During the 1800s, New York City was an expanding city with a growing population of immigrants and newcomers from rural states. Among the immigrants in 1832 was a young English girl named Mary Stow Sommers and her husband with their infant daughter. Unfortunately, the husband died soon after their arrival in the city, and Mary had to find work to support her daughter. That was no easy task, and Mary struggled to find work she could manage from home while she took care of her daughter. Her brother, who had also moved to America, worked in a pharmacy and Mary soon realized there was a business opportunity in developing skill as a midwife.
At that time, many of women’s healthcare needs were taken care of by women rather than by doctors, all of whom were men. Midwives assisted women in giving birth. They also helped when pregnant women had a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Many of them provided medications made from natural products to ease the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth.
Mary was a quick learner and soon realized that taking care of women’s health needs was a business opportunity. As she learned more about drugs and natural products that were used to help a woman become pregnant as well as to prevent miscarriages and stillbirths and to ease the pains of giving birth, she built up an efficient organization. She changed her name to Madame Restell and claimed to have learned her medical skills in France. She also married her second husband, Charles Lohman, a printer and a freethinker, who helped her in reaching out to a wide audience.
Many pregnant women wanted abortions because there were no effective contraceptives at that time. Abortions were not illegal if they occurred during early pregnancy, before ‘quickening’ or the time when the fetus began to move in the womb. Within a few years, Mary had established herself as a reliable midwife and as a woman who could help with difficult births, miscarriages, and also provide abortions.
Restell was a good businesswoman as well as a good medical practitioner. She placed ads in the newspapers to let people know that about the services she offered. Not only did she provide medication and treatments, she also helped women who came to her for other needs. Women who wanted to have a baby and give it up for adoption, could stay with her for weeks before the birth knowing that they would have the safest care available. Her clients included wealthy women as well as prostitutes and young unmarried girls. The age of consent was very low, sometimes as low as 10 or 12 years of age, so many young girls fell prey to employers or relatives who were unwilling to take any responsibility for providing care for the girls if they became pregnant.
Madame Restell not only became successful, she also became famous and very wealthy. She built a large mansion directly across the street from the Catholic Archbishop of New York. He could rail against her and her activities from the pulpit, but he could not prevent her from carrying on her business in his own neighborhood.
When Restell travelled around the city, she rode in an elegant carriage drawn by large, handsome horses and driven by coachmen in expensive livery. Madame Restell became a celebrity, and a very wealthy one. Other women followed her example and tried to build up practices similar to hers, but none became as famous as Restell.
As the years went by, doctors noticed that this large section of healthcare was handled by untrained women rather than male doctors, and some of them determined to take over the field. Doctors, despite having more education than female midwives, did not always offer better service. The germ theory was unknown, so doctors did not consider it necessary to wash their hands before attending a birth. Babies delivered by doctors died more often than babies delivered by midwives during these early years. Nonetheless doctors continued to push to take over the entire field of medical services.
For forty years Madame Restell managed her successful business and offered her services to many women, but finally one activist brought an end to her career. That man was Anthony Comstock, who campaigned for “virtue” by trying to eliminate obscenity, contraception, abortion, and several other activities he considered to be sinful. He fought bitterly against Madame Restell and her services. In 1878, he managed to trick her by showing up at her house and asking for contraceptives for his wife. Restell gave him some of her products, but he returned the next day with several policemen and had her arrested.
At this time, Madame Restell was suffering from a series of troubles. More and more people began to support Comstock’s campaign against obscenity, more doctors were offering services that competed with hers, and her private life was disrupted by the sudden death of her husband a short time before her arrest.
Comstock fought bitterly to bring Restell to court before a judge who was hostile to her. He fought to have her denied bail and it was clear that he wanted to defeat her and drive her out of business. But she was a strong and determined woman. On the morning of the day she was scheduled to appear in court, her body was found in the bathtub of her home. She had evaded a final reckoning by slitting her throat. Comstock had finally managed to defeat the most famous abortionist of nineteenth century America.
The full story of Madame Restell is told in a recent book, Madame Restell: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by JenniferWright (2022), There you will find an account not only of Restell’s life, but also much of the background about how women’s right to control their fertility and their bodies became a battleground. Today’s news will tell you that this struggle is far from over.