Wednesday, January 20, 2021

January 20: Forced Abortion in a House of Ill Repute

Mary Ackerly of White Plains, New York, was the uneducated daughter of Sutton Ackerly, a shoemaker, and his disreputable wife Martha.. From the time she was around 9 years old, Mary's family had begun sending her to live with other families, for reasons that are presumed to be understood by newspaper readers of the time. Mary didn't take well to her peripatetic life, it seems, since she rarely stayed with one family longer than a few months.

In 1845, at the age of 19, Mary went to work in the home of Mrs. C. Nelson, near Sing-Sing. Mrs. Nelson had a married son, Henry (called "Harry"), a highly prosperous farmer who lived nearby in Somers. In early December, Harry convinced Mary to go to Manhattan with him, promising that if she made the trip he would pay her the $27 that he owed her. But he had other plans for the young woman who was about four and a half months pregnant with his child.

A Trip to New York

The two arrived aboard the steamer Croton late on Friday evening, December 12. Harry was dressed as the respectable, comfortable man he was. Mary was clad in the shabby clothing of her own social class. Nelson was unlikely to have entered into a truly romantic affair with the uneducated young woman. It's more likely that he was paying her for sexual assignations and owed her the money for these exchanges.

After disembarking, Nelson and Mary were joined by a small, unassuming man in his early 30s, clad in a large overcoat with the collar pulled up to hide his face. This man had also aboard the Croton but had avoided the couple during the trip. The man was Dr. Seth Shove of Bedford, New York. Shove and Nelson spoke briefly then parted ways.

Nelson brought Mary to a "house of ill fame" at 174 Broom Street. The mistress of the house was Mrs. Brewster. Cook Mary Ann Murray and chambermaid Sarah Canine lived there as well, along with three boarders who made a living as prostitutes Mary Kearney, Josephine Lee, and Emma Lee. They plied their trade with lively champagne dinner parties at the house.

Nelson and Mrs. Brewster seemed to know each other and spoke briefly before Nelson handed off his young charge to the mistress. Mrs. Brewster saw Mary to a small back room on the first floor and left her there.

Ambushed by Nelson and Shove

On the night of December 14, 1845, one of the women who lived at the brothel told Mary that somebody was up in the attic room to see her. When Mary got upstairs she found Nelson, along with Dr. Shove. The room, furnished with a bed, was lit only by the single candle that Nelson held.

Nelson told Mary that Shove was there to perform an abortion on her. Mary said that she tried to get out of the room, but Nelson and Shove had locked the door, pushed her onto the bed, and blown out the candle. Mary didn't see what instrument the appropriately-named Shove used on her, but what he did was incredibly painful. Mary told her mother that she had screamed for help but nobody came. Shove finished what he was doing then he and Nelson left.

The Baby Born Alive

After her ordeal was over, Mary returned to the downstairs back room. Mary Kearney said that in the evening of Tuesday, December 15, Mary went into labor. Dr. Conning came to the house to attend to Mary, delivering the baby about 2:00 in the morning of the 16th. Conning, evidently believing the infant to be dead, placed it on a marble-topped table. Seeing the baby move its hand and foot, Miss Kearney placed the child in a warm place by the stove hearth, where it died about half an hour later.

Other than doctors attending her from time to time, Miss Kearney said, Mary Ackerly had no visitors after the birth and death of her baby. After the night of the abortion, Mary never saw Harry Nelson again. Mary sickened and suffered wretchedly during the ensuing weeks, her condition deteriorating. 

Mary's Wretched End

During the first week of January, 1846, the chambermaid, Sarah Canine, accompanied Mary on a boat trip back to her family home in Sing Sing.  Over the ensuring days, Mary had a dark red, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, and frequent bouts of vomiting. 

At Mary's request, she was visited by a minister every other day who prayed with her and urged her to clear her conscience. As it became clearer to Mary that she wasn't going to recover, she wept and told her mother all about her pregnancy and the abortion. Mary pleaded with her mother to send for Dr. Shove, believing that his knowledge of what he'd done to her would aid him in providing life-saving care. Shove wouldn't come to attend to his patient but instead sent the family a bill for the abortion.

Dr. William Belcher, the family's usual doctor, tended to Mary three times before her death.  Dr. Belcher made it plain to Mary that she was dying, and she told him the same story she had told her mother about Harry Nelson, Dr. Shove, the unfamiliar house she'd been taken to, and the forced abortion. She was dead by around 6:00 on the morning of January 20.

Belcher and another doctor performed an autopsy, finding multiple adhesions around Mary's uterus. There were no signs of injury inside the uterus or vagina, but there were injuries causing fecal impaction and large abscesses around the bowel and bladder. Her uterus was enlarged and showed signs of recent pregnancy.

Dr. Shove's Trial

When Shove went to trial for Mary's death, an assortment of doctors testified that they'd known him well and respected him professionally. Some had seen Shove perform surgery and considered him to be skilled. The doctors also testified that for an abortion, the patient would have to be cooperative in order to carry it out. Both hands would be needed, so a doctor would not have spare hands to hold down a struggling patient. Mary's injuries, as described by Dr. Belcher, were not consistent with those that would happen if a qualified doctor was doing an abortion procedure. At no point did there seem to be the issue raised, nor answered, as to whether Mary's injuries were consistent with a skilled surgeon attempting to perform an abortion on a struggling woman.

As the jury went to deliberate whether Shove should be convicted of murder, manslaughter, or neither, they had to take into account:

  • whether Mary had been "quick with child," meaning that she had been able to feel the baby move and know that the baby was alive
  • whether she had gone to New York for the purpose of an abortion
  • whether she had consented to the abortion
  • whether Shove had indeed been the person who had perpetrated it

Much of this hinged on how much credibility the jury would give to the testimony of Mary's mother and of Dr. Belcher regarding what she had told them as she lay dying. Shove's attorney had brought forth many witnesses against the character of both Mary and her mother. Mary was described as a thief, a prostitute, and an arsonist. Both women were described of being of bad moral reputation and as utterly untrustworthy.

The judge told the jury that Martha Ackerly's credibility had been completely impeached, and hence, by implication, that they could discount anything she'd said. The judge also indicated that though Mary ordinarily would be considered of such bad character that they could dismiss her testimony as well, they could choose to give credibility to what she said on her deathbed under the presumption, common at the time, that people about to meet their Maker would want to do so having confessed all of their sins before doing so.

Some testimony also seemed to hinge on whether somebody had paid Mary's parents to make themselves scarce after Mary's death. The implication seems to be that the Ackerly family had been trying to blackmail Shove. Martha Ackerly said that Shove had given Mary some money, wages that had been due to her.

The defense arguments -- that Shove can't have been the one who had perpetrated the abortion because it had been done so sloppily, and that after all he was respectable and Mary and her family were disreputable and thus couldn't be believed -- worked. Shove was acquitted. The verdict was greeted with "a perfect thunder of applause" from the men in the courtroom who blamed Mary for her own death.

The Court of Public Opinion

Mary's tragic story was told in lurid detail in The Police Gazette. During Shove's trial, the defense played up Mary's sordid past and painted her as deserving of the agonizing death she suffered. News coverage -- particularly the in-depth coverage in The Police Gazette, painted Mary as a victim of her circumstances. The true villains of the story were Harry Nelson, who had led Mary down a path into prostitution, and Seth Shove, who had taken instruments in hand and finished the destruction that Nelson had started.


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