Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Wickedest Woman in New York - Madame Restell

This is part two of what I hope will be a continuing mini feature on the blog of Notorious New York Women, inspired in part by a lecture I attended at the New York Historical Society.

New York has always been a place where people can reinvent themselves. It looms large in the imagination and has done almost from its beginnings as a trading post for the Dutch called New Amsterdam. The point of embarkation for most immigrants in the 19th century, for most of the early part of the 19th century, it was as unlawless as the Old West. Fortunes were made and lost in New York City. A humble peddler through shrewd real estate investments became the landlord of New York, Jacob Astor. Cornelius Vanderbilt, from humble origins ferrying citizens from Staten Island to New York, by the time of his death was one of the richest men in American, his statue welcoming patrons to his Grand Central Station. But what of the women who came to New York? What were their stories?


Madame Restell was once known as the Wickedest Woman in New York, which is some title (most recently held by Leona Helmsley). What did she do to earn this unique title? She earned it for pursuing one of the few businesses that were naturally the purview of a woman. She was an abortionist and 19th century birth control advocate. She was actually born Ann Trow on May 6, 1812 in Gloucestershire in England. When she was fifteen, she worked as a maid for a local butcher's family, and she married a year later, a local man named Henry Summer. After 3 years of marriage, they decided that their prospects would be better off in America, so in 1831, they left for New York where Summer subsequently died of yellow fever. Left a widow with a young daughter, Ann found a living as a seamstress, which paid very little.

Her life changed when she married for the second time to a German-Russian immigrant named Charles Lohman who worked as a printer. Lohman was a radical thinker who was close friends with another free-thinker of the time named George Matsell, who published a journal called The Free Inquirer. Her brother, Joseph Trow, had also moved to New York where he worked as a sales assistant in a pharmacy. Through him, Ann Trow now Lohman became interested in women's health, creating birth control products which she marketed under the name Madame Restell. The choice of the name Madame Restell was because at that time, who would have known better about such things as birth control but the French?


Beginning in 1839 and until her death forty years later, the newly christened Madame Caroline Restell began to advertise her products in the various New York City newspapers. At one point, she was spending $60,000 a year on advertisements. How she learned to perform abortions, no one knows for sure. While Ann had little formal education, Charles seemed to have been the intellectual in the family. He wrote all her advertising copy, and took the pseudonymn Dr. Mauriceau.


Abortion at this point in the 19th century was not illegal as long as it was performed before the second trimester. Popular opinion at that time was that the fetus was not viable until it quickened or moved. It was the only way that a woman could know for sure that she was pregnant. A few missed periods was not a guarantee of pregnancy. Until the 'quickening' a woman could choose to consider her condition as a medical problem that needed treatment. However in New York, 1828 abortion was illegal, although the law was rarely enforced. Then as now, of course, there were people who were outraged at the idea of abortions being performed at all. Doctors were incensed that they were being usurped by nonpractioners, but the main concern was the idea of women having control over their reproduction. If they could control that, what other things would women want to have to have more control over?

Madame Restell promised to cure all abortions, which she called "derangement of the stomach." The remedies at the time, which rarely worked, ranged from things like tansy oil to turpentine which could be deadly. When these remedies failed to remove the unwanted pregnancy, women flocked to abortionists like Madame Restell's clinic on Chamber Street downtown for what she advertised as a "painless operation," at a time when even the simplest operation was painful and could cause death. This so-called 'painless operation' consisted of using a wire to pierce the amniotic sac. Like Planned Parenthood today, women were charged according to their ability to pay, anywhere from $20 to $100.

Madame Restell's ads were upbeat and service-oriented. She used arguments that sound incredibly modern to us, including the idea that women should abort because they loved their husbands, pregnancy had risks, abortion was easy, abortion made life better, and abortion only removed fluids (not a baby, just tissue). At a time, when the average woman probably went through many pregnancies during her lifetime, and infant mortality was at its height, Madame Restell must have seemed a godsend for those who could pay.


Her advertisements were carried in newspapers like the New York Sun and the Boston Daily Times. One advertisement read: "Madame Restell's experience and knowledge in the treatment of cases of female irregularity, is such as to require but a few days to effect a perfect cure.' These were respectable papers of the 19th century, not the 19th century equivalent of the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News. Business was booming, it was so good that Madame Restell was able to open 'clinics' in Boston and Philadelphia. She hired traveling salesmen to sell her 'pills' across the country. Of course once these 'pills' didn't do the trick, the women would be referred to one of her clinics to have an abortion. Madame Restell was not the only one dispensing birth control devices and abortions, she was only the most famous. Newspapers through the East were littered with advertisements of doctors who promised 'relief' from female complaints.


What is particulary interesting about this time in the silence of the clergy, particularly to those of us who have grown up with the Catholic Church and the religious right up in arms over abortion and birth control. While newspapers were quick to criticize the clergy for keeping silent, the clergy placed the blame on the newspapers for accepting the advertisements of abortionists in the first place. The Presbyterian Church, however, actually defended abortion with the argument that it was less criminal to kill children before they were born, than it was to curse them with an uncertain existence.

Madame Restell found herself the subject of a series of allegations that of course couldn't be proven since most eyewitnesses weren't about to come forward. These allegations included the charge that she was selling babies, she was also implicated in the death of Mary Rogers, a beautiful cigarette girl who disappeared and whose body was found later on in the river. The story was that Mary Rogers had died from a botched abortion performed by Madame Restell, and the body dumped to cover up the crime.


The very newspapers that Madame Restell advertised in turned on her. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune wrote editorial after editorial against abortion and quack medicine advertisements. The rise of periodicals like the National Police Gazette, covering the underbelly of American society, also contributed stories about the horrors of abortion and sexual promiscuity. Not one to take things lying down, Madame Restell fought back, writing editorials herself defending her business. One such editorial was pubilshed in the July 15, 1839 issue of the New York Herald. In the editorial she challenged Samuel Smith, the conservative editor of the New York Sunday Morning News, to press charges against her, and offered $100 to anyone who could prove that her 'medicine' was harmful.


Between 1839 and 1845, Madame Restell was indicted 6 times, but each time the case was dropped before it went to trial. She managed to escape prosecution until the one day that a former patient name Marie Bodine charged her in 1847 with performing a late trimester abortion. Marie was seven months pregnant, the father was her employer. Madame Restell tried to convince her not to have the abortion, to just wait until the baby was born, and a family could be found for it. Marie refused, saying that her employer was insisting on the abortion.


Marie Bodine did not want to press charges but she was pressured into it by the police who had been watching Madame Restell's establishment for awhile, hoping for just such an opportunity. The trial was a sensation, selling out all the New York papers, and earning Madame Restell the sobriquet of the "most evil woman in America." The defense tore into Marie Bodine, accusing her of being little more than a prostitute. However, Madame Restell escaped the felony charges. Instead she was found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentence to one year on Blackwell's Island (present day Roosevelt Island).



Unlike most prisoners on Blackwell's Island, Madame Restell had it pretty easy. She was able to use her money to escape hard labor. While other prisoners slept on hard bunks, she slept on a feather bed, and dressed in fine silk instead of the prison uniform. She had her meals catered by the finest restaurants. Still the trauma of being incarcerated made Madame Restell determined that she would never suffer imprisonment again.

She changed her practice exclusively to the wealthy and middle class who could afford to pay her fees. Instead of charging $10 per abortion like her competitors, Madame Restell raised her prices, now charging $2,000 each. She did a brisk business catering to the single and affluent women who couldn't afford the stigma of having a child out of wedlock or the married women who needed evidence of their adultery taken cafe of.

Her biggest sin in the eyes of most people was flaunting her wealth. It was one thing to make a fortune of the plight of women in a fix, it was another thing to be so blatant about it. Madame Restell craved the social acceptance that normally would have come with her increasing wealth. If Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt could take their place in society, why not her? They were no better than her and their business practices shady. She at least was upfront about her business.


Madame Restell would dress in her most expensive outfits as she drove around Central Park, in a carriage drawn by the finest horses available. Needless to say she was shunned by the same women in society who were her clients. A tad resentful, Madame Restell made sure that she could not be ignored completely. Her boldest move was to build an expensive mansion uptown on Fifth Avenue, which at the time was just beginning to become a fashionable address.

Prior to the 1870's, polite society lived downtown around Washington Square, only slowly moving uptown to Gramercy Park, and what is now known as Murray Hill. Fifth Avenue was still considered the wilderness. The building of Central Park changed all that. Although designed for the lower and middle classes to give them a salubrious place to go to, it ended up being used mainly by the upper classes and the rich.

In 1857, the Catholic Archbishop of New York chose the site for the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st street. He had also recently denounced Madame Restell from the pulpit. When the plot of land that he had earmarked for his own residence came up for auction, Madame Restell's husband drove up the price beyond what the Archbishop's agent could afford. Now the property now belonged to Madame Restell. She build a mansion that cost $200,000 back then on the lot. Pretty ballsy to build a mansion right next door to St. Patrick's Cathedral! It was considered one of the finest mansions in the city, boasting marble walls, Italian frescoes, and the most expensive furnishings. Madame Restell threw a ball to celebrate which was surprisingly well-attended. Despite society's distaste for her, they probably couldn't have resisted the chance to see the inside.

But the tide was turning against her. Her immunity to prosecution began to piss people off. It was seen as part of the widespread corruption that existed in New York. She became synonymous with people like Boss Tweed, whose courthouse cost the city millions that ended up lining his pockets and those of his cronies. Many people were afraid of the skeletons that might come tumbling out of the closet if she were prosecuted. A general move towards reform was in the air, and Madame Restell would become one of its first victims.



The tide was turning against abortion for many reasons. The increasing immigration of people who were considered undesirables like the Irish and Italians in the mid to late 19th century sent the fear of God into people. The birth rate had continued to fall and Nativists feared that the country would be overrun and the WASP power structure would be would be in danger. 19th Century Feminists too were against abortion because they felt that it let men who had seduced and abandoned women off the hook, placing the shame solely on the woman. They also felt that it degraded women and that it undermined women's right to refuse to have sex to control the number of offspring, because pregnancy could be fixed by a sum of money.



Anti-abortion laws became stricter, women who had abotions could now be arrested and sent to prison. In 1872, Anthony Comstock entered the picture (the History Hoydens wrote a great post on the subject of Comstock here.) beginning his personal crusade against vice. In 1873, he became the special agent for his own "Act for the Suppression of Trade in and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use" (this was the same act that Margaret Sanger was persecuted under in the 20th Century for distributing material pertaining to birth control). Comstock didn't catch up to Madame Restell in 1878, being busy suppressing vice other places. She finally came onto his radar when he began to be accused of avoiding a conflict with her. Was he afraid of her? people wondered.


On January 28, 1878, Comstock showed up at Madame Restell's door inquiring about birth control practices and made a purchase. A week later, he returned to receive more instruction, and four days later he came back again, this time with the police and a group of newspaper reporters. After all there is no such thing as bad publicity! Madame Restell was arrested and charged with selling abortive and contraceptive devices.


Although she could afford the best attorneys, Madame Restell was quite alone in the world. Her second husband had died and she was estranged from her daughter, who had married a policeman no less. Far short of Madame Restell's ambitions for her. Although her granddaughter Caroline had been her assistant, she too had married. This time, Madame Restell wasn't assured of escaping imprisonment. The newspapers had a field day with her trail, denouncing her on a daily basis and gloating that she was finally going to get her due.

Not willing to wait and hear the verdict, Madame Restell slit her throat with a pearl handled knife in the bathtub of her luxurious mansion on Arpil 1, 1878. A rather grim April Fool's Day. At her death, she was wearing several diamond rings, earrings, and her nightgown was held together by diamond studs. When Comstock heard of her suicide he called it "a bloody ending to a bloody life." She left an estate valued at around $1M.


What are we to make of Madame Restell? Was she indeed the Wickedest Woman in New York, or a woman who saw a need and stepped into fill it? The fact that she became exceedingly wealthy providing abortions and a public figure only adds to the legend. While she was denounced for the services she provided, she would not have become so wealthy and successful if there hadn't been a need for them. Unlike other abortionists, Madame Restell dealth with the political and social implications of abortion in her advertisements. She seemed to speak to the poor immigrant women who lived a life of one draining pregnancy after another. Her arguments that limiting families would actually improve the lives of the poor was picked up almost fifty years later by Margaret Sanger.

On the other hand, Madame Restell refused to stay in her place. She craved social recognition, wanting to enter polite society, rubbing their noses in the fact that she had made a financial success from an enterprise that most people preferred to keep hidden. She also wasn't ashamed of what she did for a living. She wasn't however a revolutionary. Although she started out a poor immigrant, she made a fortune exploiting the plight of the underclass. However, she did provide her clients will a little more control of her lives at a time when women were considered the property of their husbands.


Madame Restell threatened the social order of the time by insisting that women had the right to make choices about their bodies.


Sources for this post included: wikipedia


The Pro-Life/Choice Debate - Mark Youngblod Herring
The Wickedest Woman in New York - Clifford Browder
Scandalous Lady: The Life and Times of Madame Restell, New York's Most Notorious Abortionist - Allan Keller
Both these books are out of print but can be found through Alibris

6 comments:

Leanna said...

FASCINATING. Hadn't heard of her. Love this NY woman riff. Have you seen the movie Vera Drake? Heartbreaking, and a very different character but makes me think of similar social issues at stake.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Leanna! Considering a city like New York, where if you can make here, you can make it anywhere, New York women are an amazing breed. Yes, I have seen Vera Drake, and loved it. Both women wanted to help but Vera's take was much more altruistic than Madame Restell's. Her help made her a great deal of money, and she threw it in everyone's face. How that must have pissed off the 19th Century American Victorians. A totally ballsy woman.

La Belle Americaine said...

I first heard of Madame Restell in Carole Nelson Douglas' Irene Adler series. Fabulous post!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Its funny when I was doing research, the excerpt from one of the Irene Adler book's came up. I love those books! Madame Restell is a fascinating individual. She wrote no memoirs, but the editorials she wrote gives you an insight into her character.

Aparna said...

Wow! I like what you have written. I had never heard of Madame Restell.

Perry Barber said...

I think the tale of the unfortunate Mary Rogers served as a plot point in the BBC show "Copper," which is set in 1860s New York. Great show, and great profile of a remarkable, complex, and fearless woman.