Saturday, February 11, 2023

February 11, 1879: "I Was Almost Paralyzed With Horror."

 On February 11, 1879, 65-year-old Henry Sammis of Northport, Long Island, got a dispatch from Inspector Murray of the Brooklyn police to go to Brooklyn immediately. His daughter, 21-year-old Cora Sammis, a Sunday School teacher from Northport, Long Island, was deathly ill.

Mr. Sammis, a coal and lumber dealer, boarded the next train with his wife. About halfway to New York, he got a copy of the morning paper. There he read that his daughter had already died from the results of a botched abortion.

"I was almost paralyzed with horror, and count not believe the story to be true," he told the New York Herald. Fearful of upsetting his wife, Mr. Sammis kept his composure. Pretending to be adjusting the window on the car, he let the newspaper fly.

Once they got to the home of Mr. Sammis's sister, he broke the news to his wife. Leaving her in the care of friends, he went to the police station and was given the address where his daughter had died: 161 East 27th Street. It was the elegantly appointed premises of "Mme. Bertha Burger, doctress and midwife."

"The old man's eyes were red with weeping" as he left the police station. He was escorted to the dingy, unventilated upstairs front room where Cora, "clad in a blue merino wrapper, lay on the bed on which she had died."

Cora had been a lovely girl, with "luxuriant dark brown hair." But when her father saw her body, "Her features had become so shrunken and emaciated that he hardly knew her. He stooped and kissed her forehead, and, controlling himself, arose and looked at her for a long time in silence.

The police asked him about 27-year-old Frank Cosgrove. Mr. Sammis said that the family knew him well. He had been courting Cora for about two years, and the couple had become engaged and had planned to marry before the spring. Cosgrove, who worked in the shipping business, had seemed to have honorable intentions, and Cora had seemed to be of a chaste disposition. A resident of Newport said, "She was the last girl in the village that I could have suppose could be tempted."

However, in November of 1878, Cora had gone to Brooklyn to visit her aunt, and Cosgrove spent a lot of time in her company. Her parents believed that it was during this time that the liaison took place which had resulted in Cora's pregnancy.

Cora's body was taken to the coroner's office, where an autopsy was performed "which showed conclusively that death had resulted from malpractice."

Cora's aunt, Mary D. Betts, testified that Cora and her "alleged seducer," Frank Cosgrove, had met at her house on February 4. The couple had left, saying that they were going to visit friends. Cora and Frank instead went to the home of 35-year-old Bertha Berger.

About two hours after they arrived at the house, Berger perpetrated the abortion. Cora was to convalesce there but instead grew increasingly ill. Cosgrove, who sat up with Cora every night, grew more and more worried. He found an ad for Dr. Whitehead, who advertised that he practiced midwifery. Frank went to him on February 10 and offered him $100 (around $2,600 in 2021) to take over Cora's care. Frank was open with Dr. Whitehead about why Cora was ill. Whitehead insisted that they stop at his attorney's practice first. The lawyer told Whitehead that he had a duty to attend to the young woman because her life was in danger.

Upon examining Cora, Whitehead found that she had a raging fever from a uterine infection. He declared that the case was hopeless. He provided what care he could to the young woman and promised to return the following day. Berger offered him $50 to provide a death certificate but on the advice of his attorney Whitehead refused, instead notifying the authorities.

The following day, police went to Berger's house to question Cora, who was told that she was dying. With frequent rests and occasional sips of iced brandy she was able to give a deathbed statement, occasionally stopping "to lament her unhappy fate." As the detective bent close to hear her, Cora clasped him and asked him to pray for her and to "Spare my Frank." Her primary concern was that no harm would come to her fiancé.

Cora said that she and Frank had rented the room for the express purpose of having Berger perpetrate the abortion. When Berger was brought into the room Cora positively identified her as the abortionist.

In fact, the Berger house was an abortion house. All but one of the other occupants of the house were arrested along with Berger. Those arrested included Berger's 17-year-old married daughter, and two 18-year-old young women who had been briefly boarding at the house. Police also learned that a young woman named either Margaret or Mary Steele had undergone an abortion at the Berger house and had been moved to "a wretched hovel" where Mrs. Berger's mother, Mrs. Riesler, was supposed to be caring for her but evidently hadn't even been giving her food. 

Cora was so sick that she was not troubled with a pointless transfer to a hospital. Instead, her aunt Mary was brought to her to stay with her. By then, around 9:00 p.m., Cora had slipped into unconsciousness. She died later that night.

When police searched the premises they found instruments consistent with an abortion practice.

Berger was held on $10,000 bond and Cosgrove on $5,000. He confessed shortly after his arrest, admitting to having both arranged and witnessed the fatal abortion. He was bailed out by his father and uncle. 

Berger and Cosgrove were granted separate trials. Berger's trial was a media circus played to crowds of gawking onlookers. Berger's attorney asserted that it had actually been Dr. Whitehead who had perpetrated the fatal abortion. He had, in fact, been convicted himself for abortion several times in the past, a point that Bertha Berger's attorney harped on extensively, calling him a convict, a coward, an "experienced malpractitioner," and "the prince of butchers." Cora's deathbed statement, along with the testimony of the other denizens of Mrs. Berger's abortion house, was sufficient. The jury retired at 5:00 p.m. to deliberate and returned at 11:10 with a verdict of guilty. They did, however, make a request for mercy in sentencing the woman. This last had been a concession to the two holdout jurors to get to an agreement. Berger's attorney immediately asked that sentencing be postponed until he could file motion for a new trial, and the judge agreed. Berger was eventually sentenced to 12 or 14 years -- sources aren't consistent. She then was granted the right to a new trial but instead just entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to five years in March of 1880.

After Berger's trial, Frank Cosgrove pleaded guilty as an accessory, which could potentially carry as severe a sentence as being the principle. His case sat in limbo, and Cosgrove in a prison cell, as his well-connected friends tried to get him released. In July of 1879 he finally ended up in Sing Sing, sentenced to four years. He requested time off for good behavior. His sentenced was reduced and he was released on time served in July of 1881.

Whitehead was sentenced to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine. 


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