Tuesday, June 18, 2024

June 18, 1953: Dumped in the Bushes

 The Journey

In June of 1953, Bettye Porter, 24, lived in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband, Herbert, and their two children. This young black woman flew to Washington state with the boys, ages 11 months and 3 years, on June 14.

As Herbert, a young bartender, saw his family off, he had no way of anticipating what would follow. 

After arriving in Washington, Bettye Porter left her children with friend Anna Barzar in Tacoma. Bettye then went to Seattle on her own to visit friends there. Days later those friends called Herbert to tell him that his wife was missing. They hadn't seen her since June 18. Herbert contacted Seattle police and flew down himself.

The Grim Discovery

On June 29, Alfred and Dwight Aronson, ages 10 and 18 respectively, went out picking blackberries with their friend, 15-year-old Richard Hook. As they foraged near the south end of Midway Road near the Gig Harbor end of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, they spotted the body of an attractive young black woman. 

At around 5:20 pm, Deputy Sheriffs Chet Jones and E. E. Bathke arrived and took charge. Officers Lyle Lanthrop and Ed Dahl photographed the scene. The woman was fully clad, dumped face-down about 300 feet east of the south end of Midway road and 12 feet south of an old logging road.

Care had been taken to remove tags from the woman's expensive clothing before her body was dumped. Police theorized that this had been in an attempt to make her harder to identify. 

The person or persons who did this, however, didn't realized that police would be able to tentatively identify the body from fingerprints. Believing that the corpse was the missing Bettye Porter, they contacted Herbert. He was able to make a positive identification.

How Bettye Died

An autopsy concluded that Bettye had bled to death internally from a criminal abortion. She had been dead between 7 and 14 days. 

After an investigation, police arrested 34-year-old mechanic Norman Wade Austin. He was charged with attempted abortion, second degree murder for Bettye's death, and manslaughter for the death of her 5-months unborn child. Police concluded that he had perpetrated the abortion in a massage parlor he had recently opened in the Savoy Hotel at 1214 2nd Avenue.

The hotel's operator, Harry A. Howard, and 23-year-old Geraldine Lowe were charged with second-degree murder for their roles in arranging the fatal abortion. All three parties were held pending posting of $10,000 bail each.

Bettye's date of death was determined to be June 18.

And... That's All.

I can't find any evidence of a successful prosecution, just an article noting that by November of 1953, when they were arrested for running an auto-theft ring, Geraldine and Norman were identified as a married couple.

The fact that Bettye went to a lay abortionist made her choice highly unusual. 

Who performed abortions before legalization?

Mary Claderone (then Medical Director of Planned Parenthood) and Nancy Howell Lee (a pro choice researcher) both investigated the practice of criminal abortion in the pre-legalization era. Calderone estimated that 90% of all illegal abortions in the early 1960s were being done by physicians. Calderone further estimated that 8% were self-induced and that 2% were induced by someone other than the woman or a doctor. Lee estimated that 89% of pre-legalization abortions were done by physicians, an additional 5% by nurses or others with some medical training, and 6% were done by non-medical persons or the woman herself.

Calderone's numbers came from "43 men and women from the various disciplines of obstetrics, psychiatry, public health, sociology, forensic medicine, and law and demography." Lee interviewed women who had undergone pre-legalization abortions. The discrepancy between Lee's and Calderone's breakdowns of non-physician abortions is probably due to sampling errors.

Lee, who spoke with women who survived abortions, would of course not encounter women whose abortions killed them. Therefore she would not be exposed to the proportionate number of women who chose the most dangerous alternative. Lee's sample also included only willing survey participants, who would be more forthright and complete in divulging information, such as who really performed the abortion, than women being interviewed by health or law enforcement officials.

Calderone, on the other hand, spoke with those likely to see the botched and fatal abortions, and therefore they would be exposed to a higher percentage of the most dangerous, self-induced abortions. Also, Calderone's informants would have been investigating botched abortions that could be subject to a criminal investigation. Therefore, women speaking to them would be likely to withhold the true identity of their abortionists to protect them. Also, should the woman die, her family and friends might identify the woman herself as the abortionist, rather than admit their own roles in arranging or performing abortions, in order to close the investigation.

Anecdotal data tends to support Lee's research. Stories of abortions by midwives, orderlies, chiropractors, and assorted lay practitioners like Harvey Karman and the Jane Syndicate are far too common to represent only 2% of criminal abortions. We would probably not err too far if we relied primarily on Lee's numbers and adjusted them slightly to reflect the slight under-reporting of amateur abortions. Thus, a fair estimate of the breakdown of criminal abortions would probably look like this:

Additional sources: 

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