The Defiant Woman at the Center of New York's First Abortion BattleNews at Home
tags: New York City, abortion, womens history, Anthony Comstock
Alan Singer is a historian and professor in the Hofstra University Department of Teaching, Learning and Technology. He is the author of New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee: Essays on Slavery, Resistance, Abolition, Teaching, and Historical Memory (SUNY Press, 2018).
Caroline Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell
By a 6-3 vote in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) and eliminated a woman’s constitutional right to decide whether she wanted to terminate a pregnancy. Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, justified the decision in part by arguing that “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”
Alito’s historical argument was just wrong. Early termination of a pregnancy prior to “quickening” when a fetus’ movement could be felt by a pregnant woman, sometime between the fourth to sixth month, was both legal and common in the early years of the United States. The first state laws governing abortion date to the 1820s and 1830s and specifically addressed the use of “poison” to terminate a pregnancy after quickening. The first New York State law that criminalized abortion was enacted in 1827. It declared pre-quickening abortion a misdemeanor and post-quickening abortion a felony.
The distinction between terminating a pregnancy prior to quickening and after remained until the 1860s when male doctors and professional organizations like the American Medical Association, founded in 1847, moved to eliminate competition in caring for women from female health workers who practiced traditional folk medicine.
A major battleground in the 19th century war over abortion was New York City where Caroline Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, used traditional medicinal potions to help women who wanted to limit their family size or terminate an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy.
Restell was born in England in 1812 and moved to New York in 1831 with her husband and a child. When her husband died, she married Charles Lohman, a local printer, who published pamphlets on contraception and population control, and encouraged his wife to set up her traditional medical practice at 146 Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan. Starting with a notice in the New York Sun in March 1839, she began to widely advertise her services in the city’s daily newspapers. She offered folk remedies such as oil of tansy made from a plant and used since the European Middle Ages to terminate pregnancies and spirits of turpentine distilled from pine resin. If these remedies were unsuccessful, Restell provided surgical abortions on a sliding scale based on social class. As her clientele expanded, Madame Restell added other services. She operated a boardinghouse where women who chose not to terminate a pregnancy could deliver in anonymity, and she arranged for adoptions.
Classified advertisements, New York Herald and New York Sun, December 1841
TO MARRIED WOMEN. — Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate? . . . Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.
From 1839 to 1877, Restell was arrested at least five times, and she spent months in jail. In 1840, Madame Restell was arrested when the husband of a 21-year old woman named Maria Purdy, who had died from tuberculosis, accused her of poisoning his wife when she sought help to end an unwanted pregnancy. The woman had insisted that she was only three months pregnant, well within the legal period for terminating the pregnancy. Restell was charged with “administering to Purdy certain noxious medicine… … procuring her a miscarriage by the use of instruments, the same not being necessary to preserve her life.” In the local press, opponents of abortion accused Restell of being a “monster in human shape.” They charged her with “one of the most hellish acts ever perpetrated in a Christian land,” threatening marriage and motherhood, promoting immoral behavior and adultery, and encouraging prostitution. In her defense, Restell placed an ad in the New York Herald offering $100 to anyone who could prove that her medicinal potions were harmful.
The campaign against Restell was led by George Washington Dixon, publisher of the Polyanthos and Fire Department Album newspaper. At her initial trial, Restell was found guilty but the verdict was thrown out on appeal because Maria Purdy’s deathbed confession that she had aborted a fetus was ruled inadmissible. Restell was retried, but without Purdy’s statement, she was found not guilty. After her acquittal, Restell expanded her mail-order operation and opened new offices in Boston and Philadelphia. At this time, Restell was probably the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”
In 1845, the New York State legislature changed the law. It made any assistance in terminating a pregnancy at any time illegal and punishable by a year in prison. Under the new law, women who sought abortions could be sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine and three to twelve months in jail. In 1846, Dixon instigated a riot outside Restell’s Manhattan house where rioters chanted “Hanging’s too good for her!” and “This house is built on babies’ skulls.”
In 1847, Restell was arrested again when Maria Bodine, a woman she had assisted with an abortion, had post-operative complications and a physician reported Restell to the police. Bodine testified against Restell at the trial; she was found guilty of “misdemeanor procurement,” and sentenced to a year in jail. After her release, Restell promised not to perform any further surgical abortions but continued to supply women with folk medicines that would terminate an early stage pregnancy. At this point, Restell had become a prosperous local celebrity. She lived an ostentatious life style, moved into a mansion on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, applied for and received U.S. citizenship, and the mayor of New York City officiated at her daughter’s wedding.
Yet despite her celebrity, Madame Restell was subject to continual legal harassment. In February 1854, she was charged with a felony for illegally terminating a pregnancy and in July 1862 she was accused of arranging adoptions and being an abortionist. The 1854 case was sensationally covered on page 1 of the New York Times on February 14. A twenty-two year old young woman named Cordelia Grant charged her lover, George Shackford, with having abused her since she was sixteen. During that time Shackford alternated between identifying her publicly as either his wife or ward and he was now threatening to desert her. Grant claimed that she had become pregnant, “enciente” (sic), five times and that Shackford forced her to have an abortion each time. The “notorious RESTELL” was accused of performing three of the abortions at “No. 162 Chambers street.” On one occasion the baby may have been born alive and discarded. Restell’s husband, Charles Lohman, was named in the indictment as conducting the business end of the arrangement with Shackford. Charges against the defendants were dismissed on March 22, 1854 after Grant, who had testified under oath on February 22, fled the jurisdiction of the New York Courts under mysterious circumstances.
The 1862 case involved a woman who accused Mary Lohman alias Madam Restell of abducting her baby and demanded that the child be returned to her. Restell testified that she was a “midwife and female physician” who made arrangements for adoption of the infant at the request of the woman and that the woman “freely and voluntarily surrendered up” the infant. Eight months later the woman had Restell arrested, accusing her of abducting the child. The charges against Restell were dismissed when it became clear that the plaintiff had made several contradictory statements.
In 1872, New York revised its anti-abortion law and the penalty for performing an abortion was increased to between four and 20 years in prison. In 1878, Restell, now in her sixties, was targeted by Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. An 1873 federal law made it illegal to sell or advertise obscene material in mail including “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” The penalty for breaking the law was six months to five years in prison and a fine of $2,000.
As part of a sting operation, Comstock purchased pills from Restell claiming they were for his wife. He had Restell arrested and in a follow-up search of her 5th Avenue office, Comstock uncovered pamphlets about birth control and instructions on how to terminate a pregnancy. Restell charged that Comstock was supported by a male medical profession that wanted to eliminate her as a competitor so the doctors could enrich themselves at the expense of women and announced that she would expose them if she were brought to trial. But there was no trial. On April 1, 1878, Restell’s naked body was discovered in her bathtub. Her throat was slit and her death was ruled a suicide by the coroner.
On April 2, 1878, The New York Times reported on page 1:
The notorious Mme. Restell is dead. Having for nearly forty years been before the public as a woman who was growing rich by the practice of a nefarious business; having once served an imprisonment for criminal malpractice; having ostentatiously flaunted her wealth before the community and made an attractive part of the finest avenue in the City odious by her constant presence, she yesterday, driven to desperation at last by public opinion she had so long defied, came to a violent end by cutting her throat from ear to ear. The news startled the whole City. At first the announcement was looked upon as a hoax, but when it became known that her death had been officially communicated to the court in which she was about to be tried on an indictment found recently, doubt was removed, and the ghastly story of the suicide became the talk of everybody.
Caroline Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, defied 19th century male authority to provide women of all social classes with the ability to decide if they wanted to bear and raise a child. She did this by employing traditional folk remedies to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. She brought on media condemnation and ridicule because she refused to practice in the shadows despite legal harassment. She believed in a woman’s right to choose, and she chose to end her own life rather than going to prison for defending reproductive freedom. Ironically, her death led to rumors that it was staged and that she was still helping women terminate pregnancies.
In his Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito conveniently ignored women like Madame Restell and the early history of abortion rights in the United States. Not a surprise.
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