Thursday, May 23, 2024

May 23, 1929: A Suspicious Undertaker Uncovers an Abortion Death

 A Suspicious Undertaker

On May 23, 1929, 24-year-old Elizabeth Palumbo died at West End Hospital in Chicago. Dr. Amante Rongetti, age 46, signed a death certificate attributing her death to appendicitis. However, an undertaker thought that Elizabeth's death was suspicious and asked Coroner Herman Bundesen to investigate.

The coroner's physician, Dr. Thomas Dwyer, determined that Elizabeth's death had actually been caused by an abortion performed two days before her death. This led the coroner to launch an inquiry.

Dr. Bundesen released a statement saying, "Deaths resulting from criminal operations are almost invariably the result of wanton carelessness on the part of the operating physician. The quack who bungles this type of surgery and whose disregard of God and sanitation brings death to his victim is a murderer worse than a gunman."

I find it interesting that Dr. Bundesen assumed that most abortions were being performed by physicians. He said that the typical abortion doctor, upon noting that a patient is moribund from complications, will admit her to the hospital and perform an appendectomy so that he has a legal explanation for her death. 

The Widower's Story

Dr. Amante Rongetti
Elizabeth's husband, Anthony, told the coroner's jury that Elizabeth had been in pain since a previous criminal abortion. "Last Sunday night my wife complained of pains in her right side and I took her to Dr. Rongetti's offices. I had known of Rongetti through relatives and he had once treated me, saying I did not have tuberculosis but something 'close to T.B.'"

Tony went on, "He examined my wife and he told her she had acute appendicitis. He said, 'Yes, it is an acute case. I will have to take that appendix right out.' We didn't like the idea, the pain had been so severe. My wife told  him she expected to become a mother. He said, 'Well, I will have to take care of that, too.'"

Tony indicated that he took this to mean that Rongetti would have to perform an abortion in order to remove Elizabeth's appendix. He said that he and Elizabeth went home and discussed the situation and decided to go with Rongetti's recommendation.

The Operation

The next day the couple went back to Rongetti's office. Rongetti, Tony said, sent him home and took Elizabeth to the hospital himself. "On Tuesday morning he operated. I saw her Tuesday and she said she felt all right. I saw her Wednesday and she said the same, but she did not look well. On Thursday morning they called me and said she was bad. After I got to the hospital, they stalled for a while but finally told me she was dead."

Dr. Dwyer, who had performed the autopsy, attributed the death to abortion-related infection. He said that the incision Rongetti had made when he'd operated on Elizabeth was in the center of her abdomen, not in the location to perform an appendectomy. Dr. Bundesen and Dwyer both testified that there would be no need to perform an abortion in order to remove an appendix.

Investigation and Scrutiny

Rongetti was held by the coroner on June 12 for having perpetrated the fatal abortion. When the investigation ended, Rongetti vanished. He turned himself in on July 2 and was released after only a few minutes because he had arranged in advance for his attorney to bail him out.

Authorities also put West End Hospital under scrutiny, noting that on January 15 of that year the fire prevention engineer had cited ten violations there. The hospital's owner, Dr. Benjamin Breakstone, had himself been investigated by the coroner on other occasions.

Stalling and Acquittal

Rongetti managed to stall the trial for over a year. When the jury was chosen, jurors were required to pledge that if legally appropriate, they would sentence Rongetti to death.

However, he was acquitted after three ballots. The first stood 7 to 5 for acquittal but after three further hours of deliberation the five jurors voting for conviction were won over by the majority.

All of these goings-on surrounding Elizabeth's death took place while Rongetti was out on bail pending a new trial in the abortion death of Loretta Enders, for which he'd been sentenced to die in the electric chair. He won a new trial and Rongetti was found guilty of manslaughter in Loretta's death. He was out on bail in the Enders case when Elizabeth died.

The Medical Board's Verdict

The medical board did not agree with the jury in Elizabeth's case. They moved to revoke Rongetti's license while he was out on bail pending appeal of a manslaughter conviction. Their grounds were that he was under conviction for manslaughter, and that he had committed gross malpractice in the deaths of both Loretta Enders and Elizabeth Palumbo. Rongetti dragged the process out but did eventually lose his license.

Watch Second Death While Out on Bail on YouTube.


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