1932, 21-year-old Ruth Hall, who was unmarried, went with her friends, Helen Wright and Margy Brown, to Thacker's practice. Ruth was in good health at the time, but had discovered that she was pregnant. Helen reported that Ruth was on vacation from her job at Southwest Bell Telephone Company. Ruth's friends stayed in the waiting room while Thacker took Ruth back into his exam room for five or ten minutes. Thacker told Ruth to return at noon the following day, April 6, a Wednesday.

Ruth borrowed money to pay for the abortion. She, Margy, and Helen returned as instructed, bringing Ruth's roommate, Elma Benne, with them. The four young women awaited Thacker's arrival in his waiting room. After he arrived, Helen went into the procedure room with Ruth, while Elma and Margy waited.

Helen said she saw Ruth give Thacker money, but she didn't know how much. Ruth then got onto the table as instructed by Thacker.

The Abortion

Here is Helen's testimony regarding what happened next:

She was on her back with her knees up; defendant used a long slender instrument, and then packed her with gauze; I guess he packed her womb; I saw him insert the instrument into her private parts; he did not make any examination before he used this instrument, nor did he take her temperature; he did not test her heart or feel her pulse. If he asked anything about her condition I did not hear it; we were in a small narrow room; she asked him when to remove the gauze, and he said 24 hours. 
Helen testified that there were some other women in Thacker's office when she and Ruth collected their friends and went back to the boarding house where Ruth lived. Helen remained with her friend for four hours, leaving her in the care of her roommate.

The Aftermath

Helen returned to the boarding house on Thursday, and spent the night with Ruth and Elma. Ruth took ill in the night. Elma said that her friend "suffered quite a bit", and got up to use the bathroom, where Ruth passed something. Elma thought that Ruth seemed to feel a bit better after that. Both Helen and Elma observed blood on the bed at the time. Elma described it as "a spot the size of two hands".

Helen said goodbye to Ruth at 10:00 Friday morning. She never saw her friend alive again.

On Saturday, Ruth's brother came to bring his sister to their parents' house, as was their routine. Mrs. Hall reported that Ruth was sick when she arrived at about 4 or 5 p.m. It wasn't until roughly 11:00 that Ruth finally told her mother why she was ill. Mrs. Hall called Dr. Vaughn, their family doctor. He didn't provide any care for Ruth, but did consult with her mother over the phone.

Mrs. Hall then called Thacker. Here is her testimony regarding that phone call:

When I phoned defendant, I stated: 'This is Mrs. George Hall, at Bethany. Do you remember a girl coming to your office by the name of Ruth Hall?' He said he did not remember her, that she was not there. 'Well' I said, 'She is sick and we want you to come out and see her.' He said, 'What is the trouble,' and I said, 'You know what is the matter with her, come out right away.' He said, 'I haven't got any way to get out there.' I told him I could tell him a way. He said he would have to get a taxi. I did not care how he got there, all I wanted was for him to come. He acted like he was not going to come, and I said, 'You will wish you had. You had better come on out here if you know what is good for you.'

Defendant came out; my daughter was in a back bedroom, and I went with him to her room; I don't think he asked any questions about her physical condition; he asked what was the matter; she smiled at him and did not say anything; he had taken her temperature and she did not have any fever at all.

He opened up his case to get his instruments and started in like he was going to work on her without sterilizing his instruments or washing his hands; I asked him if he was not going to sterilize his instruments or wash his hands; he said, 'I guess I had better;' he washed his hands, but did not sterilize his instruments; he took out an instrument of some kind, and used that on her; he used that to dilate her vagina, then used a swab with cotton and stuck that in a bottle that contained iodine and swabbed her out with it; after he treated her he sat at the foot of the bed and talked with us for some time. He said, 'This is something I certainly do not approve of; I told the girl this when she came to the office and wanted help, but I could not turn her down. It seems like the more I try to help people lately the most of them get into worse trouble;' he said if his wife knew this 'she would kill me. I feel like sometimes going and jumping in the river, and if I had I would be better off.' He further said, 'Before I do anything like this again, the husbands will have to come with the wives, or the mothers with the daughters.'

I asked him about getting another doctor, and he said he did not think it necessary. She died Friday evening. I called Dr. Vaughn, and he would not come. I called Dr. Ferris and defendant; Dr. Ferris got there first, then the defendant came. She was dead when defendant got there.

The Fallout

After Ruth's death, Thacker said, Ruth's sister tied to shake him down for funeral expenses. Thacker refused, on the grounds that he felt he had done everything he could for Ruth. Her sister threatened to turn him in to the police. Thacker fled to his brother-in-law's ranch near Amarillo, Texas, where he changed his name to Miller. He then relocated to Springdale, Arkansas, where he was finally appreheded. He was arrested in the afternoon, and claimed at the time of his arrest that he had been planning to return to Oklahoma City that evening.

Over Thacker's understandable, albeit unsustainable, objections, the court permitted a number of witnesses to testify that after Ruth's visit to his practice, Thacker had performed fatal abortions on Robbie Lou Thompson, Lennis May Roach, and Nancy Joe Seay Lee. The witnesses went into detail about the events, up to and including the death of each of them.

Thacker testified that Ruth had indeed come to his office, but he denied performing an abortion on her. He said that she was seeking aftercare for an abortion she had obtained elsewhere from another doctor. He did admit that he had been summoned to the Hall home by Ruth's mother, but he denied any of the statements he made to Mrs. Hall regarding having an abortion practice. He also admitted to having treated Robbie Lou Thompson, Lennis May Roach, and Nancy Joe Lee, but denied that he performed any abortions.

The Appeal

Thacker was convicted of murder, but appealed the conviction, claiming seventeen errors in the prosecution of his case, mostly focusing on the presentation of evidence that he had performed abortions on other women. Thacker's attorneys held that this evidence was prejudicial. But the state countered that the evidence of numerous other abortions demonstrated that Thacker was a practicing abortionist and that the crime against Ruth was performed as a part of that business.

The appeal also challenged other aspects of the state's case, and boiled down to, "You didn't prove she was pregnant. And even if she was, you didn't prove that I used any instruments on her. And even if I did, you didn't prove that I used them to cause an abortion. And even if I did, you didn't prove that the abortion wasn't necessary to save her life. Not to mention you didn't prove that the abortion caused her death." The state noted that circumstantial evidence was sufficient. Thacker's appeal clearly illustrates why so many doctors who clearly were performing abortions were nevertheless not convicted, since one weak link in the chain of proof could destroy the state's entire case.

New York Times; "Abortion Ring", Time, Monday, May 9, 1932; Thacker v State. 1933 OK CR 119. 26 P.2d 770. 55 Okl.Cr. 161. Decided: 10/27/1933. Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals

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Keep in mind that things that things we take for granted, like antibiotics and blood banks, were still in the future. For more about abortion in this era, see Abortion in the 1930s.

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