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Sylvia Sawdy, Illegal Abortion Death
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Harry McDowell began calling at the home of Dr. Sawdy of Howard City, about 40 miles north of Grand Rapids, to visit Dr. Sawdy's 21-year-old daughter, Sylvia. McDowell usually came on Sundays and in the evening, and also corresponded with Sylvia.

On December 10, 1885, Sylvia went to Grand Rapids by train, ostensibly to visit McDowell's mother. Dr. Sawdy heard nothing more from or about his daughter until the morning of Christmas Eve, when McDowell's father came to him, saying that he'd gotten a telegram or telephone call from his son. The senior McDowell said that Harry had told him that Sylvia was very sick and wanted her mother to go to her.

Dr. Sawdy read the next day in the newspaper that his daughter was dead.

It came out in the trial that in November, Sylvia had consulted with Drs. Bodle, Hake, and Bradish, indicating that she was pregnant. Evidence indicated that McDowell had performed an abortion on Sylvia on December 23, and that she died that day. McDowell was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years.


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

Source: 63 Mich. 229, 30 N.W. 68; Supreme Court of Michigan.PEOPLEv.MCDOWELL.October 21, 1886.

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