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Did Colonial America have abortions? Yes, but ...

An excerpt from Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America


Did Colonial America have abortions? Yes, but ...

The current issue of WORLD Magazine, our annual Roe v. Wade edition, includes a feature by Marvin Olasky that traces the modern drive for abortion in the United States to the 1930s. In the excerpt below from Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America (Crossway Books, 1992), Marvin takes us all the way back to Colonial times, when abortion was extremely rare and unmarried women facing crisis pregnancies could rely on society and the courts to force the father into doing the right thing. Mickey McLean

Chapter 1: Seduced, abandoned, and pregnant

In January 1973, as the Supreme Court was announcing its Roe v. Wade decision, construction began in Philadelphia on a shopping mall and restaurant complex known as the New Market. An entire city block along Pine Street had to be excavated. During the excavation, a brick­lined privy pit was uncovered at the rear of the property that is now 110 Pine Street. Archaeologists who dug into the pit found fragments of over one thousand ceramic, glass, and metal artifacts, along with a variety of pins, beads, buttons, dresshooks, lead counters, and wax seals from the 1750-1785 period. The pit also contained over eleven thousand pieces of bone, most of which were animal bones left over from long-ago dinners. However, archaeologists were surprised to discover fifty-two human bones which, after study, were seen to represent the remains of two infants who had been victims of late-term abortions or infanticide.

Were those killings rare occurrences, or were they part of an early American quilt of death? Solid statistics concerning early abortion and even unwed pregnancy are unavailable, but I have looked at enough pre-1800 records of infanticide and abortion to see a pattern emerging; let’s look at some typical cases.

Virginia, 1629: Suspicion but insufficient evidence

Many of us read about Captain John Smith in elementary school but we probably did not hear about the time he was called in to hear depositions concerning Dorcas Howard. Miss Howard, an unmarried servant, was arrested after she gave birth in secret to a son who was soon found dead; he may have been America’s first recorded victim of abortion, or he may have died during birth or through infanticide immediately after birth. Miss Howard was found out after Elizabeth Moorecode and other neighbors saw the dead baby and testified that “the mould of the head was bruised. …” In this case John Smith and others found there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the child had died of natural causes or foul play. Similarly ambiguous incidences were scattered through the seventeenth century. However, colony records of October 27, 1665, do show an “indictment against a man and woman for killing a bastard child.”

Massachusetts, 1648: Execution for infanticide

Another giant of American history, John Winthrop, observed the plight of a twenty-one-year-old servant Mary Martin, seduced by a married man who was “taken with her, and soliciting her chastity. …” The man “obtained his desire … divers times,” Winthrop wrote; Miss Martin soon was “with child, and not able to bear the shame of it, she concealed it.” Although a midwife who observed the pregnant woman was suspicious, tight binding kept the concealment intact until December 13, 1648. Then, “in the night, and the child born alive, she kneeled upon the head of it till she thought it had been dead. …” But horror was not yet done: “the child, being strong, recovered, and cried again. Then she took it again, and used violence to it till it was quite dead.”

Mary Martin did not get away with her crime. The suspicious midwife confronted her and called the authorities. Miss Martin could have burned the tiny corpse, but “search being made, it was found in her chest,” that place where unmarried women stored their most precious belongings in an attempt to keep hope alive. When a surgeon found a fracture in the skull, and Miss Martin “confessed the whole truth,” she was executed.

Maryland 1652: First conviction for intention to abort

Captain William Mitchell was a member of the Maryland governor’s council because Cecil Calvert, proprietor of Maryland, pronounced him a man of “honour, worth, and good abilities.” However, as Mitchell in 1650 voyaged from England to Maryland accompanied by his twenty-one-year-old bondservant, Susan Warren, Calvert’s judgment proved poor. Mitchell tried to convince her to abandon Christianity; he did succeed in convincing her, or forcing her, to sleep with him. When she became pregnant, Captain Mitchell forced her to drink an abortifacient—a potion designed to produce abortion—which caused her to “break into boils and blains, her whole body being scurfy, and the hair of her head almost fallen off.”

Susan Warren survived, bur the baby was stillborn, and a grand jury indicted Mitchell for having “Murtherously endeavoured to destroy or Murther the Child by him begotten in the Womb of the Said Susan Warren.” It could not be proven that Mitchell had murdered the child, but he was convicted of “adultery, fornication, and murtherous intention,” fined five thousand pounds of tobacco, and required to give a bond for his future good behavior. Lord Baltimore forced him to resign as a member of the governor’s council, and he was forbidden to hold any public office in Maryland. Susan Warren received a whipping for fornication but was freed and discharged from any further service to Mitchell. Court records show Mitchell in repeated trouble thereafter.

Maryland, 1656: From abuse to abortion

Francis Brooke (or Brooks—spellings in the legal records vary) impregnated his servant and was angry about it. Witnesses testified to brutal treatment:

He did beat her with a cane and he break it all to pieces because she would not give the dog a pail to lick before she fetched water in it. Another time, he had a loin of veal roasted and she was going to take a rib of the said veal and took an oaken board and broke it to pieces on her. He followed her with pair of tongues [sic] and did beat her with the great end, and your deponent followed him and asked him if he longed to be hanged and he said he did not care if she did miscarry. …

Finally, Brooke went all the way: “he gave her wormwood to drink and she fell in labor one night … the midwife came and when the child came it was all bruises and the blood black in it.” Midwife Rose Smith testified that when she delivered the tiny unborn child, “he was a man-child about three months old. …” Even though the child had died before “quickening,” court records state that “Brooke was brought before this court on suspicion of murder.” Brooke managed to escape punishment by marrying his servant and thus disqualifying the principal witness against him. The provincial records do not tell us whether Mr. and Mrs. Brooke lived happily ever after, but his arrest for murder does indicate the seriousness of abortion in the colonial mind.

Maryland, 1663: Rape and abortion

Seven Maryland residents signed depositions charging a Maryland surgeon, Jacob [aka John] Lumbrozo, with committing an abortion on his twenty-two-year-old maidservant, Elizabeth Wieles. The incident allegedly began with rape; it was said that Lumbrozo had thrown Miss Wieles on a bed, covered her mouth with a handkerchief, and had “the use of her body.” Later he gave her a strong abortifacient, and she soon passed “a clod of blood as big as a fist.”

Details were vivid: Joseph Dorroseol testified that Miss Wieles said “the Physick that the doctor did give her did kill the child in the womb … the doctor did hold her back for she was in such pain and misery that she thought that she would die.” Richard Trew testified that Miss Wieles had told him of the rape and the use of an abortifacient that made her feel as if “her back broke asunder.” George Hams said that Miss Wieles told him “that the Doctor took her to bed and had lain with her whether she would or no, whereof before she could consent to lie with him, he took a book in his hand and swore many bitter oaths” that he would marry her.

After hearing such testimony, a jury of twelve men charged Lumbrozo with a felony because “she was with child when John Lumbrozo, he did give her physick to destroy it. …” Lumbrozo evidently married Elizabeth Wieles, as he had promised earlier, and in that way disqualified her from testifying; all the depositions had to be treated as hearsay, and Lumbrozo escaped punishment.

Massachusetts and Maryland, 1680s: Abortifacient use

Potions designed to bring about abortion sometimes were forced on bondservants, and some desperate women ingested them on their own. Elizabeth Robins took oil of savin—the product of bitter-tasting juniper berries (Juniperus sabina)—in colonial Maryland when she became pregnant after committing incest with her brother and adultery with another man, Similarly, when a fourteen-year-old in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was pregnant in 1681, some of her family members allegedly “gave her boyld Saffin.”

New York, 1719: Murder of a newborn

Anna Maria Cockin said a man had gotten her “half Drunk,” promised her a pair of shoes, and impregnated her. She argued, however, that she was no murderer. While in agitated labor, she said, she had gotten out of the bed and the baby “fell from her upon the ground.” She said she did not know whether the baby was stillborn or had come out alive. There was no proof of infanticide. A jury acquitted her of murder but sentenced her to thirty-one lashes and banishment from the county.

Maine, 1712: Treatment of an unwed pregnancy

On April 1, 1712, a grand jury that included Mathew Austine charged Mathew’s son Ichabod with being “the reputed father of a bastard child begotten on the body of Sarah More.” The jury acted after Miss More testified that Ichabod was the father; he was sent to jail until he posted bond, and was told that he had better be “of the good behavior towards her Majesty and her Liege people & Especially toward the sd Sarah More.” On July 1 the case was continued, for Sarah More was not yet “Delivered of sd child,” and it may have been hoped that marriage would ensue. By October 7, however, she had given birth, and Ichabod had not come through; he was ordered to pay child support (two shillings six pence per week). Although he had not acknowledged paternity, Sarah More was “constent in sd accusation in court face to face, also Mary Black who did the office of Midwife & did examin sd Sarah More in the time of her Travell she did accuse sd Austine & no other man.”

By 1718 Sarah More was married, to one Jonathan Ireland. Ichabod Austine stayed in trouble, with convictions for public drunkenness in 1713 and 1714 and fornication in 1718, at which time he was sentenced to either a whipping (ten stripes on his naked back) or a fine of thirty shillings; his choice is not recorded. During those seven years the court also required paternity payments from Samuel Hill, Jr., “he denying the fact but the sd Abigail Chapman continuing constant in her accusation,” and from Paul Williams and Joseph Woodson, under similar circumstances. In each case payment was to continue “during this court’s pleasure,” which could be until marriage of the woman or majority of the child.

Massachusetts, 1670-1807: Fifty-one infanticide convictions

Massachusetts colonial records show that children who were illegitimate at birth made up a high-risk population. Only about 2 percent of all Massachusetts children during the colonial period were illegitimate; 90 percent of the neonates legally found to have been murdered were. A typical tragedy: unwed Elizabeth Emmison of Haverhill, Massachusetts, was executed in 1693 after she slept with Samuel Lad, became pregnant, gave birth to twins in her father’s house, and murdered them.

There is much more in the colonial records, but even this group of episodes shows why colonial officials expressed concern about the number of unmarried woman servants who had “been gotten with child” and then compounded the crime with killing. Maidservants repeatedly were urged to maintain chastity or at least to demand, prior to intercourse, a written promise of marriage. (If the evidence satisfied the court, an unmarried freeman had to marry her or “recompense her abuse.”) Courts in Virginia showed sympathy to female servants: When Margaret Connor charged her master with attempting to “prostitute her body to him,” the court accepted the charge and forced her master to provide a cash bond to secure good behavior. But infant killings continued. The case of one unmarried woman, Anne Barbery, who was called up “upon suspicion of felony” when her baby died shortly after birth, had hundreds of echoes. (Miss Barbery had hid her newborn in a tobacco house and said she had planned to take the baby to Joseph Edlow, the father of the child. There was no mark on the baby, and since the child may have died from lack of proper care, the accused received thirty lashes but was not convicted of murder.)

The records suggest that, overall, infanticide was probably the most frequent way of killing unwanted, illegitimate children. Ballads do not always reflect actual practice, but the existence in both America and England of many ballads about infanticide—such as “The Cruel Mother”—is suggestive:

There was a lady come from York / All alone, alone and aloney, / She fell in love with her father’s clerk / Down by the greenwood siding.

When nine months was gone and past / Then she had two pretty babes born. … She took her penknife keen and sharp / And pierced those babies’ tender hearts.

She buried them under a marble stone / And then she said she would go home. / As she was in her father’s hall / She spied those babes a-playing at ball.

“O babes, oh babes if you were mine / I would dress you up in silks so fine.” / “Oh mother dear when we were thine / You did not dress us up in silks so fine.”

The ballad concluded, “You took your penknife keen and sharp / And pierced us babies’ tender hearts.”

Physical and social reasons made abortion the less preferred mode of infant murder. Surgical abortion was virtually a guaranteed double­killer due to poor knowledge of anatomy and the great risk of infection. Abortifacients were known and used in early America, however. Along with oil of savin, Tansy Oil (Tanacetum vulgare) was “a tradition among American women for its certainty as an abortifacient,” one doctor recalled in later years. Although pharmacologists today know of tansy as a deadly poison capable of killing not only unborn children but their mothers as well, southern doctors reported that it was “commonly cultivated in our gardens” and used by some desperate slave women. Ergot, the popular name for the fungus Claviceps purpurea, a hard protrusion from stalks of rye and other infected grain, was sometimes administered in small doses during labor to strengthen contractions or to aid in expulsion of the placenta, but it had an abortion-related reputation as well and in Germany was sometimes called Kindesmord, or “infant’s death.” Other substances also had their supporters. Rue (Ruta graveolens) was called by some “more effectual than tansy to procure abortion.”

Historians have differed on how often abortifacients were used in colonial days and how “effectual” they were; the anecdotal evidence, which is all we have in this and many other abortion-related issues, is mixed. Oil of savin, for example, often was ingested in Europe, with some users reporting that it had not killed their unborn children, and others not reporting at all because it had killed them. Since abortifacients worked by causing a horrible shock to the entire body of the maternal user, dosage was key, and effects could range all the way from a slightly upset stomach to death of child or death of mother and child. The few researchers who have looked into savin use have differed about its impact, perhaps because its impact could vary so immensely. When Elizabeth Wells of Massachusetts in 1668 took savin boiled in beer, her pregnancy continued. Ten years later, however, another Massachusetts resident, Hannah Blood of Groton, was said to have used savin and lost “her great belly” that made her “as big as a woman ready to ly in.”

Results upon ingestion were difficult to predict precisely for at least four reasons. First, the orally transmitted recipes varied considerably, “some midwives urging the mother to drink two or three glasses of the concoction in an afternoon, others counseling that it be consumed over a period of days.” Second, the amount of volatile oil in the plants varied widely, depending on soil conditions, the month of harvesting, the amount of rain, the particular plant parts used, and the technique of extracting the oil. Third, the presence of active ingredients depended on how long a plant was stored and how long it was cooked; boiling the leaves for hours probably cooked away much of the oil. Fourth, abortifacients that were harvested by someone other than the user might be adulterated, as illegal drugs now often are.

Overall, to label abortifacient use as either ineffective or suicidal is oversimplifying; since dosage was crucial, those who were desperate might try to get the amount and potency that would kill unborn children but not themselves. The emphasis was on desperation and on powerless women being forced or tricked into ingesting these substances by the men who had seduced or raped them. Since ingesting savin or other abortifacients was like playing Russian roulette with three bullets in the chambers, it is unlikely that colonial women would use the substances voluntarily unless they felt they had no other choice. How often they would feel such hopelessness brings us to consideration of the social climate concerning premarital sexual relations and consequent out-of-wedlock conceptions.

Those of us who imbibed myths of the good old days might be shocked to learn how frequent those activities and outcomes were, particularly during the late eighteenth century. Before 1680, the best estimates are that only 3 percent of colonial brides had children within six months of marriage, and 8 percent within nine months. But by the 1760-1800 period the percentages had risen to 17 and 33 respectively. Although there were variations from colony to colony, the trend in each was similar. Some of those premarital pregnancies were intentional, a way of forcing the issue if parents objected to a marriage, but most evidently were unwanted. There was a major societal difference between then and now, however: most of these children were legitimized at birth, largely due to moral pressure (internal and external) on fathers to do the right thing.

The pressure was largely religious, familial, and churchly, but additional convincers were forthcoming if more were needed. Beginning in 1668 Massachusetts law stipulated that unwed mothers during delivery were to be asked to name the father. The belief was that a statement in labor was akin to a dying declaration and that a woman facing a great test would not lie. Men accused could not be convicted of adultery, since confession or two witnesses were needed for that, but would be called the “reputed father” and required to pay support. Other colonies developed similar procedures that lasted into the days of early statehood. In Princess Anne County, Virginia, Thomas Galt, Charles Smyth, Samuel Smith, and Thomas Walke posted bond after accusations by Sarah King, Mary Davies, Lovey Chappel, and Mary Nimno respectively during the period from 1783 to 1790.

These moral and legal pressures meant that few pregnant women were abandoned. Paternity suits often led to belated marriage. Maine midwife Martha Ballard delivered twenty out-of-wedlock babies and recorded in her diary the names of thirteen of the fathers, after having “taken testimony” as the law instructed. The court action that frequently followed was often successful. Nineteen paternity suits in Lincoln County, Maine, between 1761 and 1799 resulted in only three acquittals. Most actions were settled out of court, often—when the imputed fathers were members of local families—by marriage. For example, Mary Crawford of Bath, Maine, certified “that Samuel Todd of said Bath hath agreed to make me satisfaction for getting me with child by promising to marry me, therefore, I wish that the prosecution I commenced against him for so doing may be squashed.” Similarly, Martha Ballard’s son Jonathon, when identified as the father by the unmarried Sally Pierce, married her in 1792, four months after the child was born and a month before his scheduled trial.

Unmarried women undergoing crisis pregnancies, in short, had high expectations of marriage by birth. In one Massachusetts county during the 1760s over 80 percent of non-maritally conceived births were legitimated by the marriage of their parents, and counties in other colonies had similar records. To be married under such shotgun circumstances might seem hard on some women, except that the procedure was common and did not carry disgrace; besides, most marriages were by (at least informal) parental arrangement anyway. Furthermore, through such means the overall illegitimacy rate was less than 1 to 3 percent of all births through 1750. Where fathers resolutely refused marriage, courts in Virginia and other colonies ordered payment. Thus economic desperation was unlikely to drive most unmarried, pregnant women to infanticide or abortion.

A remarkable Maine case from 1724 shows the extent of economic protection. Let’s read along in the colonial records (with original spellings maintained):

March 16th: 1724. Daniel Paul Jun’r of Kittery in the sd County Shipwright being brought before Joseph Hammond Esq’r One of his Maj’tys Justices of the peace for sd county and being Accused by Bathsheba Lydston of sd Kittery Singlewoman for begeting her with Child of which She was delivered the 24th of Dec’r Last, He denying the fact.

[3] Mistress Mary King Testifyeth that about the 24th day of Dec’r Last She was with Bathsheba Lydston in her Travail & asked her who was the father of her Child She then Travailed with. She Said it was Daniel Pauls.

Sarah Allen Testifyeth that about the 24th of Dec’r Last She was with Bathsheba Lydston in her Travail & heard Mistress King who was the Midwife ask sd Bathsheba who was the father of her Child. She said it was Daniel Paul The Same Question being Asked her Several times She Continued Constant in the Same. …

But then some questions were raised:

Abigail Lydston the wife of John Lydston Testifieth, I heard Bathsheba Lydston Say the Last Sumer past At my father Pauls House, And there She was a telling what a great Liberty a Young woman has to what a young man hath for, Said She, I will Let any Young man get me with child and then, Said She, I can lay it to who I please because a woman has that Liberty granted to them.

Samuel Remich Testifyeth that Sometimes the Last Summer he Saw Joseph Hill go into Mr Lydstons house And Soon after he the Deponant went after him and saw him Sitting on the bed with Bathsheba Lydston & he saw no other person in the house.

Sarah Paul the wife of Daniel Paul Testifyeth I heard Bathsheba Lydston Say the Last Summer past that Thomas Ham & Abigail Hill and She used to lye together in Naked bed for above a year & a halfe off & on upon times and I heard Bathsheba Lydston Say that Sometimes they used to do it once a night Sometimes twice a night And sometimes Three times a night & Bathsheba Lydston Said that Sometimes Abigail Hill used to get up and leave Thomas Ham & She together in the bed.

Was Sarah Paul trying to get her son off, or was Daniel Paul, Jr., guilty?

Susannah Lydstone of full Age testifieth and saith that Sundri times she saw Daniel Paull Juner and Bathshabe Lydstone [sic] In company one with Another and further the said Susannah Lydstone saith that the Last Spring Past She saw Paull and Bathshabe Lydstone [and] several others with them and the all went Away Except the said Paull and Bathshabe Lydstone.

John Ledstone of full age Sayeth that he has seen Daniel Paull and Bathsheba Ledston often together Loveing and familor at Said Paulls fathers house and saw them walk away together after it was night at Severall times, this was last Spring. He further Saith that he has Seen Josep Hill Sitting on the bed with Bathsheba Also Thomas Ham and Lemuel Bickford.

Lydia Phillaps of full age Sayeth Shee was att Abegille Ledstones talking conserning Bathsheba Ledston and Daniel Paull Sum time in desember last and Abegille Ledston told this Deponant that Daniel Paull told her father Ledston that Said Bathsheba Ledstons Child was none of his for he had not lyed with her Since January.

Nevertheless, once it was shown that Daniel Paul, Jr., had slept at some point with Bathsheba Lydston, he was liable. The official order came: “an order of his Maj’tys Justices of the Court of Gen’l Sessions … for the sd Daniel Paul Jun’r his paying Two Shillings & Sixpense per week unto Bathsheba Lydston of Kittery aforesd Singlewoman Toward the maintainance of her child from the birth therof Dureing the Courts pleasure.” That pleasure would generally last until the apprenticeship age of thirteen or so—and until then the child would be provided for out of the deepest liable pocket the mother could find.

A disgraced woman cannot live by bread alone, of course, so questions of social pressure are important even when material support is available. Significantly, in colonial times the pressure largely was on a father who would not do the right thing, not on the mother. Abandoned unwed mothers were not shunned, and court records show them marrying other men of the community. In any event, the woman could know that her child’s life would not be one of obloquy; as Daniel Smith has noted, “by and large, the colonists were unwilling to punish children for the sins of the parents.” Illegitimate children could inherit property and become indentured to learn a trade; some, such as William Franklin (the last royal governor of New Jersey) and Alexander Hamilton, were able to become political leaders.

Behind the physical and social checks on abortion loomed the theological and the scientific. In an age of frequent Scripture reading it was difficult to avoid noticing that the Bible over forty times states that human life begins with conception. At a time when sermons were the major means of communication and public affairs analysis, New England was filled with Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches founded on the doctrines of John Calvin, who wrote that an unborn child, “though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being” and should not be “rob[bed] of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.”

A host of other Calvinists criticized “those who, by the same forbidden lust or violent abortions of offspring, destroy it before it was born. …” The Anglican Church dominant in other parts of the country, and Lutheran churches as well, strongly opposed abortion, in the spirit of Conrad Dannhauer’s attack on the “Molech-sacrifice to the god of the whorish spirit. …”

English books available in the American colonies also included strong injunctions against abortion. One popular book written by a person who called himself “Aristotle” instructed midwives to refuse “to give directions for such Medicines as will cause abortion, to pleasure those that have unlawfully conceived, which to do is a high degree of wickedness, and may be ranked with Murther.” Nicholas Culpeper, writing about drugs that could be used in cases of menstrual obstruction, told midwives, “give not any of those to any that is with Child, lest you turn Murtherers, wilful Murther seldom goes unpunished in this World, never in that to come.” Benjamin Wadsworth, later to be president of Harvard College, declared in 1712 that “If any purposely endeavor [sic] to destroy the Fruit of their Womb (whether they actually do it or not) they’re guilty of Murder in God’s account.” Dr. John Burns gave a medical lesson with a moral emphasis:

Acrid substances such as savine … may produce abortions. Such medicines, likewise, exert a violent action on the stomach or bowels, where upon the principals formerly mentioned certainly excite abortion; and very often are taken designedly for that purpose in such quantity to produce fatal effects; here I must remark that many people at least pretend to view attempts to excite abortion as different than murder, upon the principle that the embryo does not possess of life [for] it undoubtedly can neither think or act, but upon the same reasoning we should conclude it to be innocent to kill the child in birth. Whoever prevents life from continuing, until it arrives at perfection, is certainly as culpable as if he had taken it away after that had been accomplished.

Scientific understanding of when human life began (as far as that understanding pushed into the popular consciousness, a transition difficult to measure) also may have undermined any inclinations to abort. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many scientists essentially believed human life to begin not after quickening but before conception. Anton von Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microscopic “animalcules” in 1674 gave a boost to old theories that humans were actually “preformed” and existed as little people within the sperm. Those who were “animalculists,” such as Leeuwenhoek, believed that men provided not only sperm but, essentially, entire babies: Children were “implanted” rather than “conceived.” Some philosophers, bothered by the loss of so many little people in unused sperm, became “ovists” and asserted that the baby already existed within the mother and was activated by contact with the sperm. Overall, as historian Francis Kole notes, “From about 1674 the Preformation Doctrine was generally accepted and it was only a question of whether the miniature was in the egg or in the sperm.”

Preformationists, and particularly animalculists, remained dominant until almost 1800; even in the nineteenth century scientists such as Cuvier were preformationists. Karl Ernst von Baer’s discovery of ova in dogs in 1827 finally illuminated the process of conception, but even after that the old theories stuck around for a while. How much these preformationist theories influenced general popular attitudes is hard to say, but they did find their way into popular works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that described how the “animalcule enters the ovum, where, being surrounded with albuminous fluid with which it is nourished, it gradually becomes developed. …” As late as 1860 a popular American medical text was stating that semen contains “a vast number of animalcules, and that one or more of these was conveyed through the fallopian tubes to the uterus and there became the fetus, and that the female performed no other function than that of nourishing the germ till it reached a sufficient degree of development to be expelled.” It does seem that those who accepted “preformation” ideas would be unlikely to smile at abortion just because it was before quickening.

In any event, with physical, social, theological, and “scientific” reasons all making abortion unacceptable, only those in extreme duress or with contempt for existing standards would resort to it. Since there were no pregnancy tests and early signs of possible pregnancy could be misleading, few women were likely to attempt early abortions, even if they wished to play abortifacient roulette. (Until the late nineteenth century, determination of pregnancy before quickening was extremely uncertain.) Since pregnancy frequently led to marriage, with its provision of social and economic protection, few women would attempt mid-term abortions that would preclude that generally welcome possibility. Since late abortions were very dangerous to the mother, the tendency at that point, even if desperation was setting in, would be to wait until birth.

How frequent was abortion? We know of the occasional incidents, but we have no reliable statistics. It is worth noting that colonial court records are filled with reports of flogging, fornication, and fraud; colonies and municipalities adopted statutes directed at the everyday crimes, but they evidently had far less need to act on abortion. However, along with common law traditions, many colonies had statutory proscriptions on the concealment of birth, a practice closely related to abortion and infanticide, as Chapter Four [in Abortion Rites] will show. Furthermore, New York City on July 27, 1716, enacted an ordinance that forbade midwives to aid in or recommend abortion and thus severely limited access to abortion services. All midwives were required to swear that they would “not Give any Counsel or Administer any Herb Medicine or Potion, or any other thing to any Woman being with Child whereby She Should Destroy or Miscarry of that she goeth withall before her time.”

The abortion and infanticide questions that historians can answer for the colonial period and the early years of the Republic do not so much involve how many, but why? Repeatedly the women involved in the crimes were not only unwed but among the minority of the pregnant unmarried who fell outside the informal and legal society safety nets. In South Carolina the four unmarried women during the period from 1794 to 1836 who were charged with infanticide had, for a variety of reasons, neither family nor friends to fall back on. In Pennsylvania, Barbara Young was sentenced to three years of hard labor for “Concealing the death of her Bastard child.” Phoebe Cromwell was sentenced to five years of hard labor, half to be spent in solitary confinement, for “Concealing the birth and death of her Bastard child; and Elizabeth Bumberger, Sarah Taylor, Catharin Schneider, and Tenea Draper also went to prison on those charges. On June 10, 1809, twenty thousand people in Reading, Pennsylvania, watched as Susanna Cox was hanged for infanticide. Eight years later a thesis by John Brodhead Beck commented on the relation of seduction and abortion and suggested the degree of desperation involved:

A young female of character and reputable connexions, and possessed of tender sensibility, may have been betrayed by the arts of a base seducer, and when reduced to a state of pregnancy, to avoid the disgrace which must otherwise be her lot, may stifle the birth in the womb, or after it is born, in a state of phrenzy, imbrue her hands in her infant’s blood.

Sadly, more isolated women come into the historical record in the early nineteenth century. Urbanization (small-scale by our standards, but still a movement out of small villages) touched off a change in the nature of households. As historian Peter Holloran has noted, “The early American household was not an isolated self-centered institution, but rather a semi-public institution with community-ordained and protected roles far beyond modem family functions.” Within those families, homeless and wayward children could learn family discipline and honest work. After 1800, however, the apprenticeship system began its decline, and masters came to regard servants more as hired hands than family members. Servants were less likely to be the children of friends and neighbors and more often migrants to Boston from rural New England, or Irish, Canadian, or British immigrants. Furthermore, seduction and abandonment became easier as towns began to grow; a woman’s family was not present to press for marriage when extramarital activity resulted in pregnancy.

Soon stories of servants seduced and abandoned were on the increase. One young woman came from rural New Jersey to Philadelphia and “lived some months in a family, conducting herself with perfect propriety, when in an unfortunate hour, she formed an acquaintance with one who, under a marriage engagement, planned and effected her ruin and then absconded.” Another woman, seventeen-year-old Isabelle Boltwood, worked as a housemaid and nurse in Rochester and was “‘ruined’ by a young man who worked in a hotel.” Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell worked in the women’s syphilitic ward in the Philadelphia almshouse in 1848 and recorded that “Most of the women are unmarried, a large proportion having lived at service and been seduced by their masters. …” Magazines ran stories of women pressured into sexual activity, and ballads published in almanacs also lamented “ruination.” The probability of premarital intercourse leading to marriage declined as mobility increased and community enforcement of moral codes decreased.

Men sometimes got away with their seduction but were at other times held up to public scorn and legal repercussions. In the Northeast, city-dwellers sat on couches of cherry and mahogany veneer with mohair upholstery and watched the flickering of oil lamps with cotton wicks. There they talked of Elisa Butler, a “poor, pretty and simple girl” who lived among the descendants of John Hancock and was coerced into intercourse and impregnated by Hancock, who settled with her out of court. William Avery Rockefeller, father of John D. Rockefeller, had to flee the family home in Moravia, New York, in 1849 after he was indicted for the rape of Anne Vanderbeak, a “hired girl.” Other employees pressed their cases in church proceedings or in civil cases; one who claimed in a breach of promise suit that she was seduced by her employer under promise of marriage, was awarded three thousand dollars.

Sometimes trials led to convictions for abortion following seduction. In 1839 Philadelphia physician Henry Chauncey was charged with causing the death of Eliza Sowers by producing an abortion at the instigation of William Nixon. The typical and sad details were: Miss Sowers, twenty-one, worked in a paper mill at which Nixon was superintendent. A boardinghouse owner swore that Chauncey

Brought a young girl to my house in the beginning of October. …At breakfast, next morning, Dr. Chauncey came in. He made me make some tea of a powder that looked like black pepper. … At 2 o’clock the next morning, [Miss Sowers] called me, She said she was very bad. She said, “I won’t take any more of that doctor’s medicine; it will kill me.”

Then Chauncey came back:

He did to her what doctors do to women when they arc confined. He then washed his hands. He picked up something off the washstand, which shined and looked like a knitting needle, and wiped it. … Said she was the most difficult person he had ever operated on. Said the medicine he gave her was too powerful, and had acted too quick.

It is at this time of evidently increasing abandonment that abortion also began to receive broader mention. Residents of Poughkeepsie, New York, told of a sixteen-year-old orphan and serving girl seduced by her master: “in a short time, he accomplished her ruin” and then sent her to the abortionist. Towns relied on the city: from “every large town on the Hudson [women who] get in trouble run down here for a visit, just as a ship puts in for repairs. …” In the North, every year before the Civil War brought new reports of tragedy. In 1858 Olive Ash was impregnated by the Vermont farmer for whom she was working; he paid one hundred dollars to a Dr. Howard, who operated three times on Miss Ash before she died. In 1859 Marty Kirkpatrick, a sixteen-year-old mill worker in New Jersey at first accepted clothing from her employer and then intercourse; next came pregnancy, use of the abortifacients he procured, and death. Abortion, in short, was the last resort of a particular segment of the unmarried: seduced, abandoned, and helpless women, generally between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. In an article published in 1835 John Beck observed that “the practice of causing abortion was resorted to by unmarried females, who, through imprudence or misfortune, have become pregnant. …”

The key pro-life question from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, therefore, was: How could desperate unmarried women be helped? Pre-marriage social pressure pushed most young men to do the right thing, and legal action was a backup. At no time was abortion considered legitimate and legal, but the practice did occur when some women fell through the cracks, taking their unborn children with them.

From Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, originally published in 1992 by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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