Monday, October 19, 2020

October 19: Nellie Gets Her Wish

 Shortly before 11:00 on Saturday morning, October 20, 1877, Dr. D. C. Stillians went to the Madison Street police station in Chicago. He wanted to call the Coroner's attention to a case that he described as "crooked." He had been called in to attend to a 21-year-old unmarried woman, Nellie Ryan of Turner Junction, Illinois. Stillians said that Nellie had told him that she had miscarried, but he believed from her symptoms that she had undergone an abortion. She had died the previous evening.

Based on Dr. Stillians' information, the police went to 162 Sangamon Street, a tenement house where K. K. Forrest lived and rented rooms. There they found the young woman's body, lying on a soiled bed with a damp cloth over her face. Her soiled clothing was in a pillow case at the foot of the bed. 

The police questioned Forrest. He said that Nellie had come to the house three weeks earlier, accompanied by a young man who said that she was his half-sister who had been driven from her home by cruel parents. Forrest offered the room for $8 a month. Nellie moved in that evening. The young man, who identified himself as Mr. Dougherty, remained there intermittently until the following Saturday. At that time he said that he had to return to his job as a brakeman at the Northwestern Railroad.

The day after Dougherty's departure, Nellie fell ill but seemed able to look after herself. She remained ill for the entire nine days that the young man was gone. He appeared ill himself upon his return, saying that he'd been down with a severe bronchial infection. He brought Dr. Emelie Spork to attend to Nellie.

Dr. Spork didn't remain in Nellie's room for long, though she did stop to speak to Mrs. Forrest, who reportedly had known Spork for quite a while without knowing that she was a doctor until she came to tend Nellie.

Dr. Spork returned daily to care for Nellie, whose condition continued to deteriorate. On Friday, October 19, she remained a longer time than usual. By 7:00 that evening Nellie's condition deteriorated to the point where Mrs. Forrest decided to call in Dr. Stillian, who was their family physician. He provided some sort of care to Nellie and left, but her condition continued to deteriorate so the Forrests called him back at 9:00. He arrived in time to be with Nellie when she died.

After gathering this information the police went looking for Dr. Spork. She wasn't at her office. It was closed, so they went to her office at 391 West Madison Street, where they finally located Spork at 4:00 that afternoon.

They searched Dr. Spork and jailed her at the station. Meanwhile they searched her office, where they found the expected homeopathic medicines. Searching in a small cupboard under a wash-bowl they found a full set of abortion instruments.

The investigation led the police to a young woman named Barbara Hahn, a friend of Nellie's from Turner Junction who was living in Chicago. Barbara said that all of the young women in the village associated with young Mr. Dougherty. Nellie, as the youngest daughter, was a special pet of her parents but nevertheless had gone to work at a young age because of the family's poverty. She had frequently told her family and friends that she'd rather die than suffer the pains of childbirth and then be bothered with caring for a child.

Barbara had visited Nellie a week before her death, spending the night with her, but hadn't known that Dougherty had arranged for Nellie's visit. The evening of October 19, Dougherty had come to Barbara and urged her to come to Nellie's bedside because she was dying. He explained that Nellie had insisted on seeking out an abortion because one of her sisters had died in childbirth. He said that they had arranged for a woman doctor to do the operation. They arrived at the Forrest residence too late; Nellie had just breathed her last. Dougherty, Barbara said, alternately cursed himself and the abortionist. Somebody sent word to Nellie's other sister and sent a telegram to her parents.

Nellie's father said that she had gone to Chicago once before to work for about a year and the family had assumed that she'd done the same again. They were shocked to learn about the pregnancy and abortion. When taken to her bedside, he'd reportedly uncovered her face then fainted dead away.

A reporter went to the police station and spoke to Spork. She said that the previous Monday she had arrived at her office to find that someone had left a note with her brother telling her to go to 162 North Sangamon Street. She had gone there and found Nellie cold and clammy, sitting in a rocking chair. She had ordered Nellie to bed and, she said, concluded from Nellie's complaint of pains in her chest that she was suffering from pleurisy. Dr. Spork then said that she'd ordered porous plasters infused with Pond's Extract and a Norwegian remedy called "Green Ode" to be placed on the young woman's chest. She said that on Wednesday Nellie had complained of severe pain in her bowels. Dr. Spork said that she administered the homeopathic medicines aconite [a toxic plant used medicinally in herbal medicines], bryonia alba [a homeopathic remedy for digestive troubles], and cantarides [a chemical derived from beetles and used as an aphrodisiac]. She said that she did suspect that Nellie was pregnant but that Nellie had denied this. 

The Coroner's Inquest found that Nellie had been about three months into her pregnancy. They found no marks of instrumentation but a lot of inflammation and gangrene of the womb. They concluded that Nellie's death had been caused by an abortion. Lacking evidence that Dr. Spork had actually perpetrated the abortion, the authorities released her but instituted a renewed search for Dougherty.

Note that contrary to abortion-rights dogma, Nellie evidently found a medical professional of the same caliber she'd have gone to for any obstetric issue. Spork was, in fact, a graduate of the Central Institute of Stockholm, which specialized in the treatment of women and children. After coming to the United States she got a degree from Hahnermann Medical College. Thus Nellie didn't just grab a dirty knitting needle and impale herself. Prior to legalization, women were going to doctors for perhaps 90% of abortions, and going to midwives or nurses or other trained medical professionals about another 8% of the time. The remaining abortions were often done by laypersons who were trained, supplied, and backed up by medical professionals. The stereotypical "coat hanger abortion" is a PR ploy and not a reflection of reality.

Newly added sources:
  • "Double Murder," Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1877
  • "The Nellie Ryan Murder," Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1877



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