"Patients would come 9 or 10 times": What we can learn from the first time abortion was banned

Author Jennifer Wright on how abortionist Madame Restell got rich in the 1800s — before she was driven to suicide

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 28, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Old engraved illustration of pregnant woman (Getty Images/mikroman6)
Old engraved illustration of pregnant woman (Getty Images/mikroman6)

It's a historical fact that has been buried for far too long, but is now more relevant than ever: In the 19th century, abortion was extremely popular.

Abortion was so popular, in fact, that it became the source of wealth for one of the richest women in the country at the time, Ann Trow Lohman, who was better-known by her advertising moniker, Madame Restell. Over decades of running an abortion empire from her home in New York City, Madame Restell was able to amass a massive fortune and so much fame that "Restellism" became the Victorian-era term for terminating an unwanted pregnancy. But then, as now, she faced deeply misogynist opposition by those appalled at a woman who helps other women control their bodies. Madame Restell died in 1878 by suicide, after being hounded legally by the self-appointed guardian of American sexual morality, Anthony Comstock. 

"I like to believe she did manage to escape and go to Paris. Suicide was just so unlike her." 

In her new book, "Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist," author Jennifer Wright uses the wild story of Lohman's life as a lens to examine not just how Victorians thought about sex, motherhood, and gender roles, but how modern people still struggle with these issues. Wright spoke to Salon about her book and why this history matters even more now that abortion is being banned across the nation again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Abortion opponents typically frame abortion as a relatively new phenomenon, as if it was invented during the sexual revolution of the '60s. Your book is about a very famous 19th-century abortion provider named Madame Restell. Tell me what you learned about what abortion looked like in the 19th century.

Abortion was so much more common in the 19th century than people think it was today. When Madame Restell started her work, abortion in the first five months was still just a misdemeanor. You might be fined for it. You could be punished, but not with more than a year in jail. There was a huge amount of money to be made performing abortions, as more women move to urban areas. It's a huge problem if you have a ton of children that you need to support in a city. It's manageable if you're living in a rural area, but if you're living in a tenement with one room in it, you don't wanna have a bunch of kids.

Women started turning to abortionists. They started using medicines, which Madame Restell and others provided, that were made out of things like turpentine and tansy. These would be regularly advertised in the newspaper. The ads wouldn't say the drugs would induce a miscarriage. They would be advertised with statements about how they could "return women to regularity" and "return your flow." Everybody would've understood this is what you take if you are pregnant and you want to menstruate again.

I know there's probably no way to know this, but it seems to me that women got more abortions in the 19th century than they do now.

The estimate is that about one in five pregnancies ended with abortion. One anti-abortion crusader at the time said that he thought that, in New York, it was closer to one in four. Also, people would not have just one abortion. Madame Restell had patients who would come 9 or 10 times. Without good birth control, abortion was how you avoided having a baby. So there would be many repeat customers, for years.

Madame Restell was a free thinker. She and her husband were prolific writers, who published extensively about their philosophy and their ideology of freedom and autonomy for women. And yet, she didn't seem to have had a direct relationship with the feminist movement of the era.

She did not. With suffragettes in this period, you would read these affectionate letters between them. They would talk about how they would get so nervous about public speaking. They would burst into tears and hug each other to give each other the strength to go on. It is just unthinkable that Madame Restell would ever be in that situation. She had no problem flipping off the police. She was very forthright in her opinions. She wrote an article, that ran on Christmas Day, about how great birth control was. But she was not a sisterly person who would've been embracing suffragettes as they wept.

"Abortion was so much more common in the 19th century than people think it was today."

And I don't think she ever really saw herself as part of that movement. She had a husband who was very supportive of everything she wanted to do. Her brother came over to the United States from England and worked for her. She used other means to influence politicians. She did not worry about not having the vote, because she thought money was power. As long as she made as much money as she could, she thought she and her business would be safe.

One of the things that we see by the end of Madame Restell's life is that that is not true. She made as much money as you could doing this. But when the law decided to crack down on women's rights, it did not save her.

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Still to this day, a lot of women think if they just don't call themselves feminist....

It won't save you. Madame Restelle had the "all my friends are men" attitude, for sure. It one way, it's understandable. Men were the only other people who are running businesses. She had more to talk about with other business owners than she would have with most women of the period. But she is still a woman. She is still a woman working in a business where her clients were women.

Towards the end of the 19th century, doctors and politicians decided to force women back into traditional roles as wives and mothers. They didn't like women campaigning for the vote. They certainly didn't like the influx of children being born to immigrants. They were very afraid of Black people, who had been newly freed after the Civil War, and believed they could outnumber the white population. So they decided they were going to make women stay at home and have babies. Madame Restelle's money couldn't stop that at all. And I think she was genuinely surprised by that.

A lot of people don't know that abortion was quasi-legal for much of America's early history. 

Yeah, it got more illegal as the 19th century went on. One factor is the medical establishment. The American Medical Association comes out against abortion by 1859. A great new number of medical schools were producing doctors, but the doctors they were training didn't really have much expertise on how to work with female patients. Doctors were encouraged to avert their eyes whenever they were examining a female patient, to "respect" her modesty. You would never see a pregnant woman when you were at medical school. So a lot of people still preferred to work with midwives when it came to giving birth or otherwise having their female needs addressed.

Doctors wanted some way to compete with midwives. One of the ways they did that was by saying that abortion is terrible. Many midwives could perform abortions, as well as deliver babies. So they claimed midwives were barbarians, and told women they would be so much better served by a male doctor. 

After nearly 50 years of abortion being legal in the U.S., Roe was overturned in June. I I know you were working on this book before that happened. What do you think people can learn from Madame Restell's experiences? She lived through the same thing, watching abortion become more criminalized. It eventually took her life, this crackdown on abortion.

When Madame Restell started working, women were assumed to have sexual appetites and to not want an unlimited amount of children. She lived to see that freedom taken away entirely. And I think if she had lived longer, she would've also seen the negative consequences of that. Because as women are forced to bear children, it was not good for their health. We're beginning to see the consequences of that again, in our own age. Maternal death rates go up in the states that have criminalized abortion, and we're going to keep seeing that. Throughout the later decades after Madame Restell, people didn't stop having abortions. They just increasingly tried to perform them upon themselves, often with disastrous results.

We're also seeing a lot of the same attitudes from politicians now as in the 19th century, in terms of fears of the "great replacement." They talk about it a lot on Fox News, this idea that the white population is diminishing. We even see mass shooters who talk about how we need to increase white birth rates. Once again, we're entering an age where if you don't want to be a mother, the government will make you be a mother. 

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One of my favorite parts of this book was the way that Madam Restell trolled the Catholic Church.

Madame Restell loved trolling the church. Once, a group of religious ladies came to visit her in prison and brought her a Bible. She turned to them and said, "No, thank you. I have enough novels."

When an archbishop spoke out against Madame Restell, she responded by outbidding him for a plot of land across from a Catholic church, where he was planning to build a house. She built  her own house, a magnificent and tasteful mansion, where she continued performing abortions in the basement. It was jokingly called Madame Restell's Asylum for Lost Children.

It's by St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, correct?

Oh, yeah.

That's so funny. Sadly, however, her life ended with suicide after she was persecuted by anti-choice activists — unless you believe the urban legends about her escape.

I buy the urban legend about Madam Restell escaping.

She was arrested because [anti-choice crusader] Anthony Comstock came to her in disguise pretending he wanted to help a woman get an abortion. Madame Restell gave him some pills. Anthony Comack comes back with the police and reveals himself. At first, Madame Restell is completely cool and even asks the officers if she can eat like a nice lunch of oysters before she goes off to jail. She demands to go in her own carriage. She goes she takes interviews when she's in jail, and reporters report that she is perfectly happy.

Then suddenly she commits suicide? Her former son-in-law told the police that the entire family had a plan in place for her to get out of the country if something really bad happened. After a dead body is found in Madame Restell's tub, nobody can really confirm how much it looks like her. With a few strategic bribes, she could have gotten a corpse. The only real evidence anyone had that it was Madame Restell is that a bunch of her rings were on its fingers. Her grandchildren — who she was very close to — don't show up in mourning attire. And for the next 10 years, they take a three month trip to Paris once a year. So I like to believe she did manage to escape and go to Paris. Suicide was just so unlike her.

Roe has overturned and now we're looking at the return of black market abortion. What would you tell people to learn from Madame Restell's life? 

We have ceded far too much ground to anti-abortionists. We use language like, "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare." Meanwhile, they have been shooting people who perform abortions. These people are not your kindly grandmother, who maybe has some uncomfortable feelings about abortion. We need to start saying that abortion is absolutely necessary care, and abortion is a human right. There is no other situation where you are forced to use your body to support somebody else's life.

Every time I donate blood, I see a sign that reminds me that my donation of blood will save three lives. That is such a nice thing to read. And it does not mean that the government should come to your house and take your blood You are not even allowed to take organs from a corpse, unless that person donated their organs. The right to control over your own body is sacred in America, except as it pertains to women and as it pertains to pregnancy. And that really just has to do with this idea that women exist so they can have children.

The thing that is so impressive to me about Madame Restell is how uncompromising she was in her arguments. She never seemed to have any doubts. We need to get back to that. It's just not that complicated an issue.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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