Friday, November 18, 2022

November 18, 1942: Death Results in Conviction for Manslaughter

Summary: On November 18, 1942, 26-year-old Madylon "Betty" McGeehan, an OPA stenographer who had been living in Washington DC., died at Prospect Hospital in New York of peritonitis after an illegal abortion. Dr. Joseph Nisonoff was ultimately convicted of manslaughter in her death and sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison.

Betty McGeehan

Madylon "Betty" McGeehan was a Pennsylvania girl, born to Robert and Rita McGeehan in 1916 in the city of Hazleton, not far from Allentown. She and her younger siblings, Robert and Mary, were raised by their mother.

Betty was active on the high school yearbook staff and in the oratory club. She graduated from Hazleton High School in 1934.

In 1940 she was lodging with the Falwells family and working as a senior clerk typist at the DPA office in Hazleton. 

She left Hazleton in May of 1942 to take a job as a stenographer with the War Production Board in Washington, DC. She lived there with her sister, Mary. Her brother, Robert, was a Lieutenant in the Army stationed in Columbia, South Carolina. Her mother remained behind in their Maple Avenue home in Hazleton.

Harry Takes Charge

Henry Elters was a 28-year-old unemployed accountant from Hazelton. He and Betty, then age 26, had known each other for about seven years and had come to be known as sweethearts in their community. Though they'd sometimes checked into hotels together as husband and wife, Harry denied being responsible for Betty's pregnancy.

Harry testified that he had contacted Dr. Max J. Weinstein, age 37, on or about October 15. The young couple had known Weinstein socially for about four years through mutual friends. Elters told Weinstein that Betty was pregnant and they wanted to know "what might be done about it." Betty made the trip about a week later to keep the appointment. Weinstein confirmed that Betty was pregnant. Elters and Weinstein consulted by phone over the ensuing days about an abortion. Weinstein told Elters that  an abortion could be arranged and would cost about $150 (about $2,800 in 2022).

On October 23, Betty went to Dr. Kushner in Washington, DC. Kushner was a reputable OB/GYN and clinical professor at Georgetown University. The young woman gave her name as Mrs. Betty Elters and said that she'd come for prenatal care. Kushner found her to be about two and a half to three months pregnant and in good health. She paid him $20 (about $380 in 2022), which was  part of his fee for full obstetrical care.

Meanwhile Harry continued to make other appointments. That very day, Weinstein referred Harry and Betty to Dr. Lassman in Manhattan. The couple visited Lassman the next day but he refused to perform an abortion. Harry telephoned Weinstein to let him know. It was then that Weinstein referred the pair to 58-year-old Dr. Joseph Nisonoff. He provided Elters with the address of Nisonoff's 71st Street office, so they pair went there. The nurse told them that since Betty didn't have an appointment, Nisonoff couldn't see her. Elters went back to Hazleton and Betty returned home to DC.

Harry's Persistence, Betty's Reluctance

Harry didn't take any more action until November 7, when he called Weinstein to say that Betty "still wanted the abortion to be done" and asked Weinstein to see what he could do. He called again the next day and Weinstein gave him the address of Nisonoff's office in Queens and said that the abortion would cost $600 (over $11,000 in 2022).

Evidently Weinstein had told Harry that he'd make the arrangements, because it was he who called the Queens office and . He called at about 10:00 on the morning of November 10 and spoke to Nisonoff's nurse, Camille Ewald. Though not a registered nurse, Ewald had worked at the offices of Dr. Henschel and Dr. Lassman -- likely the same Dr. Lassman Betty and Elters had originally visited -- before going to work for Nisonoff. Weinstein said that he wanted to arrange an abortion and that the patient could pay $600. He also told Ewald that since Betty had been treated rudely by the nurse at the 71st Street office, he preferred that she be seen in Queens. Ewald told Weinstein that she'd have to consult with Nisonoff and to call back at noon. Weinstein did, and Ewald told him that Betty could be seen that afternoon. 

Betty and Elters went to Nisonoff's office as planned. He confirmed a healthy 10 or 11 week pregnancy. At that time, Betty balked at an abortion so Nisonoff referred her back to Weinstein. Weinstein called Nisonoff's office to commiserate, saying, "It is a shame to lose the patient. It was a nice fee."

Harry Elters and Weinstein also spoke by phone, lamenting the fact that Betty hadn't gone through with the abortion. When the two spoke again on November 11, Weinstein said that he'd made another appointment for Betty to have the abortion at 2:00 on the afternoon of November 13. He told Elters to bring Betty to his office first. 

The next day, November 12, Harry drove to DC in the afternoon and met Betty. He dropped her off at the railroad station at about 9:00 that evening, telling her that he'd meet her in New York the following day. He returned to Hazleton. 

The Abortion

On November 13, Elters drove from Hazleton to New York, picked Betty up at Pennsylvania Station, and drove her to Weinstein's office in the Bronx. He later testified that Betty told him that she'd had some bleeding and nausea and that she'd seen a doctor in Washington -- presumably about an abortion. It's entirely possible that even at this point in time, Betty still wanted to have her baby and was hoping she could convince Elters that she'd already gone through with one so that she could back out.

The trio drove from Weinstein's office to Nisonoff's office, arriving there at around 3:00 p.m. Weinstein told Ewald that Harry had the fee. Elters counted out the $600 to the nurse, and she handed it off to Nisonoff. She then told both men to return in about an hour and a half. Weinstein retreated to the waiting room, while Elters went out for a walk.

Camille Ewald helped Betty onto the procedure table, clipped her pubic hair, and administered a vaginal douche. Ewald said that the douche water came out clear, with no sign of blood.

Nisonoff came in and administered gas to put Betty to sleep. He inserted a speculum, which Ewald held down with her right hand. Nisonoff dilated Betty's cervix with instruments. He used an instrument to draw the uterus towards him, then used curettes and forceps for fifteen or twenty minutes as Ewald observed. She testified that he pulled out "meat and little bones and things like that, like bones from the hand and bones from the feet." 

During the abortion Weinstein poked his head into the room to check on the progress of the procedure. Nisonoff assured him that all was well. Then suddenly Nisonoff broke out in a sweat and blood spurted from Betty's vagina onto his eyeglasses. He asked Ewald to clean them and wipe his face, which she did. He seemed nervous, with his hand trembling. He quickly asked for iodoform packing so that he could pack Betty's uterus and vagina. Ewald brought the packing, Nisonoff packed the patient, and then Ewald helped Betty to get down off the table and walk to a couch to rest. 

The Aftercare Plan

Betty complained of abdominal cramping. Nisonoff asked Camille to take Betty with her to the home Camille Ewald shared with her two sisters on 42nd Street in Long Island. Ewald protested that there was no room for Betty in the three-room apartment, but Nisonoff persisted. Camille eventually agreed.

Harry returned to the office about 45 minutes after he'd left. He encountered Weinstein in the waiting room and asked how things had gone. Weinstein assured him that all had gone well. Harry went into the office and saw Betty lying on a couch, attended by Ewald. Weinstein told Harry that Betty was going to be taken someplace for aftercare. Harry stayed with Betty for about fifteen minutes then met Weinstein outside and drove him back to his office.

At around 5:00, Camille Ewald took Betty to her home in a taxi.

At around 7:30, Betty said that she was in pain. Ewald called around to find Nisonoff, finally getting in touch with him at around 8:00. She told him about Betty's pain and cramps. He told her to remove the packing, which she did.

Nisonoff called Ewald between 11:00 and midnight to ask how Betty was doing. Ewald said that she was still in pain, but her temperature and pulse were normal.


On the morning of Saturday, November 14, Ewald went to Nisonoff's office in Queens to report that Betty was still unwell and had spent a very restless night. She asked him to come and check on the young woman. They went to Ewald's apartment together. Betty was unable to pass urine so Nisonoff inserted a catheter. Ewald said that the urine contained blood and little clots.

The doctor and nurse went back to the office. Nisonoff called Dr. Spielman, saying that he'd operated on Betty, describing her condition, and asking why she was bleeding so much. He wondered if he had perforated her bladder. Nisonoff conveyed to Ewald that Spielman didn't think Betty's bladder was perforated because such an injury would have left her unable to get off the table. He asked Spielman to examine Betty, but he refused.

At around 2:00 that afternoon, Nisonoff went to Camille Ewald's apartment to check on Betty. He noted that her temperature and pulse seemed normal and wrote out a prescription for some medications, including morphine. Though he knew his patient as either Madylon McGeehan or Betty McGee, he wrote the prescription for "Ca. Ewald." He put Betty's correct age of 26, not Camille Ewald's age of 36, as the age of the patient.

Later that night Nisonoff called Ewald to check on Betty. Ewald told him that there had been no improvement in the young woman's condition.


On Sunday morning, November 15, Nisonoff called Ewald again for an update. She said that Betty's condition was deteriorating and asked him to come check on her. When he arrived he found that she had a fever and a rapid pulse. He told Ewald that they'd have to transport Betty to Prospect Hospital by ambulance. He called the hospital's owner to arrange for her to be admitted under the name "Betty McGee" and to receive blood transfusions.

Ewald called an ambulance that afternoon. Nisonoff agreed to reimburse her the $14 ambulance fee (around $265 in 2022). Betty was removed from Ewald's apartment on a stretcher by John Myers, the owner and driver of Forest Hills Ambulance Service, and his assistant. Camille Ewald rode in the back of the ambulance with Betty. 

Betty was admitted at 3:10 p.m.

Nisonoff wrote the following admission note:

November 15, name Betty, 26 years old, married, family and personal history negative -- except for a sacroiliac -- last menstruation two months ago. Present complaint, bleeding from the vagina and pain. Examination of the abdomen tender and rigid. Temperature 100.2, pulse 116. Respiration 20. Examination: external os open and bleeding. Uterus size 10 weeks, diagnosis incomplete abortion, probably peritonitis. Patient denies criminal interference.

A diagnosis of an "incomplete abortion" could apply equally to a miscarriage or an induced abortion. "Denies criminal interference" would be indicating a miscarriage.

Nisonoff arranged for Betty to have a day nurse and a night nurse to look after her. Camille Ewald remained with Betty until she'd received a transfusion.

Somebody contacted Harry Elters and let him know that Betty had been hospitalized.


On Monday, November 16, Betty received two more blood transfusions. Nisonoff phoned Dr. Alfred M. Hellman, a highly reputable ob/gyn Nisonoff had known for about twenty years. Nisonoff asked him to assist in Betty's care. He then called Weinstein and asked him to meet him outside the hospital at 3:00 because Hellman was going to examine Betty. 

Nisonoff and Camille Ewald picked Dr. Hellman up at his office at around 3:00 p.m. and drove to the hospital, where they found Weinstein waiting outside. Ewald and Weinstein remained in a waiting area for about twenty minutes while Hellman and Nisonoff went to see Betty.

During his trial Nisonoff testified that he'd told Hellman that Betty had come to his office on November 13 already in the process of expelling a fetus, which was partially protruding from her vagina. He asserted that he'd told Hellman that he had removed the remains of the fetus, and explored Betty's uterus to ensure that there were no retained tissues. Hellman, however, said that Nisonoff had not given him any medical history on his patient. Hellman found Betty to be " a desperately ill woman," clearly suffering from peritonitis -- and moribund.

Nisonoff dictated a letter to the Board of Health:

Joseph Nisonoff, 145 West 71st Street, New York, Phone, Susquehanna 7-4457

November 16, 1942.


This is to inform you that Mrs. Betty McGeehan is under my care at the Prospect Hospital, 730 Kelly Street, diagnosis, incomplete abortion and probable pelvic peritonitis or double salpingitis.

Respectfully yours,

J. Nisonoff

The End Draws Near

On the morning of Tuesday, November 17, Betty received last rites.

Harry Elters called Nisonoff later that day to ask if he could see Betty. Nisonoff told him to come by the office and he could go to the hospital with Camille Ewald. While Harry waited for the nurse to come to the office, Nisonoff told him to make sure he told Betty to say that she'd had the abortion performed somewhere else and to say that Nisonoff had not performed it.

Ewald arrived at the office and she and Harry drove to the hospital together. They spent about half an hour with Betty. As the two left the hospital they met Nisonoff outside on the sidewalk. Harry asked for a prognosis and Nisonoff told him that Betty was going to die. He stressed to Harry that it was very important that he not talk about the matter.  He urged Harry to go back to Hazleton and act normally and say that he'd not seen or heard from Betty for about a year. Camille Ewald testified that Nisonoff also told Harry to deny ever having seen any of the parties involved in the abortion -- not Weinstein, not Nisonoff, and not Ewald -- or they would all go to jail. He had Harry get the phone number for Betty's mother.

Harry then went to Weinstein's office, where Weinstein told him not to say that he'd accompanied the young couple to Nisonoff's office.

Rather than returning to Hazleton, Harry left for Baltimore.

Meanwhile Nisonoff and Ewald returned to the office. Nisonoff called Rita McGeehan, telling her that her daughter was very ill at Prospect Maternity Hospital and that she should meet him at his office and they'd go to the hospital together.

Betty's Death

Betty breathed her last at 7:05 on the morning of Wednesday, November 18, 1942. Nisonoff wrote out the death certificate in the name of Betty McGee:

I hereby certify that I attended the deceased from November 15, 1942 to November 18, 1942 and last saw her alive at 6 A.M. on November 18, 1942. Statement of cause of death is based upon - principal cause of death: general peritonitis. Date of onset: November 16th; contributory cause of death: incomplete abortion.

Later that morning Nisonoff told Camille Ewald that Mrs. McGeehan had gone to the hospital and that Betty had died. She said that Nisonoff also told her to say that Weinstein had done the abortion in his office then called Nisonoff, who had arranged for hospitalization. She said she was also to say that she lived on 61st Street, with Nisonoff's niece, Pearl Davis Tense, who was also his nurse at the 71st Street office.

The Investigation Begins

Detective Thomas M. Farrell went to the hospital to investigate Betty's death. Noting that Nisonoff had signed the death certificate he phoned him and asked him about the circumstances. Nisonoff told him that he'd been called in by Weinstein for a consultation and provided Weinstein's address at 1684 Macombs Road in the Bronx. Detective Farrell then went to the Fordham Morgue and observed the autopsy performed by Dr. Louis Lefkowitz, Assistant Medical Examiner. (Lefkowitz died suddenly and unexpectedly on March 6, 1943, a few days before Nisonoff's trial began.)

Dr. Lefkowitz noted in the autopsy:

Lying at the brim of the pelvis, free in the peritoneal cavity, between two coils of intestine is a portion of a foetus, which consists of the lower three cervical vertebrae, all the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the ribs of the left side, and some loose tissue. The ribs on the other side, and the head, are absent. This specimen measures about 3 inches in length and is mangled. 

On the anterior surface of the uterus about 1/2 inch below the uppermost portion of the fundus is an irregular perforation, which readily admits the index finger; measures about 1/2 to 3/4 inches in diameter. It is roughly round in shape; the edges are necrotic, and ragged and from there protrudes some blood-clot. The perforation above-described penetrates the entire thickness of the anterior uterine wall, and there is some adherent placenta and membranes at the right fornix of the uterus. The remaining portion of the fundus of the uterus seems to be denuded of endometrium. There is some subendometrial haemorrhage in the internal os, which is dilated and readily admits a finger-tip. The walls of the uterus are soft and oedematous.

After observing the autopsy Detective Farrell went to Weinstein's office to question him about the first time he'd seen Betty McGeehan. Weinstein gave the detective a card that read "Betty McGeehan -- November 15, 1942, vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain, rapid pulse, Dr. Nisonoff called on consultation, admitted to Prospect Hospital."

Weinstein's Story

Weinstein told Farrell that he'd gotten a phone call from Betty on November 15, requesting a consult for vaginal bleeding. He had told her that he didn't have Sunday office hours, but she insisted on being seen so he told her to meet him at his office at 11:30 that morning. When Betty arrived she was accompanied by "Henry Eltus," a man Weinstein had known for about four years. Weinstein said that due to the bleeding he did not do a vaginal examination but did take her vital signs before recommending that she see a gynecologist. He suggested Nisonoff. Nisonoff was at the wedding of his niece, Pearl Davis, who also worked as his receptionist. Weinstein managed to get hold of him and arrange for him to come and examine Betty. Nisonoff arrived at around 1:00 that afternoon, preformed a thorough examination, and recommended that Betty be hospitalized. Weinstein said that Nisonoff took Betty to Prospect Hospital in a taxi.

Weinstein told Farrell that he'd gone to the hospital on the 16th to consult with Nisonoff , who had told him that Betty was very ill. Weinstein said that the next time he'd gone to the hospital was Wednesday morning, only to learn that Betty had died.


At the time of Berry's death, Nisonoff was out on $2,500 bail after being charged with performing another abortion, which the woman had survived. He had been arrested and freed on another abortion charge in 1930. 

Nisonoff and Camille Ewald were arrested at his apartment at 110 Riverside Drive on November 25. Camille Ewald told the authorities that her boss was a professional abortionist who perpetrated between 20 and 25 abortions per week, which earned him $2,500 to $3,000. This seems a bit off, as Elters reportedly paid $600 for Betty's abortion while if Camille was telling the truth Nisonoff would have been charging an average of only about $100 - $150 for an abortion.

During six hours of questioning, Nisonoff denied any knowledge of Betty's death. Nevertheless, he was arrested for homicide. The Assistant District Attorney asked that Nisonoff's bail be set at $150,000 because he was considered a flight risk. 

Pearl Tense, age 22, had fled to Texas but was tracked down, arrested, and held on $2,500 bail. 

Harry Elters was harder to track down. He was eventually located, arrested, and held on $15,000 bail.  The manslaughter charge was dropped and he was held as a material witness on $10,000 bail. 

The case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney James Carney. The indictment charged that Nisonoff, Weinstein, Pear Davis Tense, and Camille Ewald committed an abortion on Betty on November 13, 1942. At the beginning of the trial charges against Pearl Tense were dismissed at the request of the District Attorney. 

Conviction and Sentencing

Assistant District Attorney Francis X. O'Brien asserted that Nisonoff failed to provide any care to Betty as she lay dying because he was attending the wedding of his niece, who was also his secretary.

Joseph Nisonoff was sentenced to 5 - 15 years in state prison. Max J. Weinstein was sentenced to New York City Penitentiary for an indefinite term. On May 21, 1943 New York Supreme Court Justice Louis A. Valente granted a Certificate of Reasonable Doubt and Nisonoff and Weinstein were released on bail. 

A primary grounds for the appeal was that the Medical Examiner who had performed the autopsy and signed off on the report, Dr. Louis L. Lefkowitz, had died before the trial and thus could not be cross-examined by the defense. The city's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Thomas A. Gonzales, testified based on the autopsy report.

In spite of wrangling, Nisonoff's conviction stood.


As a result of the McGeehan case, the New York District Attorney's office began investigating other possible abortion rings in the city.

Betty's death and the subsequent investigation were covered extensively in New York, but not in her hometown newspaper. In fact, one obituary indicates that she died in Washington, D.C. of pneumonia rather than in New York. 

After her death under a false name, Betty was correctly identified by her sister, Mary, who had come came from the family home at Hazleton to claim Betty's body.

Betty was buried in Saint Gabriel Roman Catholic Cemetery in Hazleton.

Watch Betty's Deadly Journey on YouTube.


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