Sunday, August 23, 2020

August 23: The Abortionist Who Turned Over a New Leaf

On August 23, 1910, 20-year-old Mrs. Louise Heinrich died in the New York apartment of Dr. Charles Buffam, age 41, and his wife, nurse Vivian Anna Buffam. I've found so much new information on Louise's death that it's getting a new post. I have found so many additional sources, in fact, that I'll not clutter the blog with them but will just list them and then post them on the Cemetery of Choice site when it's back up and running.

Andre Stapler, a native of Austria-Hungary, had come to the United States around 1900. He had been a drug clerk before becoming a physician. In 1910 he was a medical student working with a Dr. Samuel Short in Harlem. All of the news coverage lists him as a doctor without putting the term in quotes, so evidently he was considered a legitimate physician by the time the unfortunate Louise came into the picture.

Louise and her husband, Samuel, traveled from Jersey City, New Jersey to the Buffams' flat at 500 West 111th Street in New York on August 23, 1910. Sam went out walking while his wife was being attended to by Stapler. Sam returned at around 5:00 that afternoon and found his wife dead. He threatened violence against Stapler, shouting, "You murdered her!"

Somehow those present managed to calm Sam down, perhaps reminding him that everybody had the threat of arrest hanging over their heads. I've been unable to follow Sam's side of the story from this point other that eventually he was able to get his wife's body buried at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Jersey City. Per the law requiring that bodies transported across state lines be embalmed, Sam arranged for this procedure before laying his wife to rest.

In the mean time, a total of $23 worth of telephone calls (over $600 in 2020 dollars) were made from the Buffam apartment to sort out how to handle the situation. Evidently the first person contacted was a Dr. Shaw, who arrived at the flat, said that it was a case for the Coroner, and left, refusing to sign a death certificate. Stapler then called an attorney. He tried to slip out of the apartment but Vivian Buffum restrained him. 

“Dr. Speir” – actually a drug clerk -- came to the apartment and assured everybody that everything would be okay. He said that he had “a pull” and that “It makes a difference who the coroner's physician is.” Vivian Buffum finally called the coroner's office at around 9:00 p.m. -- the shift of Coroner Holtzhauser and physician Philip O'Hanlon. A clerk made an entry into the day book that Louise had died suddenly.

Though officially it was the duty of the coroner to go to the death scene to view the body, review the circumstances, and decide if the case was suspicious or not, Holtzhauser was not the most diligent of men. His qualifications for the post were dubious at best, since he had been a marble cutter before being elected. He's slid effortlessly into the role of slacker. He'd signed a paper giving O'Hanlon the authority to perform autopsies at his own discretion without getting a permit and left him and his clerks to their own devices. Holtzhauser later admitted in court that he'd never bothered with any of the five deaths that had occurred on his shift that night, neither seeing the bodies nor reviewing the paperwork. Spier had evidently understood how things worked under Holtzhauser and had waited until the 9:00 Holtzhauser/O'Hanlon shift to have Vivian Buffam make the call.

Louise's body was taken to an undertaking establishment, where O'Hanlon performed a cursory autopsy, not even bothering to open the abdomen and examine the organs, instead just making a shallow incision in the skin. As he explained later in court, “If I felt tired I would reach a conclusion as to the cause of death as soon as possible, without making a complete autopsy, and let it go at that.” He had, he said, taken Vivian Buffum at her word when she said that Louise was a friend of hers who had come for a visit, collapsed, and died. At 10:55 that night,  O'Hanlon put a slip in Holtzhauser's box stating the cause of death as apoplexy. He made another notation in a log that Louise had died from heart disease. He then filed a death certificate with the Bureau of Vital Statistics giving the cause of death as acute gastritis. 

Vivian Buffum later testified that O'Hanlon reiterated that everything was all right and would continue to be so as long as she kept her mouth shut. He'd written out a statement for her to sign stating that Louise was a friend who had come for a visit, then took ill and died suddenly.

All of the documents were filed, Louise was laid to rest, and everyone else got on with the business of life. Stapler finished medical school then quietly relocated to Chicago and set up a reputable practice towards the end of 1913. No doubt everybody thought that the whole sordid affair had blown over. They were wrong.

In 1914, Mayor Mitchell in New York began an investigation of the New York City coroner's office, finding that money was being paid to officials to falsify documents. It was then that somebody noticed that each of the three documents regarding Louise Heinrich listed a different cause of death. Her body was exhumed and an autopsy was performed by Dr. Otto Schultze in the presence of the Hudson County Medical Officer. Fortunately the body had been expertly embalmed and thus could yield the necessary evidence to find the real cause of death. Louise had bled to death from abortion injuries. An investigation into the circumstances was begun and evidently the interested parties in New York pointed the finger at none other than Dr. Andre Stapler. 

Stapler had not been idle in Chicago. He had become the house physician at the Plymouth Hotel at 4700 Broadway, where he lived. He also kept offices at 1060 Wilson Avenue and 59 East Madison Street, and was a staff physician at Wesley Hospital and Columbus Hospital. He was a highly respected man with wealthy, well-connected patients.

On March 12, 1915, George Freer, an official from New York City, arrived in Chicago with a letter from the District Attorney of New York asking for a warrant for the arrest of Anton Stapler, aka Andre Stapler. Detectives Birmingham and Malone accompanied Freer to a building in the Loop and arrested Dr. Stapler, who posted $7,000 bond and Stapler gave an interview to the Chicago Tribune explaining his version of events:
In August, 1910, I was assistant to Dr. Samuel Short, who had an office at One Hundred and Fourth Street and Madison Avenue in New York. There was a Dr. W. C. Buffum who lived, as I remember it, on One Hundred and Eleventh Street, who deserted his wife and ran away with another woman. Dr. Short, who was a fellow lodge member of Buffum's, was doing some of his work. One afternoon Mrs. Buffum rang up the office and wanted somebody over there in a hurry. I went over and found this woman who is referred to, Mrs. Louise Heinrich, dead. That was my first sight of her. I called up Dr. Short. He came over, saw that the woman was dead, and notified the coroner. The body was taken to an undertaking establishment, where the corner performed an autopsy. The verdict, as I remember it, was that she died of heart disease. I never saw the coroner, and was not at the inquest, for there was no necessity of my being there. Now it seems that the easiest person to blame things on is the man out of town. Freer, who caused my arrest, asked me if I would go to New York without extradition, and I said I would. I packed up to go this morning. Apparently there is jealousy between the branches of government in New York, for Freer received a telegram from the New York district attorney that he would send one of his own men to accompany me to New York. I expect to start tomorrow at 12:40 or tomorrow night. I never had anything to do concerning any malpractice in my life except as a witness for the prosecution in the Dr. Arthur L. Blunt case.

Without first notifying Freer, accompanied by friends and his attorney, Stapler took a taxi to the train station on Sunday evening, March 14, 1915. He waved farewell to his friends from the observation platform. “I'm simply going to New York like a gentleman, without compulsion, to cut short this annoying affair, that has grown out of some tangle of misinformation,” Stapler said as he left. His attorney said, “My client is on his way to meet the charges in the same manner that he will return – voluntarily and as a free man.” One of Stapler's wealthy patients gave him a blank check to use to pay for his defense, though Stapler said he'd not need it.

Stapler's trial began on December 10. Vivian Buffam turned state's evidence. Her husband's whereabouts were unknown. The jury was out less than three hours, returning at 6:00 p.m. on December 23 with a verdict of guilty. Stapler was allowed to linger in the Tombs, with a possible 20-year sentence hanging over his head, before finally spilling his guts about his own involvement in Louise's death, nine other doctors perpetrating abortions in the city, and the bribes they would pay to employees in the coroner's office to cover things up. Stapler said that doctors would typically pay hush money of $200 (over $5,000 in 2020 dollars) but sometimes as much as $5,000 (over $130,000 in 2020 dollars). The money might be divided among various doctors and clerks. 

Stapler was sentenced to Sing Sing by Justice Bartow S. Weeks on February 4, 1916. Weeks referred to Stapler's post-conviction confession as the most amazing he had ever read, adding, “It is my belief that the defendant has for purposes of his own, protected the men higher up in this nefarious practice.” Stapler's assertions during his confession were confirmed by testimony from doctors and hospital attendants – including two doctors who were serving time in Sing Sing on manslaughter charges related to abortion deaths. 

During sentencing Weeks denounced Stapler as “a menace to the social structure of the country. Under the old law, a defendant convicted of the crime of which you have been convicted would have the death penalty imposed. In my careful consideration of your case and your statement, I have several times come to the conclusion that such a penalty would be very appropriate for you – not because of this one crime but because of the number of cases that preceded it. I shall impose a sentence which will allow you, by good behavior, to leave State's prison in time to rehabilitate yourself and possibly become a respectable member of society.”

Stapler's sentence was commuted on May 15, 1920. The New York Daily News identified him as “a leader of Sing Sing's 'idle rich.'” His friends feted him in a hotel, with the dinner guests including “several wealthy ex-prisoners.” He returned to Chicago, evidently having taken Justice Weeks' admonition to heart. He married a respectable young woman. He re-established a wealthy clientele, including Adolph B. Magnus, grandson of Adolphus Busch, the founder of Anheuser-Busch. He stopped dallying in criminal activities and cover-ups, instead dutifully reporting a woman who had come to him for treatment of gunshot wounds. 

Stapler died of a heart attack in his home on Lake Shore Drive on February 6, 1936. He left his widow, Helen, and three daughters assets worth $200,000 (nearly $3.5 million in 2020 dollars). 

As for what became of the widowed Samuel Heinrich, I've been unable to learn. I can't even find the cemetery where the unfortunate Louise was exhumed and given a proper autopsy. She was reburied in a different cemetery in a different county. 

  • “Mystery Arrest on Old Charge,” Chicago Tribune, March 13, 1915
  • 'Mystery Case' Veil Removed,” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1915
  • Stapler Leaves to Face Charge,” Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1915
  • Charges Physicians Concealed a Crime,” New York Times, December 11, 1915
  • Dr. O'Hanlon Named in Fatal Operation Trial,” New York Tribune, December 11, 1915
  • O'Hanlon Accused in Woman's Death,” The New York Sun, December 11, 1915
  • Court Hearing for Dr. O'Hanlon Denied,” The New York Sun, December 14, 1915
  • Says Coroners Rely on Clerks' Reports,” New York Times, December 14, 1915
  • Dr. O'Hanlon Denies Hiding Death Cause,” New York Times, December 22, 1915
  • Dr. Stapler Found Guilty,” New York Times, December 24, 1915
  • Stapler Found Guilty,” New York Sun, December 24, 1915
  • Coroners Named in N. Y. Graft Charges,” Middletown Daily Times-Press, January 14, 1916
  • Detectives Trail Malpractice Band Stapler Accuses,” New York Evening World, January 14, 1916
  • Stapler Reveals Malpractice Ring,” New York Times, January 14, 1916
  • Facts of Doctors' Crime Trust to Go to Grand Jury,” New York Evening World, February 4, 1916
  • State of New York Executive Chamber document dated May 15, 1920
  • Sing Sing Bows Farewell to Two Noted Prisoners,” New York Daily News, May 26, 1920
  • Engagement,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1922
  • “Find Furrier Slain in North Side Mystery,” Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1930
  • “Dr. Andre L. Stapler Dies; Physician Here 20 Years,” Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1936
  • $15,647 Owed to Doctor; Accounts Sold for $5,000,” Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1937

No comments: