Art Imitating Life: The Character of Sister Harriet on Cinemax's "The Knick" & New York's Madame Restell

On Friday night Cinemax aired the season two finale of its gritty period medical drama "The Knick", a show which depicts the infancy of the modern medical era through of series of storylines that center around New York's famed Knickerbocker Hospital. One of the main characters in the show is known as Sister Harriet, a Catholic nun and midwife who ran the orphanage affiliated with the Knick while secretly performing abortions on the side. When her extracurricular activities are discovered during the course of the show's plot she is arrested, ex-communicated and left destitute and publicly shamed.
The character of Sister Harriet is clearly an amalgam of several historical women with artistic license taken by the writers of the show to create a full-bodied, multi-layered fictional character based in historical reality. However, an acquaintance of mine who watches the show (and who is a Millenial, a fact that may or may not be relevant) commented to me that she found most of the show to be historically accurate and compelling but she felt the character of Sister Harriet was exaggerated for the purposes of amplifying the abortion issue and making it appear historically more relevant and prevalent a century ago than it actually was. While I have no intention of making this post a statement on the morality, ethicality or legality of abortion I felt compelled to point out that the issue of abortion is surely not a recent phenomenon nor any more or less relevant today than at the turn of the last century. In fact, there was one woman who made a career for herself in 19th century New York as the city's most famed and in-demand abortionist: Madame Restell.
Madame Restell was the most widely known abortionist of her day, openly advertising her services for over 35 years. Before she was known as Madame Restell she was Ann Trow, born in Gloucestershire, England in 1812. She was married by the age of 16, immigrated to the United States by the age of 19 and was widowed by the time she turned 20. Without a husband to support her Ann took a job as a seamstress and eventually remarried a German-Russian immigrant named Charles Lohman. Ann's brother Joseph Trow immigrated to New York and found work as a sales clerk in a pharmacy. Through a partnership with her husband and brother she was able to develop an extensive knowledge of women's health and before long Ann, her brother and her husband began developing and marketing birth control products and selling them under the brand name "Madame Restell". Madame Restell's main product was her abortifacient pills, which were mostly herbal supplements with a "dash of opium." In the event that her pills failed to result in a miscarriage Madame Restell offered a procedure in her offices, charging $20 for poor women, and as much as $100 as she began to service a more wealthy clientele. She also boarded pregnant ladies, delivered babies, placed infants for adoption and conducted sex education classes. Before long "Restellism" became a euphemism for abortion.
By the late 1830s Madame Restell was quickly establishing herself as the leading abortionist in New York City. But the mid-1840s she had franchised and had offices in Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence and traveling salesmen who sold her "Female Monthly Pills". By the late 1840s she was arguably the most famous abortionist in the country. Her husband even became a popular abortionist in his own right, taking on the name "Dr. Mauriceau", to appeal to Francophiles and wealthy clientele who saw the French attitudes towards abortion and open sexual boundaries as being more progressive than the those held in the United States.
The American Medical Association did not approve of her or her methods and saw her philosophy and business practices to be a threat to the hegemony that physicians were trying to achieve. The fact that Madame Restell did not have a medical degree nor any formal education for that matter was deeply troubling to the leaders of the American Medical Association. Furthermore, the women that comprised her clientele was also deeply troubling to the powers that be. Who were her clients? They were primarily married, white, native-born Protestant women of the upper and middle classes.
By 1840 there was a decline in the US birthrate, in fact between 1810 and 1890 the birth rate was cut in half. But by 1850, about the time that the American Medical Association was gaining power and Madame Restell was at the peak of her career, an economic and sociologic shift was taking place. More and more middle and upper class married white women were being employed outside of the home in wage-earning positions. As more middle and upper class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) women found professional work as secretaries and teachers, which brought them more personal and economic independence, they began having fewer children and birthrates among WASPs dropped dramatically. At the same time large numbers of Irish, Italian and other non-WASP groups were immigrating to the United States and many WASP men in positions of power, particularly in the American Medical Association, saw abortion among WASP women as a threat to the cultural survival.
The Lohmans, better known to the public at this time as Madame Restell and Dr. Mauriceau, became New York celebrities. The press delighted in describing her wardrobe, dresses of silk and velvet, her hat with its red feather, and the couple's ostentatious five-story brownstone mansion they built in 1862 on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street made them a conspicuous couple. The New York Herald, The National Police Gazette and The Polyanthos called her a "hag of misery," "a modern Thug of civilized society," and the lady of "the death's head and the marrow bones." In 1846 anti-abortion activists, led by newspaper publisher George Dixon, organized a riot to protest her "shameless and sinful ways". The mob surrounded the Lohman's mansion and chanted, "Hanging's too good for her!" and "This house is built on babies' skulls."
Zealous prosecutors urged on by prominent members of the American Medical Association and wealthy conservative political leaders pursued Lohman almost from the start of her career. From 1839 to 1877 Lohman was arrested at least five times and jailed for months without bail. She spent countless hours and dollars defending herself against charges and rumors. One of the most popular rumors was that a sewer had been built between her house and the Hudson River, to dispose of corpses and that she was responsible for the unsolved murder of a cigar girl, a case that Edgar Allan Poe used as the basis for a story, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt".
Madame Restell was arrested on March 22, 1841 and charged with two misdemeanors for performing abortive procedures on Anna Maria Purdy, a young married woman in Newark, on June 2nd and July 22nd of 1840. Mrs. Purdy died the following April from what her husband alleged were complications resulting from the botched abortion in June of 1840. At the trial the prosecutor said:

"...within a year Madame Restell has procured several hundred abortions; she has committed several hundred crimes, punishable by the laws of man, and condemned by the law of God. We do not say so, she says it herself. Preventative powders? There is no such thing in nature. There is but one preventative, which is abstinence. The law of nature, instinct, the canons of the church, the laws of the land, all clearly define the ends and objects of the marriage vow - the promotion of happiness and procreation of children. This unprincipled creature knows better than God or man how married people ought to behave!"

Madame Restell was found guilty at trial on July 20, 1841 and George Washington Dixon celebrated the conviction in his newspaper "The Polyanthos" writing, "the monster in human shape . . . has . . . been convicted of one of the most hellish acts ever perpetrated in a Christian land!". This was Lohman's only conviction. She served a year in the penitentiary on Blackwell's (now Roosevelt) Island. It was widely believed that she escaped harsher punishment by threatening to reveal the names of her patients -- the mistresses, daughters and wives of the rich and powerful.
After her release from prison she resumed her work and achieved tremendous financial success for the next thirty years but by the 1870s, Ann Lohman finally met her match in the religious crusader Anthony Comstock, who persuaded Congress to prohibit the sale or distribution of materials that could be used for contraception or abortion, or the sending of such materials by mail. As a special agent of the United States Post Office, Comstock entrapped Lohman by posing as a husband seeking abortion services for a lady. When she provided him with some tablets, he returned and arrested her, accompanied by two reporters, in early 1878. But Madame Restell would evade the long arm of the law. Fearing the shame that would come upon her family during a long trial and convinced that another stint in prison would kill her, Lohman climbed into her marble bathtub on the April morning her trial was to start, and slit her own throat. She was 66 years old.
Upon her death Comstock is quoted as saying, "A bloody ending to a bloody life". The newspapers echoed his sentiments. "The end of sin is death," wrote the New York Tribune, and the Times editorialized that Lohman's death was "a fit ending to an odious career."
As I stated earlier, I have no interest in discussing the morality, ethicality or legality of abortion or birth control in this post. However, I hope that the story of Madame Restell indicates that the issue of abortion and birth control and a woman's body was as relevant and politically charged in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as it is today.