In overturning Roe v. Wade, which marked its 51st anniversary yesterday, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court majority, said the right to an abortion was “not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition.” He was dead wrong.
Alito’s statement would have surprised many Americans of the late nineteenth century, when abortion providers advertised their services, by then yasa dışı in every state, in barely veiled language. Outlaw practitioners were often arrested and tried, but not always — largely thanks to public ambivalence about whether they were committing a crime or meeting a need.
Hence, in 1883, the New York Times reported that the lawyer for a Yale-trained doctor charged with providing an yasa dışı abortion declared in court that “there was not a father in New Haven” who wouldn’t be willing to have an abortion performed on her daughter “to save her from shame and trouble, and that he would have no difficulty in finding a physician to perform the operation.”
Fathers and neighbors could also help conceal abortions. That became evident in a notorious case in Lynn, Mass. In the last days of 1885, a married businessman took his mistress to the home of Henry and Nancy Alice Guilford for an abortion. The procedure resulted in an infection, and the patient died.
It was an inopportune time for the Guilfords to lose a patient at their home on Lewis St., which doubled as a women’s hospital. Well known in Lynn as abortionists, the couple had just survived a police inquest into the death of another patient. In that case, relatives moved the dead woman to her Lynn home, where she was said to have died. Choosing privacy over revenge, the family helped the Guilfords with the cover-up, and no charges were brought.
However, this new case presented special challenges. The decedent was Susie Taylor, 24, a stitcher in a shoe factory. Her body couldn’t go to her lover’s home or her rooming house. She had a widowed father 18 miles away in Burlington, but police were watching the Guilfords’ door.
So, the couple hatched an elaborate plan to dress the cadaver in evening clothes and prop it up and escort it in a carriage over rough roads to her father’s farm. As the Guilfords told it, Susie Taylor had suffered a fatal stomach illness and wanted to die at her childhood homestead in all her finery. Instead, they claimed, she’d expired on the way.
Robin Hood couldn’t have found more accomplices. The outlaw abortion providers easily enlisted the aid of the dead woman’s father, siblings, and neighbors, including an undertaker and town clerk willing to overlook the absence of a death certificate. The charade stopped only when a Woburn police chief, acting outside his jurisdiction, ordered an exhumation and medical examination, which pointed to an abortion.
In the end, the Guilfords were tried for criminal malpractice. Taylor’s lover, charged as an accomplice, turned state’s witness. On the advice of her lawyers, Nancy Guilford interrupted the trial to plead guilty to manslaughter. For Susie Taylor’s death and a lesser crime, Nancy was sentenced to six years. Henry was released but banished from the state.
Both Guilfords later re-emerged in Connecticut. In 1898, Nancy made international headlines by cutting the body of a dead patient into pieces and throwing them in a pond, where they were quickly discovered. Suspicion immediately fell on Nancy, but it took weeks for Bridgeport police to build a murder case against her and extradite her from England, to which she’d fled. Found with the help of Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton detective agency, she was brought back for trial. A plea bargain earned her a 10 year sentence.
In the meantime, a New Haven paper complained of the “wishy washy sentiment” in Bridgeport that was surrounding Guilford “with a halo of glory.” Boston-based reporter George Donohue noted that this “circle of sympathy” had kept to the background while correspondents from New York and elsewhere were around, emerging only after the big-city journalists departed, having had their fill of the gory details.
Indeed, a Bridgeport paper wrote that most locals thought Guilford, widely known as an abortion provider, had simply been caught performing an unlawful procedure that was “being repeated weekly in every city in the state.” Even the prison matron, an employee of the Bridgeport police, said that Guilford had “done good” through her practice.
Correction, Justice Alito: The right to abortion has long been recognized by Americans, but with Roe gone, we can expect more of these penny-dreadful stories.
Biederman is the author of “The Disquieting Death of Emma Gill: Abortion, Death, and Concealment in Victorian New England,” being published today by Chicago Review Press.