Friday, July 17, 2020

An Abortion and a Suicide, Pittsburgh, 1901

At about 9 a.m. on July 17, 1901, 23-year-old widow Juliette "Julia" O'Brien, an immigrant from France, died in her home at 3187 Carson Street in Pittsburgh, from complications of an illegal abortion which Julia had told her family had been perpetrated by Dr. Michael A. Arnholt. At the coroner's inquest, Julia's mother, Marie Maurice, through a French interpreter, added that on or around July 12, "My daughter told me that Dr. Arnholt had abused her several times when she was in his office." I believe that the "abuse" to which Julia's mother refers is abortion attempts.

Julia's sister-in-law, Helen Maurice, said that she'd gone to Arnholt's office with Julia on July 5. Julia, she said, went back into another area with Arnholt and was there for more than a hour. Julia was pale and weak when she emerged, barely able to walk.

Arnolt went to the family home on July 15, cussing up a storm and berating Julia for telling her family about the abortion. Two other physicians -- Dr. W. H. McCombs and Dr. George P. Rossman, were called in to attend to help attend Julia in her illness. Her mother had told both of them about the abortion, but they advised her not to say anything to the coroner about how Julia died. McCombs signed the death certificate Councilman John H. Semmelrock, who was partner in a funeral business, witnesses also said, likewise advised the family not to report the abortion since it would disgrace the family.

A sketched portrait of a bald white man, perhaps in his 60s, with a bushy white mustache, small eyes, and a squarish face
Dr. Arnholt
Julia's brother, Arthur Maurice, and sister, Mary Smith, had been planning to file suit and expose Arnholt's abortion practice if he did not pay them $5000 (c. $130,000 in 2020 dollars) in damages to cover the cost of caring for the 21-month-old child the abortion had left an orphan. They went to Arnholt's office with their demands. He reportedly begged them on his knees not to subject him to the ignominy of being exposed as an abortionist. Putting him behind bars, he said, would not bring their sister back. Julia's sister said that a distraught Arnholt had torn at his hair and told them, "I know I did wrong. I know I did wrong in causing this poor girl to die." He offered to pay all of the expenses related to Julia's death and to pay $3 per week (c. $80 in 2020 dollars) for the maintenance of Julia's toddler until the child reached the age of 21.

Julia's siblings told Arnholt that they wanted the $5,000 up front instead, and decided to give him time to think about it. they agreed to meet with him on July 25 to discuss the situation. However, several hours before the scheduled meeting Arnholt committed suicide in his office by shooting himself through the heart.

Arnholt's death and the circumstances surrounding it came as a shock to the community, since he was a prominent physician and former state senator.

On a completely different note, just when I thought things couldn't get any weirder, I stumbled across a very creepy article when checking for new information about this case. In May of 1876, Arnholt and two other doctors were for grave-robbing. They'd evidently disinterred and dissected a young female murder victim.

New Sources:

  • "The Flemm-Palling Tragedy," Pittsburgh Commercial, May 27, 1876
  • "Death Sealed his Troubles," The Pittsburgh Post, July 26, 1901
  • "Shot Himself Rather Than Be Disgraced," Dayton Herald, July 26, 1901
  • "Dead Doctor Was Blamed," Pittsburgh Press, August 25, 1901
  • "Were Officials Cheated?", Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 25, 1901
  • "Coroner Holds Doctors as Accessory to a Crime," PIttsburgh Press, September 4, 1901

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