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More than a century before the women of Jane secretly ran their illegal service, Ann Trow Lohman ran a thriving and very public abortion and birth control business in New York City.
Lohman, a native of England who had immigrated to the United States in 1831, claimed to have learned to become a midwife from her grandmother. In truth, she may not have had any formal training. In the late 1830s, she hung out a shingle, called herself Madame Restell, and began advertising her Preventative Powders ($5 a package, for birth control) and Female Monthly Pills ($1 each, to restore missed menstrual cycles) in the local newspapers.
Customers bought her medicines by mail or came to her offices in New York—and later in Boston and Philadelphia—for a consultation or to arrange a surgical procedure. She also ran a boardinghouse for single women who were pregnant, helping them through the birth and then arranging adoptions for the babies, for a fee.
In her more than thirty years of practice, Madame Restell enjoyed an unusually lucrative business. She dressed in “elegant silks and costly furs,” news accounts noted, and traveled in a carriage with two handsome horses. She and her husband accumulated a fortune that exceeded a million dollars.
She also earned a nickname: “the wickedest woman in New York.”
In newspaper advertisements, Madame Restell boasted of her “experience and knowledge in the treatment of obstinate cases of female irregularity, stoppage, suppression.” But there were many others doing the same thing, part of a rush of women and men who took advantage of the growing newspaper industry to aggressively hawk solutions for late or missed menstruation beginning in the 1840s.
The services Madame Restell and others offered were as old as civilization. At least since the beginning of recorded human history, women have sought to regulate their childbearing or end pregnancies. The Kahun Papyrus, the oldest medical text known from Egypt, dating back to around 1850 BCE, includes a recipe for crocodile dung and fermented dough to prevent pregnancy. (Exactly how the concoction was used isn’t known.)
The Ebers Papyrus, another Egyptian medical scroll from around 1500 BCE, listed a formula “to cause a woman to stop pregnancy.” The ingredients included unripe fruit of the acacia tree, colocynth (also known as bitter apple), and dates. The mixture was to be moistened with honey to form a compound and inserted into the vagina.
The pills and powders that Madame Restell and others sold in the 1800s were somewhat less exotic but still relied on herbs and plants that were believed to somehow prevent a pregnancy or cause uterine cramping that resulted in miscarriage. (Some of them, unfortunately, were also poisonous and very dangerous.)
The potions often didn’t work, but Madame Restell and her competitors had plenty of customers, and in a time well before formal pregnancy tests, women had a window in which they could address their situation.
Where Babies Come From
Today, we know that human babies come from a female’s egg (or ovum) and a male’s sperm, which combine to form an embryo that splits and grows. But understanding that basic fact took thousands of years and relatively advanced technology. Early on, humans figured out that sexual intercourse could eventually result in new life. But many theories persisted throughout history about how that happened, virtually all of them formulated by men who had little understanding of women’s bodies. Here’s a short history:
Aeschylus (Greek, around 500 BCE), in keeping with ancient Greek myths in which male gods were the creators, proposed the men provided the seed and women were the field where the seed became a child.
Aristotle (Greek, 384–322 BCE) recognized that women stopped menstruating when pregnant and theorized that male semen and female menstrual blood mixed to create an embryo.
Galen (Roman, around 150 BCE), in a theory that hung on for hundreds of years, concluded that females were just men inside out, with ovaries matching testicles and a vagina being the reverse of a penis. He believed that embryos were created from male semen and female fluid or semen.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek (Dutch) developed a crude but powerful microscope in the 1670s, and in 1677, he used it to look at his own semen. There, he saw hundreds of tiny, swimming “animalcules” for the first time.
Scientists, building on van Leeuwenhoek’s work and influenced by their belief in a powerful God, concluded that minuscule fully formed humans existed in every sperm of a man and in the sperm of each of the fully formed humans in a man’s sperm and so on, like Russian nesting dolls in reverse. This preexistence or “preformation” theory was embraced from the late 1600s through the 1700s.
Lazzaro Spallanzani (Italian) took the opposite viewpoint after unusual experiments in the 1760s, in which he put tiny taffeta pants on frogs to see if the nattily attired fellas could fertilize frog eggs. When only the naked frogs were successful, he theorized that tiny humans were formed inside all of a female’s eggs and male semen only got the process moving. But no one knew for sure if women had eggs because no technology was available to actually see them.
Finally, Karl Ernst von Baer (Estonian) in 1827 discovered that all mammals have eggs, and in 1875, Oscar Hertwig (German) saw in his microscope the nuclei of sperm penetrate the nuclei of an egg and the two become one.
For much of history—from the ancient Greeks and early Romans, through the writing of the U.S. Constitution and well into the 1800s—a fetus wasn’t considered alive or human until the woman felt the fluttering of fetal movement, a stage called quickening. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church and Protestant churches considered quickening to be the point in a pregnancy when the soul entered the fetus.
Before quickening, the focus was on what was missing—a woman’s monthly menstrual bleeding—rather than what might be growing. After all, the absence of menstruation isn’t always a sign of pregnancy; malnutrition, stress, overwork, and any number of chronic diseases can result in females missing a period. If a woman was pregnant, though, her breasts may have become swollen and tender during those early weeks. She might have felt nauseous or unusually tired; her belly may have thickened. But the official proof of pregnancy was feeling the fetus kick, typically in the fourth or fifth month.
After quickening, aborting a pregnancy was a crime under common law, or law based on long-held understandings and court precedents rather than a written statute.
Starting in 1821 with Connecticut, however, some states began to include written laws restricting abortion as part of broad revisions to their criminal codes. Initially, the laws prohibited giving poisons to induce an abortion, a safety issue for women. Then, they became broader.
By 1840, ten of the nation’s twenty-six states had some kind of abortion law on the books. Not all of them made a distinction for abortions that happened after quickening, but courts and juries almost never convicted anyone of a crime unless it was after the woman had felt the fetus move.
Despite the written laws, abortion grew more common, so much so that abortion practitioners became, according to one historian, “one of the first specialties in American medical history.”
Madame Restell was at the forefront, in large part because of her advertising, which was once estimated at nearly $60,000 a year. But authorities also kept a close eye on her. In 1841, she was arrested, tried, and convicted of performing an abortion on a young woman who died of tuberculosis. She appealed and was acquitted in a second trial. She was tried again in 1847 for performing an abortion on a young woman named Maria Bodine.
Restell had urged Bodine to move in and deliver the baby. But Joseph Cook, a widower who employed her as his housekeeper and seduced her, had insisted she get an abortion. He eventually came up with the $75 that Restell charged her.
Newspapers closely followed the trial and its salacious details, especially since Bodine’s morals were on the stand as well. Bodine was quizzed in detail about changes to her body during the pregnancy, how often she had sex with Cook, and whether she had been a virgin before him. One attorney accused her of being a prostitute.
In her testimony, Bodine described Restell as a concerned and involved practitioner. Once she had been paid, Restell examined Bodine and likely punctured the amniotic sac to induce a miscarriage. Painkillers weren’t widely available, and antiseptics and antibiotics—to prevent or treat infections—hadn’t yet been developed.
After the procedure, Restell checked on her regularly over two days and spent the second night with her. Once Bodine miscarried, Restell took care of her for another two days and then gave the tearful young woman money for transportation home.
The jury was asked to find Restell guilty of manslaughter if Bodine was “quick with child.” But on the seventeenth day of the trial, the all-male panel found her guilty only of a misdemeanor, for procuring a miscarriage. Still, Restell was sentenced to a year in prison.
By 1848, news accounts were using a new synonym for abortion: “Restellism.”
Advertising and the wide availability of abortion providers had a profound impact: What had been fairly rare ten or twenty years before was now almost routine. Historian James C. Mohr estimated that in the mid-1800s, there was one abortion for every five or six live births among white women.
After the Civil War, a technological revolution expanded opportunities in growing cities, while making a living off the land grew tougher. Millions of people, including many single young women, moved from rural homesteads to expanding urban areas to find work. Many single women who became pregnant hurried to the altar with a male partner. But those who had been raped or were abandoned by boyfriends had few places to turn. If the pregnancy continued, they would lose their jobs and become social outcasts, bringing shame to themselves, their families, and their children.
In addition, more and more, white, Protestant, middle- and upper-class married women were looking to plan their pregnancies for health reasons, because they could not afford another mouth to feed, or to avoid the very real dangers of childbirth. On a farm, more children meant more workers. But in the cramped confines of city living, raising and feeding a large family was far more difficult. For help, they looked to abortion specialists when their birth control methods failed. At one point, the New York Times estimated that about two hundred lesser trained doctors operated in the city, handing out medicines—including fake ones—and inducing miscarriages.
Overall, the birth rate for American white women declined dramatically during the nineteenth century: In 1800, a typical woman bore seven children, though not all were likely to live to adulthood. By the 1860s, however, the average number of children delivered had dropped to close to five, and by 1900, it would fall to 3.5, half the number of the previous century.
The experience of black women, however, was very different, especially for enslaved women in the South. Many slaveholders looked at black women’s bodies as a source of free labor and often forced relationships or raped enslaved women to produce more children. Generally, enslaved women who bore children were considered more valuable than those who didn’t.
At the same time, the backbreaking work expected of the women, the lack of medical care and healthy food, and abusive treatment often resulted in miscarriages, premature births, and stillbirths. Those losses led some southern whites to conclude that enslaved women knew secret ways to manage their fertility.
Though the practice probably wasn’t as common as was assumed, some black women did use remedies such as cotton root or looked to a black midwife to end their pregnancies. In doing so, they were asserting some control over their own bodies—and perhaps hoping to avoid the heartbreak of having a child born into slavery or sold away from the family. But the birth rate for black women didn’t notably decline until after the end of the Civil War.
* * *
By the 1850s, easy access to abortion ran into fierce opposition from an unlikely source: medical doctors.
At the time, doctors who had trained at medical schools competed with many others with less formal training: botanic specialists, herbalists, homeopathic practitioners, midwives, and, of course, abortion providers like Restell, who sometimes called herself a doctor. To set themselves apart, medical doctors formed the American Medical Association in 1847 to establish expectations, create ethical standards, and oversee medical education.
The new organization gave a platform to Horatio Robinson Storer, a twenty-seven-year-old, ambitious Harvard University–educated doctor. In 1857, Storer started his medical practice in Boston, with an interest in obstetrics, like his father. His father opposed abortion because it was dangerous for women. The younger Storer, however, took a moral position: A fetus was alive and thus worth preserving, he argued, no matter how many children a woman was struggling to feed. Abortion, he wrote later, went against “nature and all natural instinct, and against public interests and morality.”
At the annual AMA convention that year, the young doctor urged like-minded delegates to take a stand against the practice. In response, the organization agreed to study “criminal abortion” and asked Storer to chair the effort.
Based on that work, the AMA and medical doctors took the lead in opposing abortion. Among their first steps, in 1859, was to declare that nothing scientific happened when a woman felt a fetus move, since the fetus had been growing and changing well before that. Doctors were dedicated to preserving life, even the beginnings of life. So, they argued, both doctors and the law should drop the distinction of quickening, ending centuries of practice and expectation.
That conclusion put the power of declaring a pregnancy in the hands of doctors, who were virtually all male and who had only recently focused on women’s health.
Following Storer’s lead, many doctors opposed abortion except to save the life of the mother and began to lobby for changes to criminal laws after the Civil War. In response, male legislators began to revise or enact dozens of laws criminalizing abortion at any time during pregnancy—even though many Americans, including jurors hearing the cases, were slow to accept that abortion was wrong before quickening.
Storer’s effort also paid off handsomely for the medical profession. With tougher abortion laws, the scientifically trained doctors over time ran many competitors out of business, including female midwives and abortion providers.
That gave doctors more control over women’s bodies just as women were beginning to speak up for their own rights, including the right to own property or vote. Under the laws in place in the 1800s, a wife was her husband’s property. He could beat his wife without breaking the law. He could ask for a divorce, but she often could not, nor could she get custody of her children, who belonged to the husband. He worked for wages, she raised children—and depended on him.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined up in the late 1860s to fight for a woman’s right to vote. But they also lobbied for a woman’s right to education and divorce. Stanton, in particular, was an advocate of “voluntary motherhood,” the right of a wife to say no to her husband and choose periodic abstinence. Allowing a woman a voice in a couple’s relationship was empowering and groundbreaking in itself. She also believed in “the sacred right of a woman to her own person,” including the right to have fewer children.
Storer and his AMA colleagues fought against women’s rights and waged an intense battle to prevent women from being recognized as doctors. From Storer’s viewpoint, women existed solely to marry and bear children. “This, as we have seen, is the end for which they are physiologically constituted and for which they are destined by nature,” he wrote in Why Not? A Book for Every Woman, published in 1866.
Storer and other antiabortion doctors also had another agenda: They worried publicly that white, Protestant, American-born women were choosing to have fewer children at a time when they should be having babies to counter an influx of immigrants.
Beginning around 1845, millions of Catholics moved to the United States from Europe. There was room in the nation’s expanding West and South for “countless millions yet unborn,” Storer wrote. “Shall they be filled by our own children or by those of aliens? This is a question that our own women must answer; upon their loins depends the future destiny of the nation.”
The doctors often invoked the name of God in their arguments, though Protestant clergy of the late nineteenth century were largely silent on the issue. In Catholicism, abortion was a sin, but it wasn’t considered murder until after quickening. That changed in 1869, when Pope Pius IX declared that ending a pregnancy at any time would lead to automatic excommunication from the church, reflecting a belief that all life was sacred beginning at conception.
* * *
Sidelined by an infection after surgery, Storer retired from his work in 1872 at age forty-two. But that very same year, Anthony Comstock joined the opposition for very different reasons. A deeply religious salesman, Comstock was shocked at the lewd pictures and books available around New York that other men seemed to enjoy. He was horrified to see advertisements in many New York newspapers for contraception—including a relatively new one, rubber condoms for men—as well as medicines aimed at women’s needs, which he thought were vulgar.
Comstock began buying what he considered obscene material at bookstores and reporting it to the police. Bookseller arrests followed.
Emboldened, he went to Washington in 1873 to lobby for a nationwide ban on sending indecent materials through the mail—including women’s pills and rubber condoms. He didn’t single out contraception and abortion. He just saw anything connected to sex and human reproduction as religiously and morally wrong, even if it was legitimate medical information.
Congress agreed. That March, it banned selling or advertising obscene material by mail—as defined by Anthony Comstock. His list included any products intended to prevent pregnancy or produce a miscarriage. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation, which became known as the Comstock Act.
The young crusader, a stocky man with thick red whiskers on his cheeks and a shaved chin, soon was named a special agent of the U.S. Post Office, which gave him enormous power to enforce the law. He wrote letters to birth control providers across the country, pretending to be a believer in free love or a desperate woman in need of help. Then, when they responded with products, he made or arranged arrests and sought convictions.
In his first two years attacking vice, he helped arrest more than a dozen abortion providers in New York City and Albany, New York. He also confiscated 130,000 pounds of books, almost 200,000 photos and “bad pictures,” more than 60,000 items made of rubber “for immoral purposes,” and more than 3,000 boxes of pills and powders.
Not satisfied with the federal law, he also lobbied for and won tougher laws in New York banning any drug, medicine, or article to prevent pregnancy or end it.
On January 28, 1878, Comstock, wearing his characteristic black suit and bow tie, knocked on the door of Madame Restell’s elegant New York home on Fifth Avenue at East 52nd Street. Comstock innocently asked her if she had any medicine to prevent conception.
The madam, now widowed and in her mid-sixties, brought him a sealed package that contained a bottle of dark liquid, some pills, and instructions. He asked if it would work. No medicine is perfect, she replied, but in nine cases out of ten, this was effective. The user must follow the directions, though, she said, or “it would be of no more use than so much chalk.”
If the medicine failed, she went on, the woman could come see her, though treatment would be expensive—$200.
Another customer knocked, and Comstock overheard a conversation from another room that would soon make shameful testimony. A married woman with children told Restell that she had been indiscreet while her husband was away and needed some medicine. Restell sold her some and returned to Comstock, saying, “A great many ladies come to me for this medicine.”
Comstock paid her $10 and left with his package.
He returned two weeks later with two officers in plain clothes and a warrant. The three searched her house, removing boxes of pills and powders, and arrested Restell. While Comstock alerted the city’s newspapers, Restell was moved to a local jail called the Tombs. She was held for a few days before returning home.
New York’s newspapers couldn’t get enough of the sensational story of one of the city’s best-known women and Comstock’s trap. But while the headlines buzzed, Restell agonized about a possible conviction and the possibility that she would spend her remaining years imprisoned. As a trial approached, she grew frightened and anxious, wringing her hands and pacing nervously.
On April 1, the day her trial was to begin, she rose before the sun and filled a tub with water. Once in the bath, she used a large kitchen carving knife to cut her throat from ear to ear. A housekeeper found her body that morning.
She was neither the first nor the last of Comstock’s victims to take her own life—though he had little concern about that. In his case notebook, he wrote in purple ink: “A bloody ending to a bloody life.”
Over the years, Comstockery, as it was dubbed, censored George Bernard Shaw’s plays, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and artists’ paintings of nudes. But more than anything else, Anthony Comstock’s personal moral code most deeply affected American women. His work drove basic information about reproduction and the practice of safe birth control and abortion underground and impacted women for close to one hundred years.
A Short History of Birth Control: Ancient Times to the 1870s
Probably the oldest and most common form of birth control (even today) goes by the funny name of coitus interruptus. That’s when a man withdraws his penis from a woman’s vagina before he ejaculates, in hopes of keeping his sperm from mating with an egg. It can work, but not reliably, and requires a woman to depend on a man’s willingness and discipline during sexual intercourse.
Because trying to restore menstruation before quickening was not considered an abortion, women, for thousands of years, used herbs and plants to either prevent pregnancy or bring on bleeding. Information was passed along woman to woman.
Among the most commonly used were aloes, birthwort, black cohosh, colocynth, cotton root, ergot, juniper oil (also known as savin), myrrh, pennyroyal, seeds of Queen Anne’s lace, rosemary, sage, tansy, and thyme. Some of these were poisonous and deadly in the wrong quantity.
Women also tried douches, or injections of water, vinegar, or other fluids into the vagina.
A woman who thought she had missed a period might insert a sharp object—like whalebone, a corset rib, or a knitting needle—through her cervix to her uterus to cause bleeding (and hopefully not puncture the uterus or cause an infection). In addition, nineteenth-century medical guides recommended lifting heavy objects, horseback riding, vigorous exercise, jumping from a modest height, and having a tooth pulled, on the theory that the shock could jolt the body into restoring menstrual flow.
Copyright © 2020 by Karen Blumenthal
Copyright © 1983, 1984 Bruised Oranges and Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC