Thursday, September 03, 2020

September 3: Two Journeys to Death

What today's tragedies have in common is this: Both young women traveled to what they thought was freedom. They were traveling towards death.

Brooklyn, 1859

It was late summer, 1859. Mary Visscher, who worked at a hoop-skirt factory in Brooklyn, was keeping company with a man named Mr. Wright. On August 23, 1859, she left the boarding house where she lived, telling Mrs. C. Perrine that she was going first to Jersey City, then to Philadelphia. She asked Mrs. Perrine to keep the trip a secret. She told Mrs. Mary Sherman, who owned the factory, the same thing. Like Mrs. Perrine, Mrs. Sherman had no idea that Mary might be pregnant.


Mary did not, however, go to New Jersey or Philadelphia. She instead went to the "stylish" house of two female physicians, Elizabeth Byrnes and Mary E. Smith at 168 Thompson Street. The two women practiced midwifery. Byrnes and Smith said that Mary had come to their home on August 23 to be treated for back pain due to a fall, and that they'd not even know she was pregnant until after the abortion, which they attributed  "to the imprudence of deceased herself." The abortion took place on August 27, and Mary lingered there until her death from peritonitis on Saturday, September 3.

Dr. George B. Boutou performed a post-mortem examination and found that Mary had died of peritonitis caused by an abortion. The coroner's jury decided that Byrnes, reportedly a graduate of Boston Female Medical College, had performed the abortion, with the prior knowledge of Smith, who was charged as an accessory before the fact. I have so far been unable to determine the outcome of the case. (See also below, "Death of a Brooklyn Woman by Abortion," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 7,1859)

California, 1970

After California legalized abortion on demand in 1970, a Texas company began selling abortion referrals and air fare. Twenty-year-old Kathryn Morse of Dallas was one customer.

Kathryn was admitted to Bel Air Memorial Hospital in LA County on September 1, 1972. (Until Roe v. Wade, California abortions were performed in hospitals, and many hospitals opened specializing in abortion.) Dr. Morton W. Barke initiated a saline abortion on her at 4:00 pm. This is an abortion method in which the doctor uses a large syringe and needle to remove as much amniotic fluid from the womb as possible and replace it with a strong sterile salt solution that breaks down the baby's blood vessels, causing it to bleed to death internally. (This link will take you to a photo of two babies who died during saline abortions. The blackness on their bodies is blood under the skin that would have been bright red at first. This is why nurses that worked in saline abortion wards referred to the aborted fetuses as "candy-apple babies.")

Kathryn developed a 102 degree fever, then expelled the dead baby just after midnight on September 3. Kathryn's blood pressure rose, she went into shock, and was pronounced dead by Dr. John DuPont at 9:40 AM. An autopsy found sepsis and gangrene of the ovary. 

The coroner's jury was split, with five jurors holding that Kathryn's death as been accidental, "the unintended or unexpected results of human conduct." The minority of four jurors, three of them women, felt that Kathryn's death was "at the hand of another person, other than by accident." All of the jurors recommended that the coroner look more closely into the circumstances of not only Kathryn's death but of all the legal abortion deaths that were seen in Los Angeles County.

The point of contention for the jurors wasn't if the abortion had directly caused Kathryn's death. It was Kathryn's treatment by the staff at Bel Air. Dr. F. Rene Modglin, a pathologist, noted that in looking over Kathryn's medical record he was struck by the paltry effort to determine the cause of the signs that Kathryn was going into shock. A doctor had suspected infection and ordered antibiotics, but no lab tests were ordered to ensure that the most effective antibiotic had been administered. The District Attorney's office noted that there was "some evidence of negligence" on the part of Bel Air's nursing staff but nothing sufficient to warrant prosecution. (See additional sources below.)

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Kathryn Morse newly-added sources:

  • "L.A. Coroner Urges Registry of Abortion Deaths, Illnesses," Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1972
  • "Split Verdict in Abortion Death Returned at Coroner's Inquest," Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1972
  • "Inquest Ordered in L.A. Abortion Death," Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1972
  • "Girl's Post-Abortion Death Ruled Accident," Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1987


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