Abortion on Trial: On Nicholas L. Syrett’s “The Trials of Madame Restell”

Edna Bonhomme reviews Nicholas L. Syrett’s “The Trials of Madame Restell: Nineteenth-Century America’s Most Infamous ‘Female Physician’ and the Campaign to Make Abortion a Crime.”

Abortion on Trial: On Nicholas L. Syrett’s “The Trials of Madame Restell”

The Trials of Madame Restell: Nineteenth-Century America’s Most Infamous “Female Physician” and the Campaign to Make Abortion a Crime by Nicholas L. Syrett. The New Press. 352 pages.

TO ACCESS AN ABORTION in 19th-century America was to straddle the line between secrecy and delinquency. A woman might demand that her lover take some responsibility by proposing marriage or paying for an abortion. Alternatively, the pregnant woman might consume an abortifacient such as tansy oil, ergot, pennyroyal, or turpentine, hoping that embryonic tissue would be expelled from their uterus. If medication didn’t succeed, a woman might use a knitting needle or even a whalebone to induce miscarriage. Of course, such desperate measures risked puncturing the vaginal wall and a potential death from peritonitis. If one had the means, then one would receive surgical care from a midwife to extract the fetus. One of the most famous abortion providers in 19th-century New York City was Madame Restell, who advertised her services in New York’s The Sun in 1839 as follows: “Is it desirable, then, is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of the consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control?”

The message was clear enough: family planning was not only possible but also essential, and this included the procuring of contraceptives and herbal abortions. Yet to state such a matter plainly, and to provide counsel regarding abortion services, was also against the law. Restell was not alone in advertising “female pills” during the mid-19th century, but she was the longest-lasting of her peers. A luminous presence, she advocated reproductive health at a time when medicine was evolving and midwives were central to gynecological care. Before the mid-19th century, having an abortion was relatively uncontroversial—or, at least, not illegal in almost all cases. In many circumstances, it could not even be proven that an abortion had occurred. The criminalization of abortion, contraceptives, and midwifery mounted later in the century, as women sought more autonomy and professional doctors began pushing midwives (self-described “female physicians”) out of practice.

Restell’s persistence in doling out reproductive services made her a larger-than-life figure, and her career is now the subject of Nicholas L. Syrett’s latest book, The Trials of Madame Restell: Nineteenth-Century America’s Most Infamous “Female Physician” and the Campaign to Make Abortion a Crime (2023). Syrett, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, is not the first Restell biographer: Jennifer Wright wrote a compelling study published earlier last year. But Syrett has had access to extensive archival and legal records, and he provides a thorough and discerning political history of abortion in 19th-century New York City. His book is not just about the life of one notable woman but also about the encroaching legal measures that came to regulate people’s sexual lives during the period. As Syrett argues, “Restell’s life […] serves as a prism for understanding the steady decline in respect for women’s understanding about their own bodies.”

Madame Restell was a pseudonym that radiated European refinement and finesse for American patients, yet she was neither French nor American—she was born in 1812 in rural England as Ann Trow. Her early life was largely unrecorded, save for her migration—with her child and first husband, Henry Summers—to New York City in 1831. With a population of 200,000, New York was the largest city in the United States, evoking progress and modernity for many European immigrants. Initially working as a part-time seamstress, she helped to keep her family afloat, but when her husband died shortly after their move, Trow wrestled with the harsh realities of supporting a child as a single mother. She was compelled to find a decent income outside the factory system, marrying Charles Lohman in 1833 and eventually adopting a new identity. By 1839, she had become Madame Restell, in which role she set out to demystify reproductive health. Although she described herself as a female physician, Restell was not trained in medicine, though she claimed she had received midwifery training from her grandmother in Europe. Eventually, she provided contraceptives, abortions, boarding services, and sex education courses; delivered babies; and placed infants up for adoption. As Syrett notes, “Restell was in the business of bringing on miscarriages rather than of performing full terminations.”

Given that one in every 100 women died while delivering a baby, and abortion was thus far less dangerous than childbirth, women of all backgrounds, single and married, poor and middle-class, took whatever measures they could to decide if and when they would become pregnant. They were willing to pay any expense, which could be as high as $1,000 for a surgical abortion provided by Restell. Her eventual purchase of a mansion on Fifth Avenue proved that many people sought her services, yet prosperity didn’t come without strife.

Syrett’s aim is straightforward: to write a biography that dives deep into the details, highlighting both the legal terrain and the media environment. His rich and focused study follows Restell through her many court cases, as “she blithely continued on, uncowed by […] warnings. She was defiant.” From the moment she advertised her services in The New York Herald and The Sun to her first indictment and incarceration in 1839, she was deeply embedded in controversy, primarily because of the changing legality of abortion during the period. Syrett unpacks this history, clearly laying out how abortion was defined and in what circumstances it was considered legal. At the time, the boundaries were determined by “quickening”—the point at which the pregnant person could feel the fetus’s movement, usually around 12 weeks of pregnancy. In most parts of the United States, terminating a pregnancy before quickening had no legal consequences; however, the abortion provider could face a misdemeanor or pay a fine for a procedure conducted after quickening had occurred. Although no one died during any of her procedures, Restell was arrested five times between 1839 and 1877.

Syrett makes the case that the advent of the penny presses and tabloid newspapers offered women independent and anonymously attained advice, information, and notices about reproductive care at the same time that doctors, clergy, and politicians were allying with anti-abortion movements. The book offers a tally of providers and services that shaped urban reproductive medicine: in addition to Madame Restell, there was Madame Costello (a.k.a. Catharine Maxwell) and Mrs. Bird (a.k.a. Margaret Dawson). Like Restell, these women provided contraceptive pills, abortions, and deliveries, even as the procedures and medications increasingly became illegal. Their criminalization was due partially to the delegitimization of midwifery but mostly to society’s perennial misogyny.

We know about Restell and her legacy not because of her obscure, coded messages in print, or because she was part of a vibrant women’s rights movement, but because the media attacked her and legal cases were brought against her. Syrett notes that “[e]ven when her own advertisements did not appear in the papers, her name was invoked as the symbol of abortion in antebellum New York; ‘Restellism’ was by that point a synonym for the termination of a pregnancy.” In a rapidly changing and mercurial society, Restell was vilified because her wealth symbolized the growing ranks of married women who were trying to take control of their own bodies.

Syrett provides snapshots of Restell’s trials—which, in effect, evince the evolution of American law and the persistent misogyny of American society. For example, during a trial in 1844, not only was Restell’s character sullied, but her patient, Maria Bodine, a young woman upon whom she had performed an abortion, was also called by Restell’s own lawyers “as foul, corrupt, loathsome, guilty [a] thing, as ever polluted God’s blessed earth by her pestilential presence.” After the trial, Restell was sentenced to a year in jail at Blackwell’s Island (now called Roosevelt Island). Her punishment was not merely judicial; a concerted move to shape public opinion often leveled harsh slander at her. She was pilloried in the press, referred to as a “hag of misery,” and it was also insinuated that she was a murderer. An extensive cohort of self-appointed virtue activists, such as newspaper editor George Washington Dixon, derided her profession and led a moral crusade against her. Syrett explores this media crusade involving a campaign to put barriers on medical practice.

While Syrett surveys both the attacks against Restell and her tenacious responses, he has little to say about the psychological intricacies of her ascendance out of the working class or even the shifting social and ethnic divisions in 19th-century New York City. I found Jennifer Wright’s competing biography powerful because it highlights the desperation of working-class women who did not want to bring additional lives to the world. Her book depicts Restell as an electrifying force, someone with whom you might want to share a glass of wine. Wright weaves together beauty and tragedy, visualizing this compelling figure for her readers—this woman whose “brown hair, impeccably styled as ever, was now flecked with gray; yet, after all these years, her elegance hadn’t dimmed. Her dark brown eyes remained as keen and piercing as ever.” Wright’s biography captivates us with Restell’s personality, making us feel integrated into the scene in a way that Syrett’s does not.

A series of events, primarily political but also social, led to Restell’s demise. By the 1870s, she was one of the wealthiest women in New York City. But this was also the era of Anthony Comstock, the anti-vice activist who made it his mission to fortify a legal regime that prosecuted birth control crusaders. In 1873, the passage of the so-called “Comstock Act” by Congress made it illegal to disseminate any birth control information or devices. Seeking an abortion or even sharing information about contraceptives across state lines could result in up to five years in prison and a fine of $2,000. But Comstock wasn’t the only antiabortion crusader. As medicine became more professionalized, so did male physicians’ criteria of who could be classified as healers in the United States. By 1871, the American Medical Association terminated the membership of abortion providers, based not on any concerns about medical safety but on a general opposition to women’s autonomy. The legal restrictions thus ultimately created an environment in which women slowly lost control of their reproductive futures and the complete expression of their sexuality.

On April 1, 1878, Ann Lohman was found unresponsive in her bathtub. Shortly after her death, The New York Times reported:

The notorious Mme. Restell is dead[,] [h]aving for nearly 40 years been before the public as a woman who was growing rich by the practice of a nefarious business; having once served an imprisonment for criminal malpractice; having ostentatiously flaunted her wealth before the community and made an attractive part of the finest avenue in the City odious by her constant presence.

Why did Madame Restell commit suicide, given how active she had been in defending her profession and the right of women to have an abortion? Her death says more about the perils of the anti-abortion movement—powerful men who aimed to humiliate and break stalwart women who sought their freedom—than it does about the woman herself. Even as people were increasingly finding ways to take command of their bodies and sexual lives, a new legal order was emerging that aimed to thwart resolute and resourceful women from taking their destinies into their own hands. The lesson that we learn from Restell is that the fight for abortion rights is not a struggle that a single individual should have to bear.

LARB Contributor

Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a culture writer based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Frieze, The Guardian, London Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of After Sex (2023), an anthology about reproductive justice.


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