Nicholas L. Syrett’s new biography, The Trials of Madame Restell: Nineteenth-Century America’s Most Infamous Female Physician and the Campaign to Make Abortion a Crime (The New Press, 2023), tells the story of one of the most important female doctors of the nineteenth century, a tale with unmistakable parallels today.
“Madame Restell,” the nom de guerre of the most successful female physician in America, sold birth control, delivered children, and performed abortions for decades in a series of clinics run out of her home in New York City. “Restellism” becoming a term detractors used to indict her.
Abortion was then largely unregulated in most of the United States, including New York. But during the Industrial Revolution a sense of disquiet arose about single women flocking to the city for work and greater sexual freedom, amid changing views of motherhood, with fewer children born to white, married, middle-class women.
Restell came to stand for everything threatening the status quo. From 1829 onward, restrictions on abortion began to put her in legal jeopardy. For much of this period she prevailed — until she didn’t.
The Life of Madame Restell
Ann Trow was born in the wool processing community of Painswick, in in Gloucestershire, England, on May 6, 1812. Her parents were poorly paid mill workers, and it’s unlikely Ann received much education. When 15 years old, she became a live-in maid and the next year she married a tailor seven years her elder, Henry Summers.
Ann and Henry were struggling financially when she gave birth to a daughter in 1830. The following year they migrated as a family to the city of New York, settling a few block from the infamous Five Points. A few months after their arrival, Henry died, leaving Anna widow with a young child.
Ann worked as a seamstress and in 1836 met and married Charles Lohman, was a Russian immigrant working as a printer at the New York Herald. The family moved to Chatham Street, where Ann met Dr. William Evans.
Evans had no formal medical training, but made pills, tonics, and powders based on old herbal remedies which he sold as cures for everything from baldness to consumption.With Evans’ help Ann made and sold her own pills to cure liver, lung, and stomach ailments, establishing a small business until a customer asked for a medicine to end an unwanted pregnancy.
In the first half of the 1800s, family planning was considered the private business of women. Before “quickening,” or the moment when a woman first felt a fetus move, a woman could fairly easily obtain abortifacients, and if that didn’t work, midwives and doctors performed surgical abortions.
In New York State, doctors hoping to take control of the work of midwifes and female medical practitioners succeeded in lobbying for a law in 1827 that made providing an abortion a crime punishable by a year in jail and a $100 fine. Since most people cared little about what was considered a private matter, few abortions were reported to authorities, and the law was seldom used.
Historians believe Ann’s first abortion medication was simply a copy of an old recipe, part of a long tradition of female-led family planning. Ann’s abortifacient was popular however, and see gave up working as a seamstress to practice her brand of medicine.
After visiting her family in England in 1838 she returned and rented a respectable-looking office on a fashionable street. Ann spread the story that she had learned effective and safe medical abortions from a famous abortionist in Paris and adopted the name Madame Restell.
Her first advertisement ran in the New York Sun in March 1839 and she soon launched a mail-order business, establishing offices in Philadelphia and Boston.
Madame Restell’s medicines were not very effective however. Her birth control powder was ineffective and women who found themselves pregnant, spent more money for her abortion medicine. If that failed, Madame Restell offered a secret surgical abortion which cost $100 for wealthy women, and $20 for those who were poor (still an extraordinarily high price for the time).
Ann’s popularity drew the attention. of a loose alliance of doctors, religious leaders, and social reformers who hoped to end her practice. Her first arrest occurred only five months after her first advertisement was published, but the charges were dropped.
This was only the beginning of decades of legal troubles. Called “the wickedest woman in New York,” and accused of hurting and killing her patients, in 1846 there was a riot outside her office.
The following year Ann’s detractors succeeded in securing a conviction for performing an illegal abortion. She served a year in prison and then stopped offering surgical abortions, focusing on her pills instead.
She made a fortune and her stature was great enough that Mayor Jacob Westervelt officiated her daughter’s wedding in 1854. In 1862, Ann and Charles built a mansion in an exclusive neighborhood where she opened an office in 1867.
At the end of the Civil War, the anti-abortion movement grew however, under the leadership of Anthony Comstock, U.S. Postal Inspector and head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Comstock sponsored the 1873 Comstock Acts that made it illegal to send obscene material by mail. In 1878, the year after her beloved husband had died, Comstock pretended to be a man seeking abortion services for a woman out of state, and had Ann arrested when she responded to the need.
Rather than face another trial and certain conviction, Ann Loham died by suicide on April 1, 1878, the day her trial was set to begin.
Syrett’s The Trials of Madame Restell paints an unforgettable picture of the mid-nineteenth-century New York and brings Restell to the attention of a whole new generation of women in the current fight over reproductive choices.
Author Nicholas L. Syrett is associate dean and professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas. He is a co-editor of the Journal of the History of Sexuality and author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (2011), American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States (2016), and An Open Secret: The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton (2021). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Daily Beast. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
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Illustrations, from above. Cover of Syrett’s The Trials of Madame Restell; and the title page from Wonderful trial of Caroline Lohman, alias Restell; Trial of Carolina Lohman, alias Madame Restell, for manslaughter in the second degree, by producing abortion upon the body of Maria Bodine, in July, 1846 (New-York Historical Society).