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Antoinette Fennor, Criminal Abortion Death
Where were the moderns signs of concern for women's lives?
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Coroner Simms last night resumed the inquest touching the death of Miss Antoinette Fennor. Seated in a corner of the room ... was the father of the unfortunate girl, buried in the great crowd which surged about the doorway and pressed against the railing which inclosed the space where the jury, reporters and counsel were seated, anxious to hear every word as it fell from the witnesses' mouths.

News coverage of the March, 1875 coroner's inquest into the death of Antoinette Fennor gives us an interesting glimpse into how abortion was practiced, investigated, and prosecuted in Brooklyn in the late 19th century, and how the public responded to abortion deaths.

They certainly didn't take the bored, "You pays your money and you takes your chances" attitude I see people taking toward modern abortion deaths.

This article focused mostly on the testimony of Detective James H. Roche, give March 17.

On the previous Saturday, March 13, Roche went to Mrs. Catherine Maxwell's home, and found her seated at the window in the front parlor. Mr. Maxwell admitted him. Roche had to wait for a couple, not identified, to finish whatever business they had with Mrs. Maxwell.

Posing as a young woman's debaucher, Roche indicated to Mrs. Maxwell that he wanted to arrange an abortion. Mrs. Maxwell asked how advanced the pregnancy was, and he said about five months. "She said that was a very bad case but that she could attend to it all right as she had forty years' experience in New York City in that kind of business."

She asked how old the girl was and if she was living with her parents. Roche said that the girl had been living with him for about two years. Mrs. Maxwell asked for $100, and said that Roche would leave the girl at a nearby boarding house run by a friend of hers, who would charge $25 a week. He would also have to furnish a doctor to provide aftercare, and that Mr. Maxwell would check on the girl daily to see to it that the aftercare was adequate.

Roche asked if there was a risk of death, and Mrs. Maxwell said that there was no more risk for the abortion than for an ordinary childbirth. She also said that the procedure itself could be done in half the time they had spent talking about it.

When asked about instruments and medicines, Mrs. Maxwell said that she would use a syringe and some medicine.

Finally, Roche asked if it was better to have a woman, rather than a man, performing such a procedure. Mrs. Maxwell told him "they were much better, and that men should not be allowed to touch women at all". She cited a case in Brooklyn, in which she said Dr. Estes had been arrested and his patient had died.

Roche spent some time dickering the price down to $75, then tried to get a discount on the boarding house. There Mrs. Maxwell stood firm, saying that it was not she, but her friend, who set the price for that, and the price was not negotiable.

It was then that Roche admitted his true identity and presented his warrant for her arrest in Antoinette Fennor's death -- the Brooklyn girl whose death Mrs. Maxwell had mentioned.

Mrs. Maxwell wanted to know what evidence he had against her. Roche told Mrs. Maxwell that a woman had said she had come to Maxwell's home with the girl. Mrs. Maxwell said that she'd be in the workhouse if she didn't go into the abortion business, since her husband was "feeble" and unable to work, that she had rent to pay, servants to pay. She admitted that she'd been arrested twice for abortion previously. As her husband went to get the carriage to bring her to the station, she told Roche that she felt sorry not for herself, but for her children, since she would likely die in prison.

One of Mrs. Maxwell's priors was then brought out in the inquest. On February 16, 1846, she had been found guilty under the name of Catherine Costello, alias Maxwell, of doing an abortion on Emily D. She had been sentenced to 6 months, and fined $250. The girl's "seducer", Charles Mason, who had arranged the abortion, was sentenced to four months. The other abortion had evidently performed on a Mrs. Jennie Gale, who testified against Mrs. Maxwell at the inquest at some point, and who evidently had referred for the abortion that had killed Antoinette. Mrs. Gale was arrested as an accessory, and her attorney protested that she had come to the inquest as a witness and therefore should not have been subject to criminal charges.

Mrs. Maxwell was then brought into the room to be identified by Roche. Snidely Whiplash couldn't have gotten a more negative response:

As she is unable to walk, she was carried into the court room on her chair by two officers, who placed her in the centre of the room, facing [Roche]. In answer to the Coroner's inquiry, "Do you identify that woman as the person whom you arrested?" the officer replied, "I do," and the woman was wheeled back to the private room on the Coroner waving his hand, saying, "Take that woman away." The woman is anything but an agreeable looking personage, and the great crowd that looked upon her seemed to feel the contempt and disgust which the Coroner's words and actions showed he had for the woman as he turned his gaze from her and ordered her taken from the room.

Dr. J.J. Skene and Dr. Ford had attended Antoinette during her fatal deterioration. Skene testified about her physical condition. Dr. A. W. Shepherd had participated in the autopsy. He testified that the baby had been of four months' gestation. He testified that Antoinette had died from abortion injuries, which he described but the news coverage skipped.

Mrs. Ellen Wood was an acquaintance of John H. Betts, the father of Antoinette's baby. She testified that he had spoken to her the previous July about an abortion for Miss Annie Clews, and had offered her $30. Annie was called. She testified that she had a baby by Betts. He'd offered her money to abort the child in question, but she had refused.

The verdict was that Antoinette died of peritonitis March 7, 1875, from an abortion performed about February 26 by Mrs. Maxwell. Jennie Gale and John Betts were accessories. All three were arrested.

In striking contrast to a modern abortion death case, there were none of the signs of concern for women's lives that you see nowadays. There was no knot of supporters outside holding signs saying "Mrs. Maxwell Helps Women". There was no ad-hoc coalition of lobbying and activist organizations forming a legal defense fund for the woman who killed Antoinette. And there was no group of young admirers asking Mrs. Maxwell to come speak to them about how they could follow in her footsteps. There were none of those familiar signs we see nowadays about how important it is to protect women from lethal butchery. No, back then, when nobody cared about women's lives, being party to a woman's abortion death just got you scorn, infamy, and a prison sentence.

How times have changed.

I have no information on overall maternal mortality, or abortion mortality, in the 19th century. I imagine it can't be too much different from maternal and abortion mortality at the very beginning of the 20th Century.

Note, please, that with issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good.

For more on this era, see Abortion Deaths in the 19th Century.

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

  • "Malpractice", The Brooklyn Eagle, March 18, 1875


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