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Sarah Grosvenor, Colonial American Abortion Death
Betrayed by her lover
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In one of the three Pomfret colonial-era cemeteries leans a headstone:

Here Lyes Ye Body of
M. Sarah Grosvenor
Daug. of Licester
Grosvenor Esq. & M.
Mary his Wife: Who
Died Sep. 14th 1742:
In Ye 20th Year of
Her Life

Sarah and Amasa

Sarah was the granddaughter of one of the six original major landowners in that area of the county. Her father, Leicester, was one of the first selectman after Pomfret became a town in 1714. He was elected to that office for 19 one-year terms. He was a Captain in the local militia and a leading man in the town.

The events that led to Sarah's death began in mid to late May, when she told her lover, Amasa Sessions, that she was pregnant. Amasa was the son of Lieutenant Nathaniel Sessions, who ran a tavern out of his house at a major crossroads about a mile from the village. He was a member of town committees, and many town meetings were held at his tavern. Amasa himself, a nephew recalled, was "a very strong man" in his prime.

Sarah had evidently been attracted to Amasa's strength. But when she turned to him in her trouble, he showed a weaker side.

Taking The Trade

Sarah's older sister, Zerviah, became suspicious in July, about the 17th, and asked Sarah if she was pregnant -- an assertion Sarah flatly denied before she "went away Sorrowful". However, when confronted by her cousin, John Grosvenor, she confessed fairly quickly, and again "in a Sorrowfull mannar". She quickly named Amasa as the baby's father. John asked Sarah if she was "takeing of trade to destroy it" and she confessed that she was. He asked her why, and she said "because Sessions So very earnestly perswaided her". She also named Dr. John Hallowell as the source of the abortifacient. Sarah had also freely confessed the pregnancy to John's wife, Hannah, who lived with him and their four small children near Sarah's home.

John later saw Hallowell and "I asked why he gave Sarah Grosvenor trade to destroy her Child and to do with her as he did and he said because Sessions Came to him and was So very earnest with him and offered him five pounds if he would do it but he Said he would have twenty of him before he had done..."

And exactly who was Dr. Hallowell? His reputation as a man was not exactly cut from the same mold as Sarah and Amasa's fathers. He had been arrested in 1727 on suspicion of counterfeiting, though the charges had been dropped when the informant vanished. He was just the sort of person to go to, it seemed, for shady undertakings.

On July 19, Sarah became ill. Her stepmother recalled that Dr. Hallowell was in the neighborhood and sent Zerviah to get him. Zerviah told Hallowell of her suspicions about Sarah's possible pregnancy, and begged him to "not Give her any thing that should harm her".

Hallowell spoke to Sarah in private. When they emerged from the room, Sarah asked Dr. Hallowell if he could help her, and he replied, "Yes, child, I believe I can." Zerviah spoke to him privately and asked repeatedly if Sarah was pregnant. He assured her that Sarah wasn't. At his suggestion Hannah and Zerviah brought Sarah to their cousin John's house.

While Hallowell was doing whatever it was he was doing, Zerviah went on horseback to tell Amasa Sessions what was going on. He went to John Grosvenor's house, where he and Dr. Hallowell tended Sarah through the night.

On the morning of July 20, Zerviah and Hannah brought Sarah home to her father's house. She remained ill. Over the next several days, Zerviah pressed Sarah about pregnancy, and Sarah continued to deny that she was pregnant.

Zerviah's Outrage and An Empty Promise

On July 24, Sarah, weeping, finally confessed to Zerviah that she was pregnant. Zerviah wanted to know why Sarah had kept such a secret from her, and Sarah responded that she had been "taking the trade". Zerviah told Sarah that this was even a worse thing than the sin that had gotten her pregnant in the first place, and asked how long Sarah had been "taking the trade". Sarah replied that she'd been doing so for as long as she'd known she was pregnant. Zerviah asked where Sarah had obtained the abortifacient, and Sarah said that Dr. Hallowell had provided it at Amasa's urging.

Amasa visited and Zerviah confronted him. Amasa admitted to Zerviah that the child was his -- he had no doubt of this. Zerviah wanted to know why he had pressed her sister into such an act as abortion. Amasa said that "he was afraid of his Parnets (sic) and that they would always make their lives uncomfortable". Zerviah scolded Amasa into stopping the abortion attempt and agreeing to marry Sarah -- should she and the child survive. Amasa placated Zerviah by saying that he would have the banns published (announce the intended marriage) that upcoming Sunday at the Pomfret meeting house.

Sunday, July 30, rolled around, but the banns were not published. Instead, Amasa visited Sarah at her father's house again, bringing more of the abortifacient. Zerviah demanded to know why Amasa was going back on his word to halt the abortion, and he claimed that he had consulted with Dr. Hallowell, who had told him that the damage had already been done and that the only hope for Sarah was to proceed with "taking the trade". He took out a paper with something on it, persuading Sarah to take the dose though both she and Zerviah protested that it was a sinful thing to do. He then left, taking the rest of "the trade" with him and indicating that he knew if he left it behind Zerviah or Sarah would dispose of it and not follow through with the abortion.

A More Vigorous Attempt

On August 2, Dr. Hallowell went to John Grosvenor's house and sent one of the children to fetch Sarah. He took Sarah into a room. Shortly after that, Hallowell summoned Hannah, who was very surprised at what she found in the room, which was a gravely ill Sarah in bed. She immediately came back out asking Zerviah to get some cold water for Sarah because she was faint. Sarah brought the water quickly. Hallowell insisted, as Amasa had insisted earlier, that once the abortion had started there was no choice but to finish it. He reassured all three women that the baby was already dead and therefore beyond any harm, but also told them that Sarah would likewise die if he didn't finish the job. Zerviah left the room, and was informed later that Hallowell had made another attempt to remove the baby from Sarah's body. Hallowell eventually gave up on his attempts to extract the baby, gave her relatives some "drops" to dose her with, and sent Sarah back to her father's house.

Untimely Birth

Sarah remained ill, finally having an "ague fit" on Friday, August 4, and expelling the dead baby into a chamber pot. She summoned Zerviah and Hannah, who wrapped the baby and buried it in the woods. They observed that the baby was a girl, "perfect" but only about half the size of a typical newborn. They also noted that the baby clearly has been dead for some time, since the body has already begun to smell bad.

The next day, Zerviah went rushing to the Sessions house, and blurted out to Amasa's brother and sister-in-law, Alexander and Silence, that Sarah has had "an untimely birth". Silence later described Zerviah as seeming to be out of her mind. Silence asked Zerviah what she'd done with the baby, and Zerviah had replied that she'd buried her in the bushes. Silence asked Zerviah how she could have done such a thing, and Zerviah had replied, "I don't know. The devil was in us," before falling down in a fit.

Over the next week, Sarah seemed to rally. Hannah stopped to visit and found her downstairs, at some sort of work. But on the 14th of August, Sarah suffered from violent pains and a fever. She was wretchedly ill. Her father brought Dr. Parker Morse from Woodstock and Dr. Coker from Pomfret to tend to her. Amasa brought Dr. Hallowell as well.

A Malignant Fever

Dr. Morse said he found Sarah "siezed of a Malignant fever with all the simptoms of it, in an Exalted Degree, & as I then apprehended Likely to be mortal in Its Event." He'd heard rumors of the pregnancy and asked Sarah's father and stepfather, both of whom vehemently and repeatedly denied that Sarah was or had been pregnant. When the family summoned him a second time, "I repaired again to the young woman which was sick viz the sd. Sarah Grosvenor, & found her under all the Simptoms of a Malignant fever; being reduced to a great Degree of weakness, with Nervous Contractions Causing Convulsive motions, much Disordered in her brain, & near to or quite Delirious upon Observation of which I Judged her Sickness to be mortal & to the best of my remembrance I told her Friends so & Left her, & from that Time I saw her no more."

All of the physicians are agreed on one thing: there is nothing they can do for the desperately sick young woman. Sarah's cousin John encountered Hallowell in Providence in mid September, and "hollowel thought that She woul not live he Seem,d very much to lament that he Should be perswaid by Sessions to do as he had done..."

During Sarah's sickness, Hallowell let slip to Sarah's cousin Ebenezer that Amasa had gotten Sarah pregnant. "I asked him what was the Reason that they did not marry & he told me that he Doubted that Sessions Did not Love her well a nough for saith he: did not beleive it was his son & if he Could Cause her to gitt Red of it he would not Go near her again, & the doctor gave me to understand that said Sessions had bin Interseeding with him to Remove her Conseption".

Deathbed Confessions

Abigail Nightingale, Sarah's neighbor and closest friend, helped to tend to Sarah before her death. "I asked her what was the Matter to which she replyed by asking me whether I thought her Sins would ever be pardoned, to which I answered that I hoped she had not Sinned the unpardonable sin but with true and hearty repentence hoped she would find forgiveness. then I asked her what made her take the trade (meaning what she had used for destroying the fruit of her body) to which she replyed because Sessions would take no denyal, and that she told him she was willing to take the sin & shame to her self, and to be obliged never to tell whose Child it was, and that she did not doubt but that if she humbled her self on her Knees to her Father he would take her & her Child home, and that she urged him not to go on to add sin to sin, that the Last transgression would be worse then the first, and that she feared it was too late."

Abigail reported that Amasa had been with her one day, sitting on Sarah's deathbed, when Amasa had leaned over Sarah and said, "Poor Creature I have undone you."

As Sarah neared death, she evidently felt the need to confess, and unburdened herself to Abigail. She said that on the day Hallowell had called her down to John Grosvenor's home, she told him she didn't want her baby to die and asked him to please stop the abortion. Hallowell had told asked her when she'd last felt the child move, and she'd told him about a fortnight earlier. Hallowell told her "there was no life in the child" and she had to submit to his attempts to remove it or she would die herself. Sarah had pleaded with him that if there was any chance her baby was still alive that she wanted him do nothing to harm it.

Hallowell finally convinced Sarah that her baby was already dead, and that she would die herself if she didn't submit to his attempts to remove the body. Sarah submitted, again begging Hallowell that if there was any sign of life in her baby to spare the child's life.

"[T]hen the Doctor openning his portmantua took an Instrument out of it and Laid it on the Bed, & she asking him what it was for, he replyed that it was to make way; and yt then he tryed to remove the Child for Some time in vain putting her to the Utmost Distress, and that at Last she observed he trembled and immediately perceived a Strange alteration in her body and thought a bone of the Child was broken; on which she desired him (as she said) to Call in some body, for that she feared she was a dying, and instantly swooned away..."

The End -- For a Time

Sarah continued to languish, finally dying on September 14.

Jonathan Shaw, one of Sarah's cousins, confronted Hallowell after Sarah's death, telling him, "I could not look upon him otherwise Than a Bad man Since he had Destroyed my Kinswoman," but Hallowell had passed the blame to Amasa Sessions, insisting that it was all his idea.

Amasa Sessions, for his part, lamented to Jonathan "That he could freely be Striped naked provided he could bring Sarah Grosr To life again, (& give All he had in ye ____ home) & have her as his wife, but Doct Hollowell had Deluded him, & Destroyed her; had he been as much knowing In The Time of it, as he was Then, he tho't he could have got Things yt would have preserved her Life."

But he got over his grief quickly enough -- he married a wealthy widow (with whom he would eventually have at least ten children) two years after Sarah's death.

Action at Last

Nothing more is in the records about Sarah's death until November 1 of 1745. That's when suddenly, apparently apropos of nothing, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Amasa Sessions, Zerviah Grosvenor, Hannah Grosvenor, and John Hallowell on charges of the murder of Sarah Grosvenor and her child. Did Hallowell or Amasa really cheese somebody off? Did somebody get tired of listening to his wife nag about how nobody was being brought to justice over the death of the poor Grosvenor girl? This, friends, is one of those WTF? moments in history.

On November 5 and 6, hearings were held at the Pomfret meeting house. Ebenezer West, Justice of the Peace, and Jonathan Trumbull, Assistant, examined the three prisoners they were able to bring in. Hallowell was unable to appear because he was in Rhode Island -- in jail for debt. With Hallowell out of the way, the other three defendants were pretty much in agreement that he was the guilty party who gave Sarah "sundry medicines with design to Cause an Abortion" and that further he "by force, Violence, and Manual Operation" made "an Attempt on the Body of said Sarah to take the Child for which she was Then pregnant away from her". The finding was that "... Hallowell is Guilty of murdering Sarah."

They weren't entirely successful in passing the buck entirely to Hallowell. The court also found that Amasa Sessions "did advise, council and assist in the giving of the Medicines and performing the force" and thus was accessory to murder. Hannah Grosvenor was found guilty of "aiding and assisting ... & tho called in Surprise, yet ded conceal & keep secret & undiscovered The sd. Force, & violence" committed on Sarah. Hannah was declared to be an accessory in the murder, as was Zerviah.

The court ordered the defendants to be freed on bonds to appear in Windham Superior Court in Connecticut in March of 1746. The witnesses were also bound over to appear.

Hallowell's Day in Court

When March of 1746 came, John Hallowell was finally brought before Ebenezer West. He ordered that Hallowell be held in the Windham County jail pending testimony by the witnesses. The examination of Hallowell himself was delayed until April 17. The court -- again, West and Trumbull -- found Hallowell guilty of the murder of Sarah and her child, and ordered him held without bail pending court in September.

More testimony was held in September, and on the 4th an indictment was handed down against Hallowell, though the Grand Jury endorses it "Ignoramus" -- meaning literally "we know not" and indicating that more evidence is needed.

On September 20, another indictment was prepared and handed down against both Hallowell and Amasa Sessions for conspiracy in the deaths of Sarah and her baby. The Grand Jury found this indictment satisfactory, and Hallowell was released on bond. On November 18, the attorneys for Hallowell and Sessions successfully argued before a special Superior Court session that the indictment should be quashed for reasons including lack of specificity as to place and the fact that the crime in question took place so long before the indictment was handed down.

The King's Attorney, however, did not take this lying down, and argued that "on further and more careful Examination" there appears to be reason to suspect that Hallowell and Sessions were "guilty of Sundry Heinous Offenses and Misdemeanors...." He moved that they should be held or bound to appear before Windham Superior Court.

In March of 1747 (when Sarah had been dead nearly five years), the Grand Jury considered a bill of indictment against Amasa Sessions, but endorsed it "Ignoramus".

Justice at last?

A bill of indictment against Dr. Hallowell, however, was found true, that he "did wilfully, wickedly and Malliciously Counsel, advise, and contrive and by actual force and violence attempt and endeavour ye health & Soundness of ys sd Sarah to destroy and ye fruit of her womb to destroy & case to perish...all of which is an hainious & highhanded Misdemeanour & offence against ye peace...." Hallowell pleaded not guilty, was tried and convicted, and sentenced to be set in a gallows in a public place for two hours, with a rope visibly hanging around his neck, then to be whipped 29 lashes, then be remanded back to prison until the September court session.

Hallowell, however, managed to escape and flee to Rhode Island before this sentence was carried out.

In October, Hallowell, along with 14 male inhabitants of Providence, Rhode Island, petition the Connecticut General Assembly to take pity on him, having fled only to obey "the Law of Self Preservation", as well as to take pity on his wife and seven children "who tho thay did not participate of the Guild have too Deeply tasted of the punishment." Hallowell also argues that many of the witnesses against him were likewise guilty -- even more guilty -- and were not being punished. The men also chime in that many Rhode Island and Connecticut residents were benefitting from Hallowell's care as a doctor and need him.

The members of the General Assembly weren't buying it. They denied the petition, and Hallowell vanished from all known public records.

Epilogue

In one of the three Pomfret colonial-era cemeteries leans a headstone:

In Memory of
Capt. AMASA SESSIONS
who departed this life
April 7th 1799 In the 84th
Year of his age.

A gentleman of distinguished
Abilities and always acquitted
Himself with honor in Public
Business in which he was much
Improved. Sincere & agreeable
As a friend & kind & obliging
As a neighbor.

A wit's a feather, and a chief a rod
An honest man's the noblest work of God.

Reading the inscription on his headstone, one can almost hear the weeping of the mourners, the family and distinguished persons of the town, as they lay Amasa Sessions, pilar of the community, to rest.

Less than 25 feet away lay Sarah Grosvenor, nearly 50 years dead -- evidently forgotten.

Illegal by Doctors Illegal by Paramedical Illegal by Amateurs Self Induced

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion


Sources:

  • The Grosvenor/Sessions Abortion: Depositions
  • The Grosvenor/Sessions Abortion: Timeline
  • A Colonial Abortion Drama
  • An Abortion Case in 1775 Connecticut

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