Clandestine Abortionist

Restell 2Madame Restell’s wild success and her tangles with the law revealed 19th century America’s ambivalence toward reproductive control 

By Shruti Ravindran

Those who aren’t partial to thousand dollar purses may consider Salvatore Ferragamo’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue an undistinguished part of Midtown Manhattan’s glass-faced adding-machine soul. About a century-and-a-half ago, a building in its place inspired far stronger sentiments. “This tall brownstone dwelling in the Avenue could tell what would make sensation stories for many years, if it had the gift of tongues,” the journalist Junius Henri Brown wrote in The great metropolis: A mirror of New York in 1869. “Whenever I pass it, it seems to cast a deeper shadow than any other house, and a sense of chilliness, such as comes from opened vaults in the graveyard, to steal from its grim doorways and windows hung with showy curtains, which shut in what few of us dare believe, and none of us care to see.” A less restrained member of the press called it “the den of an abortionist, filled like a charnel house, with the invisible bones of her victims.”

Madame Restell, or Ann Trow Lohman, the abortionist in question, ran a thriving business from the 1840s to the 1870s, amassing a fortune of $500,000 ($11.6 million today, according to the historical standard of living index) that enabled her to outbid an archbishop for the plot in what was even then a “socially sacred” neighborhood. Restell was an English seamstress who was widowed a few years after immigrating to the United States with her alcoholic husband. She learned her trade from the man she married soon after: Charles R. Lohman. A newspaper compositor and self-styled physician, Lohman was an admirer of Robert Dale Owen, a socialist who published the first book advocating contraception in America.

Although an 1828 law banned abortions after the quickening—the moment when the mother first senses fetal movement, usually in the fourth month—by some estimates, about 2 million abortions were performed annually in antebellum America (nearly twice as many as today, in a population that was one twentieth the size). The high rate of abortion was due to the widespread and increasingly desperate demand for reproductive control that began when Colonial Americans grew herbs like savin and tansy in the backwoods, and reached its commercial apotheosis in Madame Restell’s time.

A number of factors conspired to make the fortunes of those in her line of work: an increasing number of social reformers and physicians openly advocating fertility control (and ways to achieve it, such as the rhythm method or Owen’s favored coitus interruptus); the boom in the publication of self-help literature catering to “female complaints” and medical guides accompanied by racy anatomically exact illustrations (which sold hundreds of thousands of copies); the proliferating ranks of “female physicians” (as abortionists were euphemistically called) in small towns and cities;  and the rise of the sensational penny papers which frequently advertised these women’s services as well as their mail-order birth-control arsenal, including “Female Renovating pills” or “monthly regulating pills” (herbal abortifacients), “prevention powders” or “toilet vinegars” (douches), “French male safes” (condoms made of bovine/ovine caecum or India rubber).

Despite the ever-escalating demand, reproductive control was a hugely controversial and divisive subject. Condoms were tainted by association with brothels, and birth control was equated with godlessness or sexual anarchy. Nevertheless, particularly in urban areas like New York, Mme. Restell and her cohort of mysterious faux-continentals capitalized on this demand, providing herbal cures, pamphlets, “lying-in services” and illicit abortions. Restell frequently advertised her “preventive powders,” as did her husband, under his own pseudonym: Dr. A. M. Mariceau. When the pills and douches failed, which they often did, Restell performed income-adjusted abortions at a facility on 148 Greenwich Street (later moving to Chambers Street), where she induced miscarriages through a combination of midwife-style needling of the amniotic sac and uterine-contracting pills. She also ran a business with her husband at 129 Liberty Street—the address indicated in most of the newspaper advertisements. If the girls who came to her were well past the quickening stage, Restell preferred to charge them for board until their delivery, and arranged adoptions in secret.

Though the wealthiest women in New York were among Restell’s clients, her rise to fortune, which took place in the full glare of public view, attracted outrage, condemnation, and above all, envy. Indignant accounts of her “brazen” carriage trips to Central Park from her Fifth Avenue home reflected the public’s disbelief at her dramatic rise in class from her days as a seamstress and the wife of an alcoholic immigrant. They were also aghast at her blithe displays of her “ill-gotten wealth,” given the morally dubious nature of her trade. The same newspapers that ran advertisements for her preventive powders and in-person consultations simultaneously ran editorial screeds against her immorality, christening her “the wickedest woman of New York.” Male physicians opposed midwives and abortionists like Restell because of their self-assumed authority, and the deleterious impact on their business. But the proverbial pitchfork wielders were driven by moral and religious outrage—not be concern for the mothers’ health, or even (as might be the case today) that of the fetus.

Newspaperman George Washington Dixon, one of Restell’s most indefatigable critics, eloquently encapsulated popular opinion about her in the New York Polyanthos: “Madame Restell’s Preventive Powders have counterfeited the hand writing of Nature; you have not a medal, fresh from the mint, of sure metal: but a base, lacquered counter, that has undergone the sweaty contamination of a hundred palms.” Restell’s association with the illicit life of New York made her the subject of not just lurid yellow journalism, but of several works of fiction. The most famous of these was the obscene novelette entitled The Countess: or, Memoirs of Women of Leisure, a “romance of the real” in which the abortionist’s floridly imagined sex life is explored alongside that of an ill-fated prostitute.

The arrest of Madame Restell in 1878. (Wikimedia Commons)

The arrest of Madame Restell in 1878. (Wikimedia Commons)

Restell had an equally tempestuous relationship with the law. She faced charges that ran the gamut from misdemeanors and second-degree manslaughter to (in one strange case) abduction, went through several court trials, and did a year’s jail time on Blackwell (now Governor’s) Island in 1847. The press was less than mollified. The Sun complained that the “illustrious convict” was waited upon by a liveried servant, ate “dainty and luxurious fare,” and that although she deigned to wear a convict’s frock, “her delicate hands, […] stained with the blood of numberless innocents, were covered with silk mits, her diamond and other jewels still glistened on her fingers.”

The 19 century was a time of vast social and economic upheaval. The same ferment that allowed Madame Restells to flourish also made the fortunes of tycoons like Morris Ketchum Jesup, one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History, who bankrolled her nemesis, Anthony Comstock. A railroad financier and philanthropist raised in a religious family in a small town in Indiana, Jesup despised the transformations he saw in American life, of which Restell was a most conspicuous part.

Comstock, the auteur of the repressive Comstock Laws banning everything from mail order douches to self-help literature, headed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice—a pack of moral vigilantes granted the right to search, seizure and arrest. In 1878, Comstock took along a plainclothes officer to Restell’s Fifth Avenue residence, and requested some abortifacients for a lady friend “in distress.” Restell handed him some pills, and was promptly arrested. The judge set her a $10,000 bail, but her allies, although they had the cash on hand, refused to publicly sign her bond in the presence of the press “for fear that they will be compromised by association with her.” Restell ended up spending several wretched nights penned with female murderers and robbers on the second floor of the Tombs prison in lower Manhattan, then the largest prison in America. Described as a “miserable architectural abortion,” the Tombs were modeled after an Egyptian mausoleum, and were overcrowded, shabbily constructed, and mephitic. The floors were perpetually rinsed over by sewage, and the entire complex threatened to sink into the polluted bog it was constructed on.

After her release from the Tombs, Restell, then 68, with her husband long dead, found the prospect of further jail time unbearable. On the eve of her trial, she slit her right jugular with a carving knife and sat to die in her bathtub, with the faucets on full blast. The headlines on the following day were delirious with Schadenfreude. Like her obituary in the Daily Constitution, which was entitled: “The Belle of Sodom: How the Woman Restell Met her End.”

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