Sunday, January 12, 2020

Repeat Offenders Leave Trails of Corpses in Early 20th Century Chicago

One of the sad things I discovered when researching abortion deaths was the degree to which laws failed to protect women from abortion quackery prior to legalization. Two anniversaries from this date in history illustrate the scope of the problem.

The Victims of Dr. Paulina Bechtel

On January 12, 1900, Ida Henry, age 26, died at the home she shared with Dr. Paulina Bechtel, from complications of an abortion Bechtel had performed on her there that day. Bechtel, who said that she'd been practicing medicine for 18 years, was held by the Coroner's Jury. An undertaker had embalmed Ida's body prior to a post-mortem examination. He was censured for this compromising of evidence that would be found in the body, but was not charged with any crime. 

Bechtel had been tried in the October 3, 1895 abortion death of Mrs. Kittie Bassett. She was also implicated in the death of Barbara Shelgrenshortly after Ida's death, but was identified as a midwife in that case. According to Leslie Reagan, author of When Abortion Was a Crime, it was common for female physicians to be misidentified as midwives, particularly if they practiced obstetrics. Bechtel went on to perform a fatal abortion on Mary Thorning in 1911. 

While looking for any additional information on the death of Ida Henry, I found two other deaths attributed to Dr. Bechtel: Carrie Marskl (September of 1904) and Mary Orning (December of 1911).

I've been unable to determine why Bechtel wasn't incarcerated after these deaths.

The Victims of Midwife (Doctor?) Louisa Achtenberg

On January 12, 1909, Florence Wright, a 34-year-old Black woman born in Kentucky, died at Wesley Hospital in Chicago from nitrous oxide asphyxiation while being treated for complications of an illegal abortion perpetrated on January 3, 1909. Midwife Louisa Achtenberg, a white woman, was held without bail for the crime of murder by abortion. She was indicted for murder but the source document doesn't indicate that there was a trial. Achtenberg appears to have been implicated as well in the abortion deaths of Dora Swan in 1907, Stella Kelly in 1909, Violet McCormick in 1921, and Madelyn Anderson in 1924.

As was the case with Paulina Bechtel, I've been unable to determine why Louisa Achtenberg was able to kill so many women without much hindrance from the law. 

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