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Illegal operations: women, doctors, and abortion, 1886-1939.

On 9 July 1919 Sarah Robins, mother of three small children, died in Vancouver General Hospital, her septic poisoning the aftermath of a bungled abortion. In the dying declaration which the doctors extorted from her, Robins left an agonizing portrayal of the last days of her life. My trouble started with going to a doctor in Vancouver, Dr. Thomas Vernon, Lonsdale Avenue, North Vancouver ... I was told of him by a Mrs. Peters, Denman St., West End, Vancouver. I saw him last Friday week. I told him I was six weeks overdue in menstruation. I asked him if he could do anything for me and if there was any risk. He asked me who my husband was, and said he charged $100 and there was no great risk as he did eight and ten a day. I went home and my husband implored me not to go. I went the next day Saturday with $75 and told him that was all I could afford. He told me he would not do it. I cried to him and eventually he did. I was ill on Saturday night and the Sunday and the Monday I phoned him. He said he did not remember me. When I asked him what to do for the pain in the abdomen, he said "Better get used to it," said "Take a hot soap-suds douche" which I did. Continued sick as ever. I went to see him on Wednesday. He felt my pulse and said I would get along alright. On Thursday at 4 o'clock in the morning my husband phoned him and demanded him out at once. My husband met the six o'clock boat. He came and curetted me and douched me without anaesthetic.(1) A few days later Sarah Robins was dead. Women seeking to control their fertility have had recourse, as far back as it is possible to trace, to abortion. Such a "back-up method" of fertility control was essential given that until the 1930s coitus interruptus was the main means of contraception.(2) Demographic historians and historians of the family have gone so far as to speak of an abortion "epidemic" occurring in the western world at the turn of the century, when the rate of induced miscarriages rose to account for perhaps one-sixth of all pregnancies.(3) Because such risky strategies were labelled "crimes" it is difficult to analyze the obviously important question of why so many women adopted them. The decisive role played by the medical profession in both North America and Britain in the increased restriction of the law on abortion does not have to be pursued here.(4) It suffices to say that the criminalization of abortion in the nineteenth-century meant that neither those who sought to induce their miscarriages nor their accomplices wanted their activities made public. Court reports are accordingly especially valuable for researchers attempting to trace the history of such practices, spotlighting as they do the fact that abortions were not carried out in isolation; they were social acts the investigations of which reveal the particular nature of the relationships of women like Sarah Robins with their male partners, their friends, their doctors, and ultimately the judiciary. The main purpose of this paper is to use legal sources to explore the decision to abort in the last decades of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century, an era in which the state and the professions took an unprecedented interest in the fertility control decisions of ordinary women and men. As the pressures to limit fertility increased and recourse to abortion rose, the criminal nature of the act necessarily tainted the relationships of women, men, doctors, and magistrates. The fate of women burdened with unwanted pregnancies, whose well-being was most placed at risk by the law, is the chief concern of what follows. A subsidiary preoccupation of this paper is to investigate the law-induced biases inherent in the sources which the historian of abortion necessarily employs--the court records. The study exploits the strikingly graphic and intimate information generated by inquests and trials concerning one hundred British Columbian women who, between 1886 and 1939, attempted to induce a miscarriage. The woman who merely sought as well the woman who succeeded in inducing her own abortion, those who assisted such women, and anyone who directly procured an abortion were all, according to Canada's Revised Statutes of 1892, guilty of an indictable offense. But the same statutes held that doctors were not liable for inducing a miscarriage which in their opinion was necessary to protect the life of the mother.(5) The same sorts of laws were in force in the United States and Great Britain. To whom could women turn, in whom could they confide, when a crisis like the need to terminate a pregnancy occurred? How did their female friends, their male partners, their doctors, and finally the courts respond? The great value of the legal documentation is that it contains rare accounts of women and men forced to talk of interactions that would normally have been cloaked in silence, hidden from history. But before plunging into an investigation of such sources some provisos are in order. The first pertains to the women whose stories we are told. Abortions usually only came to the attention of the authorities when something went tragically wrong; in three quarters of our cases the woman had died. Since courts tended to hear only about unsuccessful attempts at abortion the women whose fates they discussed were usually the most unfortunate, desperate and unlucky. But such women represented only a small fraction of those who sought to terminate a pregnancy; the many more successful attempts at induction of miscarriage necessarily escaped public scrutiny.(6) Moreover it has to be kept in mind that the courts often consciously played up the dangers of abortion with the obvious intention of policing female sexuality. Repeated reports of deaths due to illegal operations served as a chilling reminder to all women--both married and unmarried--of the fate of those who sought to free themselves from an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy. The second point to be made about the law-induced bias of the sources is that while they exaggerated the unfortunate fate of women who aborted they minimized the role of the men involved. The only single men who emerge from the records are those few who, failing to abscond, became entangled in the law. The courts generally refused, for reasons which will be explored, to hold husbands responsible for their wives' abortions. The third point to be kept in mind is that doctors' involvement in abortion was also likely to escape full judicial scrutiny. For an illegal operation even to be brought to light usually required medical testimony. When a case threatened the reputations of their hospital or their colleagues many doctors' natural response was to look the other way. Quacks and the occasional maverick physician, who failed to enjoy collegial support, ran the greatest risk of bring reported. One final proviso. Although witnesses swore to tell the truth, the "truth" was only recognized by the court when expressed in a language that it found acceptable. The legal records were written by and for lawyers; all those involved knew or were soon instructed on what they had to say. Only by constantly reading between the lines can one tease out something of the "actual" experiences of the actors from the ritualized assertions recorded in the transcripts. Turning at last to our sources, the first question to be asked is why did women seek recourse to abortion? Abortion was, of course, not the first line of defense against unwanted pregnancies, but evidence came out in court that at the turn of the century reliable contraceptive protection was for many simply not available. Condoms were expensive and unreliable. Peter Adams who courted Kitty Morris in 1895, knowing she was afraid of becoming pregnant, promised to obtain contraceptives. "I told her I would buy a French protector, I then went to the Doctor and bought one and I showed it to her ... she examined it and said too thin may break and I want none of that."(7) Some women douched with "Zycol" which was, a doctor explained, similar to "Lysol." "It is a disinfectant and women use it as a means of the prevention of conception."(8) And if all else failed celibacy could be tried. When in 1901 Sarah MacDonald and her husband decided they could not afford to have any more children they simply abstained from intercourse.(9) The fact was that prior to World War Two most Canadian couples hoping to contracept employed the age old method of coitus interruptus. In the absence of reliable means of contraception "accidents" inevitably occurred and couples intent on limiting fertility then had to contemplate recourse to abortion.(10) Why would women be so determined to avoid childbearing as to risk the dangers of abortion? Some contemporary commentators accused them of acting irrationally. "Well it is surprizing," retorted one doctor, "the number of times it is done by people who have absolutely no reason in the world for doing it, other than the fact that they don't want to have another child."(11) Such middle-class male commentators failed to realize what a burden pregnancy could pose. When it came to listing motives for recourse to abortion economic need was, for the married, always paramount. Mary Barnett stated in her dying declaration, "My husband and I want to get it done because we were so hard up and we were out of work."(12) "We agreed we did not want any children" declared Henry Diederichs, "because we could not afford it."(13) Rosaria Silletta had three children and did not want any more.(14) Diana Baker had six under the age of twelve.(15) Alice Nixon had lost two children, but still had six living.(16) Some women could not envisage bearing another child; a few had been warned by doctors that it would be dangerous. In 1886 Annie Emberly told a friend, "that she thought she was pregnant and that she was going to take medicine if she could get it by any means ... that she would never have another child as it would kill her."(17) The public tended to imagine that most women seeking abortion were single victims of seduction and abandonment, but the "typical" case which emerges from the early twentieth-century inquest and court records is that of the married woman in her mid-twenties. Many were already mothers. They turned to abortion, not to postpone having children, but to limit their number.(18) For the single or separated abortion was at first glance apparently not so much linked to family planning as motivated by the desire to protect one's reputation. Real desperation was evident in the 1896 case of Sarah Rosenzweig, a divorced mother who, believing herself pregnant, first sought an abortion and then drowned herself.(19) Jennie Quinlan, who died in 1919 as a result of trying to abort with a catheter was presumably seeking to hide her pregnancy from her overseas husband.(20) Edith Niemi, a single Finnish maid, did not want her employer to know of her condition.(21) Nellie Rae died in 1926 of a miscarriage induced "to relieve herself of a pregnancy produced by a man who had raped her."(22) The age and marital status of the women seeking abortion have been regarded by researchers as important because from such facts one can infer motive. The presupposition is that a young, single woman would have been motivated by a desire to protect her reputation; a married woman by the need to limit family size. But a close examination of the court files reveals that the motivations of the married and the single could not always be clearly separated. In 1920 Agnes Michaels became pregnant and sought to abort while her husband was away.(23) In 1923 Annie Mulvaney, who was separated from her spouse, sought to terminate her pregnancy.(24) Hazel Snowden, whose husband was an inmate of the New Westminster asylum, took similar action.(25) An unexpected pregnancy could, in short, pose as great a threat to such married women's reputations and well-being as it did to the unmarried's. Who provided women with abortions? Women often refused to implicate third parties and despite incriminating evidence insisted that they had induced their own miscarriages. In some cases while admitting the assistance of others, women attempted to protect those who tried to help, feeling that they were not to blame. Margaret Roberts, though dying, refused to give the name of her abortionist because she did not want to be responsible for sending to jail a woman who had three children.(26) But doctors and police were for their part often intent on tracking down accomplices. Keeping in mind that the involvement of others was difficult to trace the one hundred cases reveal the following: self-induction was claimed in twenty-seven, the aid of an abortionist or supplier of drugs was admitted in fifty-one, and no clear determination was made in sixteen. Attempts at self-inducement were no doubt common. A nurse was told in 1913 by Nellie Andrews that she had precipitated her own abortion. "She said she'd used a

catheter that day and I told her she couldn't do it and do it properly. Then she said I have done it before about a year ago and it brought on an abortion."(27) The use of instruments was by all accounts the leading method of abortion. The women would squat and with the help of a mirror insert in the cervix a catheter, speculum, sound, pencil, bougie, needle, crochet or button hook. The second most important method was consumption of pills or drugs containing such irritants and emmenagogues as quinine, aloes, or ergot; the third, douching by syringe or enema bag with lysol, carbolic acid, turpentine or simple soap and water; and the fourth dilation of the cervix by inserting slippery elm or packing the vagina with cotton batten. In 1930 one Canadian researcher found that out of a sample of seventy-one self-inductions forty-seven were by vaginal insertion, twenty by drugs, and four by vaginal douches.(28) Many of the women had previously aborted successfully. A witness testified that Marjorie Coffin, who died in 1935 after employing a hot water douche and slippery elm, said "this is the sixteenth time and someone told me I would do it once too often."(29) All methods practised outside a hospital setting were dangerous. Infection--either peritonitus or septicemia--accompanied by the tell-tale chills and fever was the primary cause of death. Hemorrhaging due to rupture of the uterus and drug toxicity also took their toll. Vascular accidents--occurring when air or soapy water which having been pumped into the uterus, penetrated and obstructed an artery--became more common after World War Two. Coroners consistently used abortion death inquests as occasions to call for tighter restrictions on the sale of patent medicines that could be used to induce miscarriage.(30) But women could always try common household supplies such as castor oil, Beecham's Pills, and epsom salts which they had at hand before turning to such compounds as "Dr. Hunt's Female Pills," "French Female Pills" and "Nadruco Female Regulating Pills." Dr. F.C. Curtis said of abortifacients: "Anyone can get them, they are patent medicine.... It is said in the advertisement that they are used for regulating monthly flow but really and truly they ... are intended to bring about abortion." At the same trial a druggist described the policing of ergot and savin: "They both come under Schedule A of the B.C. [British Columbia] Pharmacy Act and must be signed for by the parties purchasing them ... Under the Act we are entitled to sell them on signature but very few drug stores will sell them even on a signature."(31) Nevertheless a herbalist shop in downtown Vancouver was a well known outlet for such products. If self-induction failed outside help would be sought. Eighteen year old Josephine Stearns had learnt of abortion, so her mother reported, from school mates.(32) Single women usually appeared to be especially reliant on their male partner's assistance, often not being able to tell friends or family of their predicament. Married women, who enjoyed more extensive networks of support, first turned to relatives and neighborhood female friends.(33) Alice Peters recalled at the 1919 inquest into the death of her neighbor Sarah Robins a conversation they had had two years previous about limiting family size. ... she said "We are not so wise as you." I said "Wise, I don't know I am sure--I have four. I don't know what you call wise," and she said if I did anything and I said nothing whatever. And she said "I am sure you do" ... she told me before the child was born she had been to Seattle to have an operation performed but they wanted far too much, $250. I said to her, "Why I understand that they did these operations right here in Vancouver."(34) Annie Woodward in 1910 finding herself several weeks late went to buy ergot pills, "Mrs. Sumner's Remedies," and a package of womb tonic from a shop on Vancouver's Keefer Street. Annie Mason, the clerk, referred Woodward to a Mrs. Matthews who in turn put her in contact with a Richard Beveridge. Beveridge offered to perform an abortion for twenty-five dollars.(35) In 1915 Concuilla Kappel reported her attempts at aborting to a Mrs. Reed, who told her to take pennyroyal. It did no good and she was scared her people would find out that she was married. Mrs. Reed told her of a doctor in Vancouver who did that sort of thing and gave her a letter written in German.(36) In this fashion Kappel met "Dr." Joseph Kanstrup, a massage parlor operator. Women had abortionists recommended to them by others who had availed of their services. Sisters and sisters-in-law helped out. Female friends and neighbors knew what was going on and kept tabs on those in distress. In 1920 Harriet Brown testified that she was aware of the five occasions on which Dr. Bamberg had visited Agnes Michaels.(37) When such cases came to court women were in general far more candid than men--more so even than husbands--in admitting to knowing of their neighbors' attempts to terminate pregnancies. For those who could go further afield the Vancouver newspapers contained advertisements for abortion services in Washington state. Dr. David Andrews. Women's Disorders Specialty. 25 Years Experience. Suite 400 Pantages Building, Seattle. Dr. J. Dunn. Women's Disease Specialist. European Hospital Experience. 317 Walter Building, Seattle. Sound View Hospital. Specialist in Women's Diseases.(38) Women went across the border to American towns like Sumas and Blaine and many references were made at trials to operations sought in Seattle. In 1911 Augusta Benn, after reading an advertisement for the services offered in Seattle, went to be operated on by Dr. Catherine Harriman.(39) In 1917 Mary Dawes was sent by her father to the same city for the same purpose.(40) Nineteen year old Frances Pike died in 1918 as a result of a Seattle operation; her mother testified she thought her daughter was visiting friends.(41) Nurse Fromm was implicated in the February 1920 deaths of two British Columbia women who were operated on in her 20th Avenue South Seattle clinic on the same day.(42) Who were the abortionists? Sixty individuals were cited in fifty-one cases; often an accomplice--usually a single woman's male partner--was indicted along with the practitioner.(43) Forty-seven of the sixty could be called abortionists; the other thirteen were accused of supplying medicines, being accessories, or aiding and abetting. Of twenty-eight women named nine were identified as doctors, nurses or midwives. Clara Kaufman, a Victoria masseuse reportedly assisted over a hundred woman for fees of fifty to a hundred dollars each. "You don't have to go to Seattle to get rid of your trouble," she was quoted as saying at her 1917 trial, "I am a woman's friend."(44) In Vancouver nurse Clara Jesson, despite three trials, enjoyed a reputation as a skilled practitioner, advertising her services for "private maternity cases" at her home which had four upstairs bedrooms.(45) In the 1930s Mrs. Esther Morris established a similar operation, the "Home Private Hospital".(46) Hazel Dalton advertised in the papers as "Specialist in female remedies."(47) Edith Pierce provided abortions in downtown Vancouver at "Adam and Pierce's Electrical Steam Treatments."(48) Women received most of their support from other women; recourse to abortion was commonly regarded as very much a woman's means of birth limitation. But where did men figure in all of this? In the case of the married couple living together the decision to terminate a pregnancy was often obviously a joint undertaking. In 1914 a woman dying in the Vancouver General Hospital explained, "My husband and I want to get it done because we were so hard up and we were out of work."(49) Another stated, "Well, we [meaning her husband and herself] put some slippery elm up the womb."(50) In some instances the abortion was more the husband's idea than the wife's. Phyllis Villeneuve said she went to an abortionist because she believed that her spouse did not want the baby; at the subsequent inquest he was portrayed by witnesses as a wife beater.(51) When an abortion case resulting in death ended up in the courts the husband, while admitting knowledge of his wife's attempts to abort, commonly claimed that he opposed recourse to the final deadly operation. Nellie Andrew's separated husband testified: "I knew of her using an instrument known as a catheter ... I was not in favor of it.... She always had one. Whenever she became pregnant she always had all kinds of things to prevent her going her time."(52) Likewise in 1898 one man testified at his wife's inquest: Up to this time I did not know that she had been taking any medicine to bring on a miscarriage. I knew that she had used natural means to bring on a miscarriage. She put her feet in hot water. I mean by what I said that she had a little flow but that it did not come as she thought it ought to. She asked me to go to the store to get her something to bring on her periods more freely, or to produce a better flow. He said he brought back whiskey, but she had already procured a pill from the druggist. She said she had taken it to induce the menstrual flow ... she had been passing an instrument into her womb so she told me.... She had several miscarriages before and in one case she had used a lead pencil and I had attended her and she got better.(53) Similarly Arnott Woods testified that he accompanied his wife to a pharmacist's to obtain drugs, but opposed the idea of an instrumental abortion. "I would not hear of an operation, and I left them.... When I returned ... my wife was suffering from an attempted abortion."(54) Robert Blatchford stated that he knew his wife was taking "dope" and douching herself, but that he forbade her to go to Seattle where she had the operation from which she ultimately died.(55) Some husbands were no doubt kept completely in the dark. Annie Emberly told her friend Mary Jane Drew, "that she had been using a syringe on herself; and that I was not to tell Dr. Walker or her husband when they came."(56) When Orlan Gaynor was told of his wife's abortion he replied "that it was possible my wife might have done something to herself."(57) Of course, it was in the man's interest to feign ignorance of his wife's actions. Few husbands probably needed legal counsel to realize that not to do so could possibly lead to their being

charged as an accomplice. On occasion such duplicity was publicly revealed. Henry Andrews's testimony that he opposed his wife's abortion was directly contradicted by a female witness who declared that Nellie Andrews, "told me that the husband insisted that she have it done and that the husband wanted her to go to Seattle."(58) Mark Baker said of his wife, "She never discussed very much about those affairs or I don't think we would have had so many children" whereas she stated that he had actively assisted in her aborting.(59) But even when the husband was obviously involved, the authorities would rarely charge him as an accomplice. Bertrand Barnett was initially prosecuted in 1914 for involvement in his wife's abortion death, but the case seems to have been dropped.(60) The general feeling was that to jail a man who had already lost his wife would be a cruel and unnecessarily harsh course of action. When an abortion involved a married woman the courts tended to downplay her husband's participation; when abortion involved a single woman the police frequently assumed that her male partner had been actively involved. Such a man, it was felt, clearly had much to lose if the woman's pregnancy was not terminated. This presupposition was apparently borne out in 1895 when the court heard that Locksley Lyons, having impregnated his fifteen year old sister-in-law, Kate Burns, provided her with medicine. Kate testified that it consisted of "black pills and a dark brown medicine ... there was no name on it but he said he got it from Dr. Sloan living at Ladner. He gave me the pills two at a time; he gave me the medicine night and morning and two pills a day; he gave me three doses of pills."(61) Though the medicine did not work Lyons was charged with both intent to procure a miscarriage and seduction. An equally active bachelor was David McHenry who in 1904 sought the assistance in Vancouver of Dr. Alexander Stewart Murrow, who reported him as saying, there was a girl who had missed her menses. The girl lived over on Vancouver Island and he wanted to get some medicine to bring her menses on because he said as you know I am engaged to Miss Bolen and I don't want to have any trouble occur before the wedding. Murrow refused but a Vancouver Island doctor proved more accommodating.(62) Often these careless lovers were charged. The court declared a married Agassiz chiropractor, who in 1929 provided his eighteen year old nurse with pills, not guilty of abortion; this was hardly surprising since he had in fact failed to abort her. But he was found guilty of her seduction and sentenced to a year in prison.(63) When a single woman died as a result of an abortion the courts were likely to prosecute the man, assuming he had taken the initiative in suggesting the operation. In July 1934, noticing that her daughter Veronica had missed her period Anna Kuzyk asked the local coroner if Carl Schwam, her daughter's boyfriend, had to marry her. Dr. Truax said there was no legal compulsion, but the Kuzyks could talk to Schwam. They apparently forced him into an engagement, but on 11 September Mrs. Kuzyk reported her daughter missing. The police located Veronica Kuzyk in the nearby town of Greenwood a week later in a state of ill health that required her hospitalization. She was released on 25 September but returned to hospital on 28 September. In a dying statement Veronica Kuzyk declared that Carl had given her lots of pills and, those failing, took her to Grietje Sandstrom, a Greenwood midwife.(64) In return for twenty dollars Sandstrom "mixed up some soap and something in a small bottle and put [it] in a glass pump which she put inside me." Six such attempts failing Sandstrom then "used a button hook." Schwam initially denied complicity and later only admitted that he had advised Kuzyk on whom to contact and provided money for the operation. He was charged with conspiracy, tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison; Sandstrom was sentenced to a mere twenty-three months.(65) Going a step further, in a 1931 case the police cited the female abortionist as an accessory, but charged the dead woman's fiance with her abortion.(66) Single men, when named as accomplices, frequently sought to save themselves by casting all the blame on the woman.(67) Such was the case when William Underwood was charged in 1911 with having supplied his fiancee Angelica Stagg with drugs and a syringe with the intent to procure a miscarriage. Underwood's lawyer, by portraying Stagg as an immoral "half-breed" from Lillooet who had wanted the abortion, succeeded in getting Underwood off.(68) But such tactics did not always work. In 1915 Walter Irwin, a separated thirty-four year old construction worker failed to shift the blame onto eighteen year old Gladys Bolton. The court responded that" ... a woman may be immoral and yet very truthful.... This is not a question of morals."(69) But, of course, as far as the man was concerned the courts made it clear that it was a question of morals. Husbands were rarely charged as accessories, not because they were less likely than single men to bully their partners into abortion or to support a freely made decision, but because the courts tacitly recognized that as married men they had a "right" to be so involved. Bachelors did not have such rights, indeed they were regarded as usurping the parents' right of surveillance of their unmarried daughters. Single men in short were prosecuted as much for their sexual activities as for their involvement in the abortion that made such "immorality" public knowledge. Such prosecutions, in allowing the justice system to present itself as chivalrously punishing unscrupulous males, gave it a rare opportunity of providing those members of the public that might doubt the fairness of the abortion law with badly needed evidence that it was not aimed simply at women. Of the thirty-five men cited in abortion cases fifteen were physicians. Doctors could provide safe abortions, but by law only for medical reasons.(70) The special nature of abortion in medical practice was spelled out by a physician testifying at a 1920 inquest. A. Occasionally we sanction the doing of an operation to save the mother's life. Q. But just to get rid of the child ... is not a legal operation? A. It is not sanctioned by the medical profession and is an illegal operation ... And the medical Council does not sanction it.(71) A woman seeking an abortion or assistance in recovering from one could accordingly not expect to receive from her doctor ordinary medical care.(72) Abortion was one of the rare medical procedures which, save for exceptional cases, was a crime. Doctors on occasion complained about this encroachment by the law on medicine. What they tended to forget was that in Canada as elsewhere physicians, in order to eliminate the competition of midwives and irregular practitioners, had been in the nineteenth century the most vocal proponents of the criminalization of abortion.(73) One consequence was that a doctor who did not report an abortion death risked being implicated in it. Some physicians saw themselves obliged to assume the role of police informers. If a woman were dying in hospital as the result of a bungled abortion a statement was taken if only to protect the doctor and the hospital staff. No doubt many doctors wanted to help track down dangerous abortionists, but some medical personnel showed themselves more interested in protecting themselves than in caring for their patient. In 1922 Dr. Alexander Stewart Murrow cruelly threatened the dying Jennie Young that he would not treat her for septic poisoning if she did not tell him who had performed her operation.(74) Similar pressure was presumably applied to Winnifred Lewis because her inquest jury was told that her statement was not made voluntarily.(75) When Sarah Robins was dying at Vancouver General Hospital in 1919 the examining physician went so far as to stimulate her with drugs to acquire a declaration that would protect the hospital staff.(76) Such dying declarations had special force in court, having the status of sworn testimony. Accordingly Dr. Boak testified that he was "satisfied" that Mary Dalziel knew she was dying when she made hers at Victoria's Jubilee Hospital in 1917.(77) When a woman entered a hospital showing signs of abortion, but her life was not in danger the examining physician had to decide whether or not to make a report. Marian Noel, who had endured an operation on a kitchen table carried out by a midwife with "some sort of long thing made to prick the womb" and then went to hospital, ended up having to testify in court because the attending physician alerted police.(78) The same thing occurred when nineteen year old Isabella Arcand was hospitalized in October 1921.(79) In 1938 twenty-three year old stenographer Ann Tandberg passed out after her third visit to nurse Hazel Dalton and was taken to Vancouver General Hospital where her abortion was completed and reported.(80) Such reports were far from random. The likelihood was that hospital staff would see and report poor women rather than private patients and the single rather than the married.(81) The extent of reportage also depended on the zeal of the attending physician. The point that many doctors had little appetite for pursuing such enquiries was made in a 1921 inquest. Q. Doctor Fuller, it is not really customary to report these cases when they get better? A. I don't know. As a matter of fact I guess not many are reported but I thank the Lord I have so few of them I don't know from my experience. I think if a doctor could find any information that would do any good, most of them would be willing and glad to give information, but what is the good of going to a whole lot of expense when you cannot do anything.(82) In the privacy of their offices doctors obviously provided some patients with abortions, but naturally enough never admitted in court to carrying out illegal operations. In 1886 Dr. William McNaughton reported that Annie Emberly, who had been cautioned she would never live through another confinement and found herself pregnant, told him that although she wanted an abortion she did not wish to see him in the penitentiary. Presumably she hoped he would courageously offer his services; McNaughton did not.(83) In 1904 Dr. Ernest McLean likewise testified that he had been asked by Jennie Gammon to help her out of her difficulty, but he had refused.(84) Some women felt there was no one else to whom they could turn. After her doctor rejected her request "to do something" Annie Fields ended her life with cyanide of potassium.(85) As regards their private patients' discussions of abortion doctors reported that some were too reticent, refusing to say what had befallen them. Other patients were too candid; doctors claimed to be shocked to find that such women insisted on their assistance. Explaining why he provided a patient with ergo-apiol pills one physician whined, "When a patient comes to us like that you have got to do something for her or they get angry with you."(86) The doctors' worse fear was to be "taken advantage of" by their patients. Such apparently was the case in 1922 when Annie Mulvaney visited Dr. Albert Ross and gave him her maiden name, purposely failing to reveal that she was married and separated. When he asked why she did not resolve the problem of her pregnancy by marrying she replied that if her parents knew of her condition they would turn her out of the house. Ross, in return for fifty dollars, accordingly operated on Mulvaney; a few weeks later he found himself charged with performing an abortion and Annie Mulvaney testifying against him.(87) Courts were repeatedly told that doctors, to protect themselves from being suspected of providing abortions, were duty bound to notify colleagues of any suspicious cases. "Practically every medical man when he gets a case of this kind immediately calls a consultant. He does that for his own protection."(88) Before a legal therapeutic abortion could be carried out, a consultation of two or more medical men, and in the case of the hospital the heads of the hospital are notified ... that the patient has been notified ... and that the doctor's opinion is corroborated by that of another doctor who is in good standing and so forth.(89) In 1915 an inquest jury found Dr. Samuel Bamberg negligent in not calling in other doctors in consultation in an abortion case and he was finally charged with the woman's death.(90) In 1920 Bamberg was again charged with murder, but again found not guilty.(91) A Vernon doctor tried to have it both ways. Gerald Wilson privately treated a young woman who had been taking abortifacient pills; only when it became clear a week later that she was not going to survive--possibly due to his incompetence--did he call in a colleague for assistance.(92) The courts frequently expressed the concern that some doctors concealed evidence of inducement of miscarriage. More than one inquest jury recommended that physicians be forced to make public anything they knew of abortion. Suspecting a medical cover-up in 1919 the Vancouver coroner warned, It is a very serious matter, you know, this abortion business--criminal abortion--anybody that advises it or tries to cover it up in any way is guilty, and medical men may run themselves into trouble, because if they grant a certificate in a case that should be reported to the coroner it is an offense, and a criminal offense.(93) The cruel irony was that the doctor whom the coroner suspected colleagues were protecting--Dr. Thomas Vernon--was

himself the coroner of the neighboring municipality of North Vancouver. Vernon was implicated in Sarah Robins' abortion death in 1919 and Margaret Graham's in 1926, but in neither case were charges ever filed.(94) Abortion raised the complex issue of who should discipline doctors--the courts or the medical profession. In 1904 Dr. Robert Temple was initially charged with the murder of Hetta Bowes. "I took some pills today that Dr. Temple gave me," she had told a female friend, "and they nearly killed me." Temple was ultimately tried and found not guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, but nevertheless struck off the medical register for unprofessional conduct.(95) He carried on a long campaign for reinstatement and was finally successful. By the 1930s a qualified doctor, so an inquest jury was told, was rarely prosecuted or censured for involvement in abortion: "... there is nothing to it ... because this goes on every day unfortunately."(96) Before leaving the discussion of what went on in hospital wards and doctors' offices it has to be noted that many women who had illegal abortions, but did not end up in court, were nevertheless "punished." Those doctors who saw themselves first as moral guardians and second as care-givers subjected such women to humiliating interrogations, threatened to withhold from them medical treatment, and extorted dying declarations which both publicized the most intimate details of their private lives and incriminated their friends and neighbors.(97) Given that one doctor might discretely offer desperately needed services whereas another might call the police, women in distress necessarily approached medical professionals with caution. What treatment could women expect to receive from the courts? An abortion was most likely heard of, as we have seen, when it resulted in a woman's death. Such a calamity could not be ignored; the police and judiciary had to act. But if the medical fraternity did not like abortion cases, the crown also viewed them with distaste. Evidence was difficult to obtain; the key witnesses were usually party to the crime. Consequently few abortion cases ever made it to court. In only thirty-four of our hundred abortions cases were charges filed. And in the even fewer number in which prosecutions were successfully pursued the sentence levied for procuring abortion was usually no more than a two year prison term. In a handful of cases stiffer sentences were given. In 1910 Richard Beveridge was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison.(98) In 1914 Enid Shelbourne, a mother of an eight year old, was sentenced to seven years for the manslaughter death of Mary Barnett.(99) If a death had not occurred the likelihood was that an abortion attempt would only come to the police's attention because an overzealous attending physician had noticed and reported the suspicious causes of a woman's hospitalization. These sorts of cases were inevitably messy. Judges did not like them. Juries often refused to convict no matter how overwhelming the evidence. On occasion the courtroom drama, instead of properly impressing the public by a demonstration of the power and prudence of the law, brought it into disrepute.(100) The 1902 case of Rex versus Bella Howe climaxed in what the local press called a "sensational finish." Bella Howe had been charged in Nelson with attempting to induce her own miscarriage. The attending physician testified that Howe, having been hospitalized, admitted to attempting to abort by inserting a rigid catheter. The medical witness regarded it as pertinent that Howe was a prostitute. "She is pretty tight," he coldly commented, "evidently she has not been in her occupation very long."(101) Such a charge of self-inducement was rare inasmuch as the woman--despite what the law said--was usually regarded by the public as a victim driven by desperation. On this occasion the charge was presumably only laid because the crown thought it could make an example of a woman of the streets who had no family support. But the jury was more sympathetic and followed tradition in refusing to convict a woman of her own abortion. Mr. Justice Martin, outraged that the jurymen should blatantly ignore the testimony of the doctors, the police and the accused herself, ordered the jury to be locked up overnight to reconsider their verdict; they returned the next morning with the same verdict of "not guilty." The judge was helpless, but before discharging the jury subjected its members to a "whigging," declaring that they had "signally failed to appreciate the responsibilities of [their] office."(102) Of course, it was the crown that had failed to appreciate its duty--that of levelling charges that it was confident that the community would sustain. Perhaps the most surprising discovery made in the legal records is that the courts offered the opportunity for one or two vengeful women to report their own abortions in order to implicate their male partners. Although the abortion law clearly victimized women, in such cases women sought to turn a bad law to their own advantage.(103) A case in point was revealed in the press' accounts of Sarah McPhee's extra-marital affair with Dr. Peter Van Kampen which began in Armstrong in 1901. They apparently did not employ effective contraceptives because, according to Sarah McPhee, Van Kampen aborted her in September 1901, November 1902, and February 1903. In late 1903, pregnant again, McPhee left British Columbia for California where in 1907 she instituted divorce proceedings against her husband. But when the single Van Kampen subsequently refused to marry her she in revenge successfully pressed charges against him for her earlier abortions.(104) A similar scenario was played out in 1914 when Phila Marsden, "mistress" of Dr. Charles Maclean, charged him with aborting her against her will. The defense countered that because of the doctor's refusal to marry her she was out to get him.(105) The crown, after the jury had failed on two occasions to come to a decision, eventually stayed the proceedings. Phila Marsden had nevertheless won a victory of sorts. Not only had she dragged Maclean's name through the mud for months in a trial which set a record as the longest in the province's history; she was sympathetically portrayed in press accounts headlined: "Would Forgive Man She Claims Wronged Her. Pathetic Story is Told by Main Witness in Retrial of Local Medico."(106) What was printed in the columns of the local newspapers represented for some the potentially most damaging punishment. Doctors were naturally frightened at the prospect of the tarnishing of their reputation that the appearance of their names in the news could cause. Women dreaded having their most intimate acts made a subject of public discussion. But more importantly press reports, in dwelling on gruesome deaths, both made an example of the "guilty" woman who had died at the hands of an abortionist and warned off all the others who might contemplate a similar gamble. Headlines such as "Her Horrible Death," "Young Life Cut Off Very Suddenly," "Illegal Operation Results in Death of Woman and a Charge of Murder" carried the moral that the woman who tried to interfere with nature inevitably paid a terrible price.(107) Such lurid stories made good copy. It could be argued that newspaper editors were not necessarily trying to play up the dangers of abortion, that they were only alerted to and reported on the most tragic cases, but to do so would require crediting journalists with an unlikely ignorance of what was actually taking place in their communities. The historian is supposed to differ from the journalist in being candid about the shortcomings of his or her sources. In drawing to a conclusion our analysis of abortion we have to recall our opening proviso that inquest and court records tell only part of the story. Because our sources draw primarily from disastrous attempts at abortion we have only had brief glimpses of women--facing the crisis of an unwanted pregnancy--supported by their male partners and their female friends and neighbors. Nevertheless the dogged determination and courage of individual women, often abandoned by those closest to them, is undeniable. Much of what we have reviewed makes for unpleasant reading: married mothers of children dying of septic poisoning, husbands pretending not to know what was going on, young men bullying young women into dangerous operations, doctors refusing to help, and incompetent abortionists demanding money. But we should not forget that almost everyone was victimized by an inequitable and unenforceable law. What did the law accomplish? Though there was scant evidence that its avowed purpose of protecting fetal life was served, the law did have its uses. Some regular physicians found that it could be employed to shore up their profession's monopolization of the provision of medical services. The abortionists who were convicted were usually not doctors, but midwives, masseuses, and herbalists. When a maverick physician like Dr. John Garden was found guilty of abortion in 1895 it was chiefly because he did not have the support of the medical profession; he himself declared that he was a victim of a conspiracy of doctors.(108) The law similarly extended the reach of the judiciary. The courts, abetted by the press, brandished the accounts of horrific abortion deaths as a warning to all women and so sought to police the morality of both sexes. Abortion trials, which contain potentially disturbing evidence of class and gender inequities, were "turned to account" in defense of the social and sexual status quo. At best coroners and jurors simply ignored the law. At worse, as was made chillingly clear in 1936, such a statute could blight more than one life. In that year Helen McDonald died as a result of a botched operation, her fiance--who considered himself responsible--committed suicide, and Edith Pierce, the abortionist, having endured a trial and two appeals, took her own life.(109) Given the limitations of the sources used here the claim could never be made that the entire impact of the criminalization of abortion has been surveyed. But this analysis--of the negotiations of husbands and wives, of single men and single women, of doctors and patients, of police and the public--does reveal the ways in which the law poisoned relationships which were often already inherently difficult. It is not necessary to argue that people are innately good, to recognize that such laws made many worse than they had to be. ENDNOTES I wish to thank Arlene Tigar McLaren, Peter Stearns and an anonymous reader for helpful comments made on an earlier draft. The paper could not have been written if it had not been for the skillful and diligent work carried out in the papers of the Attorney General of British Columbia (hereafter cited as AG [BC]) by my research assistant Debra Ireland. To protect the privacy of their families the names of those cited in the abortion cases have been changed. 1. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1919: 138 (reel 33). 2. The quantitative analysis of some of the files employed in this paper is treated in Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren, "Discoveries and Dissimulations: The Impact of Abortion Deaths on Maternal Morality in British Columbia," BC Studies 64 (Winter 1984-85): 3-23. 3. Edward Shorter, A History of Women's Bodies (New York, 1982), 177-224; James Woycke, Birth Control in Germany, 1871-1933 (London, 1988), 68-111. 4. James Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy (New York, 1978); John Keown, Abortion, Doctors and the Law: Some Aspects of the Legal Regulation of Abortion in England from 1803 to 1982 (Cambridge, 1988). 5. On the legal background see Constance Backhouse, "Involuntary Motherhood: Abortion, Birth Control and the Law in Nineteenth-Century Canada," Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 3 (1983): 61-130; Shelley Gavigan, "The Criminal Sanction as it Relates to Human Reproduction," Journal of Legal History 5 (1984): 20-41. 6. The full extent of induction of miscarriage was suggested in medical testimony given at a 1920 trial. 205 Q. I suppose you, as all other medical men are aware that women very frequently attempt to commit abortion on themselves? A. Yes. 206 Q. And the number of cases of attempts to commit abortion and actual commission, they are very frequent, I understand. A. Quite frequent, yes. 207 Q. And there are a large number of women nowadays although we may all regret it, who consider themselves justified in endeavoring to get rid of their unborn children? A. I think every doctor has the experience of knowing there is quite a number. 208 Q. In fact the numbers are very large, aren't they, doctor? A. Quite large. 209 Q. In every large city? A. Yes. 210 Q. It amounts, I am told, to some hundreds per month even in this City of Vancouver, would you go so far as to say that? A. I could not say the exact number ... because I have no way of telling. 211 Q. And the number of deaths that result from them is insignificant in number. A. Yes, the deaths are not very prevalent. AG (BC) Court Records, 1921: 31 (v. 239). 7. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1895: 64 (reel 4). 8. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1933: 176 (reel 65). 9. AG (BC) Court Records, 1901: 103 (v. 129). 10. Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1980 (Toronto, 1986), 32-53. 11. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1919: 105 (reel 33). 12. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1914: 255 (reel 23). 13. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1936: 266 (reel 72). 14. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1922: 216 (reel 40). 15. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1928: 260 (reel 53). 16. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1931: 283 (reel 62). 17. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1886: 46 (reel 1). 18. Angus McLaren, "Birth Control and Abortion in Canada, 1870-1920," Canadian Historical Review 59 (1978): 319-40. 19. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1896: 110 (reel 5). 20. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1919: 105 (reel 33). 21. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1935: 156 (reel 69). 22. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1926: 316 (rel 49). 23. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1920: 346 (reel 36). 24. AG (BC) Court Records, 1923: 31 (v. 266). 25. AG (BC) Correspondence, Inquiries, 1924: Vancouver C49-6 (reel 108). 26. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1921: 249 (reel 38). 27. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1913: 141 (reel 20); AG (BC) Court Records, 1913: 198 (v. 179). 28. W.A. Dafoe, "Abortion," Canadian Medical Association Journal 22 (1930): 793. 29. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1935: 193 (reel 70). 30. See for example AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1916: 261 (reel 28). 31. AG (BC) Court Records, 1915: 113 (v. 202). 32. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1933: 92 (reel 64). 33. On Finish-Canadian women's reliance on each other see, Varpu Linstrom Best, Defiant Sisters: A Social History of Finnish Immigrant Women in Canada (Toronto, 1988), 79-83; and for similar findings elsewhere see, Barbara Brookes, Abortion in England, 1900-1967 (London, 1988), 29-35. 34. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1919: 138 (reel 33). 35. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1910: 257 (reel 15); AG (BC) Court Records, 1912: 8 (v. 155). 36. AG (BC) Court Records, 1915: 27 (v. 197). 37. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1920: 346 (reel 36). 38. Vancouver Sun, 30 October 1922, 13; Vancouver Sun, 27 November 1922, 13; Vancouver Daily Province, 5 August 1922, 20. 39. Boon died of blood poisoning on her return to Victoria; AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1912: 6 (reel 17); Vancouver Daily Province, 3 January 1912, 1. 40. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1917: 175 (reel 29). 41. Vancouver Sun, 9 January 1918, 12; AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1918: 5 (reel 29); and on Edith Watson's death see, AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1920: 330 (reel 36). 42. On Emily Bard's death see AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1921: 46 (reel 370); on Florence Smith's death see AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1921: 55 (reel 37). 43. On a profile of American abortionists convicted in New York between 1925 and 1950, see Jerome E. Bates and Edward S. Zawadzki, Criminal Abortion: A Study in Medical Sociology (Springfield, IL, 1964), 202-203. 44. AG (BC) Court Records, 1917: 31 (v. 209). 45. Clara Jesson was tried in 1923 and sentenced to one year in prison. At her establishment the police found speculums and gum elastic catheters; AG (BC) Court Records, 1923: 82 (v. 271). In 1927 she was implicated in one successful abortion and one abortion death. AG (BC) Court Records, 1928: 17 (v. 329); AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1927: 375 (reel 52); Vancouver Daily Province, 14 March 1928, 20. 46. In 1931 Morris was charged as an accessory in the death of Agnes Little. Little's sister testified that she also had been aborted by Morris. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1932: 174 (reel 61); AG (BC) Court Records, 1931: 134 (v. 384). In 1935 Morris was again charged with procuring a miscarriage. AG (BC) Court Records, 1935: 97 (v. 436). 47. AG (BC) Courts Records, 1939: 21 (v. 478); AG (BC) Court Records, 1939: 21 (v. 478); B. C. Reports, 1939 (v. 54, pp. 134-36). 48. Pierces was in 1935 implicated in two deaths and found guilty of manslaughter. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1936: 169 (reel 71); AG (BC) Court Records, 1936: 54 (v. 447); B. C. Reports, 1937-38 (V. 52, pp. 264-75); Canada Law Reports: Supreme Court of Canada, 1938 (pp. 457-58). 49. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1914: 255 (reel 23). 50. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1928: 260 (reel 53). 51. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1936: 173 (reel 71). 52. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1913: 141 (reel 20). 53. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1898: 122 (reel 6). 54. AG (BC) Court Records, 1905: 81 (v. 110). 55. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1921: 46 (reel 37). 56. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1886: 46 (reel 1). 57. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1913: 21 (reel 19). 58. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1913: 141 (reel 20). 59. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1928: 260 (reel 53). 60. AG (BC) Vancouver Daily Province, 3 July 1914, 12. 61. AG (BC) Court Records, 1895: 63 (v. 57). 62. AG (BC), Inquisitions 1904: 102 (reel 9); Victoria Daily Colonist, 31 July 1904, 1. On the changing sexual activities of youths, see Veronica Strong-Boag, The New Day Recalled: The Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada, 1919-1939 (Toronto, 1988), 84-90. 63. AG (BC) Court Records, 1929: 31 (v. 347). 64. Victoria Daily Times, 29 December 1934; A.G. (BC) Inquisitions, 1934: 215 (reel 67). 65. Schwam's appeal was turned down by the British Columbia Court of Appeal, but the Supreme Court of Canada, holding that the dying declaration was inadmissible reversed the judgment and quashed the conviction. B. C. Reports, 1935-36, v. 50, pp. 1-18; Canada Law Reports: Supreme Court of Canada, 1935, pp. 367-78. 66. AG (BC) Court Records, 1931: 134 (v. 384). The death by septicemia in 1895 of Mary Ellen Jones, was followed by the arrest of Harry Crew, her fiance, as an accessory to murder; he was, along with Dr. John Garden, eventually found guilty of manslaughter. AG (BC) Court Records, 1896: 28 (v. 62); on affirmation of conviction, see B. C. Reports, 1895-1897, v. 5, pp. 61-66; Backhouse, "Involuntary Motherhood," 106-107. 67. Abortion records obviously present a less rosy picture of courtship than those accounts based on letters and diaries such as Peter Ward, Courtship, Love, and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada (Montreal, 1990). 68. AG (BC) Court Records, 1911: 33 (v. 147); Vancouver Daily News-Advertiser, 6 May 1911, 3. 69. AG (BC) Court Records, 1915: 113 (v. 202). 70. Therapeutic abortions carried out by doctors were either by the slow method with dilation of the cervix by tent, gauze, bougie, and rupture or by the quick method with dilation under anaesthesia. Canadian Medical Association Journal 16 (1926): 1275-76. 71. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1920: 346 (reel 36). 72. On the nineteenth-century background to the relationship of Canadian doctors and their female patients, see Wendy Mitchinson, The Nature of Their Bodies: Women and Their Doctors in Victorian Canada (Toronto, 1991). 73. Mohr, Abortion in America; Keown, Abortion, Doctors and the Law. 74. Murrow was criticized by the Vancouver coroner for not notifying the authorities of the abortion until after Young's death. Vancouver Daily Province, 5 August 1922, 28; AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1922: 208 (reel 40). 75. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1930: 255 (reel 59). 76. AG (BC) Inquisitions, 1919: 138 (reel 33). 77. Victoria Times, 29 September 1917, 17. On dying declarations, see Henry Chapman, A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology (Philadelphia, 1892), 35; David F. Binder, The Hearsay Handbook (New York, 1975), 171-76. 78. AG (BC) Court Records, 1916: 9 (v. 203). 79. AG (BC) Court Records, 1922: 129 (v. 259). 80. B. C. Reports, 1939 (v. 54, pp. 134-136). 81. On the continued association of the hospital with the poor in the 1920s, see Veronica Strong-Boag and Kathryn McPherson, "The Confinement of Women: Childbirth and Hospitalization in Vancouver, 1919-1939," in Katherine Arnup, Andree Levesque.
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Author:McLaren, Angus
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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