Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

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The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?

 

Female Pills and Preventive Powders

The woman who history remembers as “Madame Restell” rose to prominence over the course of four decades that coincided with the passage of successively stricter abortion laws and tightening enforcement. When she began her career in the late 1830′s, abortion was a misdemeanor offense in New York State, punishable by up to a year in jail. By the time of her final arrest in the 1870′s, the mere sale, advertising, or manufacture of the requisite drugs might carry a sentence of up to two years’ hard labor; the operation itself was punishable by up to twenty.

Born Anna Caroline Trow, she was the daughter of a woolen mill laborer in southeast Gloucester, England, in 1811. At age sixteen she married a journeyman tailor named Henry Summers and gave birth to a daughter, Caroline, three years later. Together they emigrated to New York City in 1831, but Henry Summers died of bilious fever soon thereafter, leaving his widow to support herself and her daughter on a seamstresses’s piece-rate income.

Around 1836 she met Charles Lohman, a Russian immigrant and printer for the New York Herald. He was a radical free-thinker who is likely to have frequented the nearby Chatham Street bookstore of George W. Matsell; a meeting place for enlightened young philosophers of the city. Together, they went into the patent medicine business. Details are sketchy, but according to Browder, she is likely to have learned the basics while compounding pills for Dr. William Evans, who lived next door, and to have earned a local reputation selling remedies for liver, stomach and lung complaints, before eventually carving out a niche as for herself as what was euphemistically referred to as a “female physician.”

In this pursuit Charles Lohman’s education and publishing experience were indispensable. The enterprise was launched in a March 18, 1839 advertisement in the New York Sun, which borrowed heavily from the work of Robert Dale Owen and Charles Knowlton; controversial early advocates of birth control. It also established the Madame Restell brand, casting Ann Lohman as “Mrs. Restell,” the granddaughter of the “celebrated midwife and female physician.”

Her practice consisted of both contraception and abortion. Mrs. Restell’s Preventive Powders were available by mail order to any part of the country for $5.00. For the ladies who used these to avoid pregnancy, says Browder,

they had one gross disadvantage: they were ineffective, if not downright fake. No sure pharmaceutical contraceptives were known at the time, though numerous preparations were recommended. Charles Knowlton, for instance, had advised postcoital douching with solutions of alum, pearl ash, sulphate of zinc, white oak bark, red rose leaves, or even water. Perhaps Restell’s powders contained these or like ingredients and were meant to be similarly used; still, whether recommended in good faith or not, much of the time they must have failed in their purpose.

When this happened, the unfortunate lady still had recourse to Mrs. Restell’s famous Female Monthly Pills, which by May 1839 were advertised as such:

FEMALE PILLS.—MRS. RESTELL, Female Physician, informs the ladies that her pills are an infallible regulator of ******. They must not be used when ********. Prepared and sold only by herself. [Sun, December 29, 1840]

The redacted words would have been “menses” and “pregnant.” This was the sort of nudge-nudge wink-wink language in which abortifacients were routinely marketed in the 19th century. In addition to “regulating” the lady’s menstrual cycle, these pills also promised to combat “headaches, derangement of the stomach, gnawing in the side, burning in the chest, disturbed and feverish sleep, frightful dreams, languor,” and a host of other mundane complaints. The ingredients they might have contained, herbs with names like “black hellebore” and “snakeroot,” would have successfully produced miscarriages at least some of the time.

When they did not, the unfortunate woman, who might have already taken the risk of confiding her shameful secret to the Lohmans, might then opt for a surgical abortion. The price was $20 for a poor woman, or $100 for a wealthy one. The technique was to pierce the fetus’s amniotic sac with a wire or other sharp implement, which would usually induce a miscarriage. This would then require the woman to then seek the attention of a regular physician, to whom she would blushingly report some unhappy “accident.” In an era before anesthesia, this must have been an intensely traumatic physical, as well as emotional experience for most patients.

By 1840, Madame (no longer “Mrs.”) Restell’s medications were being sold at six outlets in throughout the city, with franchises opening in other states. Her prolific advertising, expertly crafted by Charles Lohman, graced the pages of both the Sun and Herald. Did the Lohmans conceive of themselves as young progressives, offering the best ”family planning” the mid-19th century had to offer—such as it was—or were they cynically marketing dubious medications to hapless women whom they sought to lure onto the surgery table? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but without the direct evidence of journals or personal correspondence, we can draw no solid conclusions.

It cannot be said that Lohmans restricted themselves to the “dark side,” however. By leasing a nearby residence and adjoining office, they were able to open a full-fledged “lying-in hospital” where women in advanced pregnancy could give birth under supervision. In addition, Ann Lohman is likely to have acted as an adoption broker. As A. S. Byatt so artfully depicts in The Children’s Book, it was common for unwanted children to be discretely placed in other families during the 19th century, and Lohman herself claims to have provided this service on at least two occasions.

The Lohmans, then, were not merely “abortionists;” they were amateur obstetricians, providing a broad range of services that the women of New York were not finding elsewhere. By filling this need, however, they would soon find themselves on the RADAR of the city’s most outspoken moralists and reformers.

 

Early Controversy

The first crusader to take on Madame Restell was Samuel Jenks Smith, editor of the New York Sunday Morning News, who read one of her circulars and sensed the dangers of free-love and free-thinking in the words of a female intellectual advocating birth control and abortion. The system advocated by her “monstrous and destructive circular,” he wrote in an editorial of July 7, 1839, “strikes at the root of all social order—is subversive of all family peace and quiet—will generate jealousies and hate—will demoralize the whole mass of society and make the institution of marriage a mere farce.” When Madame Restell (or Charles Lohman, in her name) wrote editorial responses deflecting  such criticisms with cool sophistication, it tended to inflame the chauvinism of observers like Herald editor James Gordon Bennett, who chided as her as “learned philosopher in petticoats.”

Smith’s torch was taken up by a former buffo singer named George W. Dixon, whose short-lived weekly New York Polyanthos made a practice of calling out the wicked by name. He was relentless is his criticism of Madame Restell, not, says Browder, for concern over “the mother’s health or the life of the fetus,” but because she was “undermining the foundation of female virtue.” In a February 16, 1841 piece, Dixon wrote:

Seaman, you are going to a three years voyage, and have this security for the good behavior of your wife; certain acts have consequences….Not at all—all this is at an end. Madame Restell shows your spouse how she may commit as many adulteries as there are hours in the year without the possibility of detection.

Young man, you took to your bosom the image of purity, a thing upon which you think the stamp of God has been printed….not so; Madame Restell’s Preventative Powders have counterfeited the hand writing of Nature; you have not a medal, fresh from the mint, of sure metal; but a base, lacquered counter, that has undergone the sweaty contamination of a hundred palms….

Young woman, married or single, if you have sinned, it is of no consequence. Here is a mother confessor that will shrive and absolve you….

Unmarried mother! there is a churching for you also. Go to Madame Restell….She will tell you how to impose upon your husband or deceive your lover.

Dixon, like many moralists of his time, lumped contraception and abortion together as morally equivalent, in that they permitted women’s sexuality to go unpunished. Were this not enough, America, says Browder,

had no established system of foundling hospitals where a woman fearful of her reputation could go to have an illegitimate child with full medical attention and complete security. Institutions like the Asylum for Lying-In Women in New York City, which for a small fee offered poor women a midwife’s services and postpartum care, rigorously excluded all applicants unable to produce character references and proof of marriage.

In sharp contrast to the modern complexion of the abortion controversy, the Protestant clergy and religious press largely avoided the issue. The argument that “life begins at conception” was most closely associated not with evangelical Christians, but with doctors, who were instrumental in lobbying for stricter abortion laws. This was, in part, professional jealousy; gentlemen who were too embarrassed to look directly at a vagina did not like to compete with female physicians who actually understood how a woman’s reproductive system works. In the age of scarificators and leeches, the medical profession was suffering major credibility issues, and sought to remedy these through the political system. In doing so, they helped to secure the passage of new laws that erased previously-recognized distinctions between early and late-term abortions; or, in 19th century parlance, those involving pregnancies that had shown signs of “quickening.”

While these concerns for the sanctity of life have always had an important part to play in the abortion controversy, it must be stressed that in the 19th century the overt enforcement of sexual morality, as represented by men like Smith and Dixon, played a much larger role. Ann Lohman’s nemesis, Anthony Comstock, would, after all, turn out to be an anti-obscenity crusader, chiefly concerned with seizing pornographic materials— not a doctor or humanitarian. The Lohmans were affording the women of New York a modicum of sexual freedom, and that, more than anything, was what was terrifying their detractors.

 

Mrs. Purdy

Once established, Ann Lohman’s life settled into a pattern of public denunciation, scandal, and arrest. Journalists would incite public fervor and place pressure upon the police, a case against Lohman would be built, and then, more often than not, collapse upon the death or disappearance of the witness. The case of Ann Maria Purdy was typical of these.

In March of 1841, Lohman was arrested when the dying woman confessed to her husband, William Purdy, that in May, 1839, she had procured an abortion from Madame Restell. Finding herself pregnant before she felt ready to have another child, she had answered one of Lohman’s ads in the Sun and was sold a small yellow phial. When something about this medicine turned out not to agree with her, she had it sent to Dr. David D. Marvin of Greenwich Street, who identified it as oil of tansy and spirits of turpentine; abortifacients he considered dangerous and urged her not to take.

This did nothing to resolve Mrs. Purdy’s dilemma, however, and so she returned to Madame Restell for a surgical abortion. With barely any money of her own, she was forced to pawn some rings and a gold watch chain to pay the cost. According to her testimony, after much haggling, a greedy Madame Restell proceeded to snatch her last dollar—her cab fare home—and hand off the operation to an unidentified male physician. After a painful and terrifying procedure she was warned—falsely—that if she spoke of the operation to anyone she faced even greater legal penalties than Restell herself. She was then allowed to make the trip home on a bumpy omnibus, during which she nearly fainted in agony.

On Aptil 28, 1841 Mrs. Purdy died of consumption, but not before she was given the opportunity to personally identify Ann Lohman as the woman who had procured the abortion for her. According to Dr. Marvin, the abortion she had received (fifteen months prior) had resulted in her prolonged bad health and had been the ultimate cause of her death. The press cried “bloody murder!” The courts refused to grant Lohman bail without men of proven means to stand as sureties; men who came forth, only to withdraw when they learned that their names would be published. As no-one was willing to come forward openly, Ann Lohman was forced to wait out the trial in jail at Halls of Justice at Center Street; an immense granite building known to New Yorkers as “The Tombs.”

 

The Halls of Justice on Center Street, a.k.a. "The Tombs," 1870

While imprisoned in the Tombs, Lohman was visited by two little angels belonging to the American Female Moral Reform Society, who have left us this colorful account of their encounter:

In one of the cells visited, we found that “mistress of abominations,” whose polluted and polluting advertisements have been the means of leading thousands of our sex to infamy and death….Our visit was received by Madame R—— with great indignation. She remembered a former conversation—that my companion had told her of her guilt, and its inevitable consequences—and her countenance expressed what was said by one of old, “Art thou come hither to torment me before the time?” Poor fallen woman—such was not our purpose. We would fain have pointed her to Him who has said to the truly penitent, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool; though they be red like crimson, they shall be whiter than snow:” but her heart was harder than the nether mill-stone. She rejected the tract, saying she had plenty of good reading, pointing at the same time to a lot of novels with which she was supplied; and, turning her back in anger, said “I will hear nothing from you—I fear neither God nor man, nor care for heaven or hell!” The keeper remarked that she was visited by hundreds wearing the garb of gentlemen, and no pains or expense would probably be spared to screen her from the just penalty of the law. If she shall be again liberated, and her career of crime unchecked, we know not what is to become of the morals of our beloved city.

But was was liberated. Though the jury found her guilty of two counts of producing abortion by instrument, an appeal to the State Supreme Court overturned the evidence of Mrs. Purdy’s deposition on the ground that Lohman had not been given the opportunity to cross-examine her accuser, and ordered a retrial; a retrial that was quite impossible with a now-dead witness. Madame Restell got off on a technicality.

We have no evidence that, upon receiving this news, our lady villain tossed her head back and bellowed ha! ha! ha!—but we like to picture it anyway.

 

Under Seige

In 1843 the battle was joined by the physician Gunning S. Bedford, who alarmed the medical world with the account of “Mrs. M;” a woman who had come to him in need of emergency surgery in order to give birth because her vaginal opening had become completely sealed over by scar tissue from a prior abortion attempt. The woman turned out to have been a former patient of Madame Restell, whom she had reportedly witnessed aborting a heavily pregnant woman whose baby “kicked several times after it was put into the bowl.”

Mrs. M’s injuries, however, turned out have not to have been inflicted by Madame Restell’s careful hand, but by her own. Unable to afford Madame Restell’s price, she had attempted to perform an abortion on herself, using a piece of whalebone. Oddly, for Dr. Bedford, the serious injuries Mrs. M inflicted upon herself when unable to afford an abortion by Restell were somehow a case for further limiting women’s access to the procedure in general.

By 1844 Lohman had been indicted on three different counts, but none of these proved strong enough to go to trial. The most damning case of these had involved another dying woman, Eliza Munson, who, like Mrs. Purdy, had implicated Madame Restell on her deathbed. Upon further examination, however, it had been determined that Munson’s death had been the result of a more recent abortion by Lohman’s lesser rival, Margaret Dawson (alias Mrs. Bird), who had been attempting to implicate her competitor. Instead, the elderly Dawson was herself convicted to six months in the penitentiary, and fined $250. This was the first time that a New York City abortionist was actually made to serve prison time, and it had only been a slap on the wrist. It became clear that anti-abortion movement would need a stronger law.

In 1845, then, with help from the militant physicians’ lobby, a new act was passed which upgraded the death of a woman or quickened fetus to second degree manslaughter, punishable by four to seven years in state prison. It also proscribed a three to twelve month penalty to the woman herself, as well as anyone who assisted her in procuring an abortion (e.g., druggists who sold abortifacients). The penalty upon female patients must have inadvertently served to weaken the hands of prosecutors, who required witnesses to come forth and testify. It had allegedly been the threat of legal sanction, after all, that Lohman had used to silence Mrs. Purdy—now it was no longer a bluff.

In September of 1845 the National Police Gazette published its first issues. A famously sensational tabloid, it thrived upon titillating accounts of rape, murder, and other salacious crimes—all in the interest of raising public awareness, of course. Madame Restell and her colleagues received intense scrutiny. On November 8, the Gazette published an article implicating Restell for the 1841 death of Mary Rogers, the “Beautiful Cigar Girl” on whom Edgar Allan Poe based his story The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. Soon after, it reprinted the account of Dr. Bedford’s “vaginal hysterectomy,” and then, on November 22, called upon police to stake out Madame Restell’s offices, questioning any and all women who passed through her doors.

On February 4, 1846, it broke the story of Mary Applegate; an unmarried young woman who had gotten pregnant by a stockbroker, Augustus Edwards, who had agreed to pay her board during confinement in order to spare his own reputation. However, after giving birth at what proved to be a humming abortion mill, frequented by the daughters of wealth and power, the “notorious she-devil” Madame Restell is said to have wrested the newborn baby from the arms of its shrieking mother—presumably, says Browder, “to destroy it and burn the corpse or fling it from the docks, as was the custom (or so the Herald insisted) in these dens of wickedness.”

In reality Restell is more likely to have taken the baby on the orders of Applegate’s father, who had been anxious to protect his family name, and put it up for adoption. Nonetheless, Applegate’s sad quest to be reunited with her baby succeeded in stoking fires of public outrage enough for George W. Dixon to summon a veritable Frankenstein mob—ostensibly a peaceful protest meeting—which marched on Lohman’s establishment at the corner of Greenwich and Liberty streets with the apparent intention of storming her castle and uncovering its many abominations.

The mob screamed for the house to be burned down, for Restell to be dragged out and held to account for her many crimes. They demanded to know how many babies were buried in her house, where Mary Applegate’s child was, and who had murdered Mary Rogers. They called for Madame Restell to be thrown into the dock. They were two or three hundred in number, but they were held at bay by forty or fifty brave policemen, who arrived at the scene just ahead of the mob and arrested the worst agitators. They were under the faithful command of none other than the former progressive bookseller George W. Matsell, now Chief Matsell of the Municipal Police.

Whatever Matsell’s real sympathies may have been, however, public pressure had reached an inescapable boiling point. Madame Restell soon found her office placed under permanent police surveillance. Her lady callers were stopped and questioned. There was writing on the wall.

 

Captured

That is not to say that she heeded it. Even as the press dubbed her “the wickedest woman in New York,” leveling hyperbolic accusations of bodies being routinely carted away from her house in sacks, Ann Lohman paraded about the city in silks and diamonds, driving down its finest boulevards in a four-horse carriage. On the cover of its March 13, 1847 edition, the National Police Gazette printed this little treasure:

 

National Police Gazette for March 13, 1847

Charles Lohman, meanwhile, adopted the moniker “Dr. A. M. Mauriceau,” and published The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion; a “curious blend of traditional medical lore,” as Browder puts it, with “high-minded pleas for birth control quoted at length from Robert Dale Owen’s Moral Physiology with barely a mention of Owen’s name.” The remedies that Dr. Mauriceau proposed consisted of little more than thinly-veiled advertisements for his own range patent medicine products, which included his own counterpart to Madame Restell’s “Female Pills.” If Charles Lohman were alive today, he might well have become an loathsome autoblogger.

September of 1847 saw both of the Lohmans arrested. Charles, on a minor obscenity charge for his aforementioned publication, and Ann on five separate counts of procuring an abortion for a country girl named Maria Bodine. Bodine’s was a by now familiar story of an unmarried girl who had gotten herself in trouble and been sent to Madame Restell to save the reputation of her lover; a farmer named Joseph P. Cook, who been employing her as housekeeper. In this case, one of the policemen who had been monitoring Lohman’s residence had stopped Maria Bodine and secured her testimony.

In sharp contrast to her predecessors, Bodine’s testimony paints a more tender portrait of Ann Lohman, who had initially advised the six months pregnant girl to board with her and give birth. Cook would not bear the expense, however, so Ann Lohman, with some difficulty, performed a surgical abortion. “That evening,” said Bodine,

Madame Restell slept with me. I was in great agony all the night. In the morning, Tuesday, about daylight I took a great flooding. I had been very sick at the stomach and vomited. During the flooding she bade me get out of bed, and she jumped out. She told me to sit down in a stood: an earthen chamber, narrow at the bottom and broad at the top. Whilst seated there I suffered violent pain, and Madame Restell inserted her hand in my privates and said it would make it easier for me. It gave me more pain. Every pain I had I heard something fall from my body into the stool or chamber. I told Madame Restell of it. She said be patient; one more pain and I would be through….I don’t recollect exactly how long I might be on the stool, perhaps five minutes. I then got on the bed as she bid me. Madame Restell again inserted her hand. She told me to have patience, and I would call her mother for it. She did not say anything at that time with particular preference to my pain. When I again told her, she said my pains were after-pains.

On Thursday Lohman found Bodine crying because she wanted to go home and had no money. Lohman gave her a dollar for travel and refreshments, offered her some wine, and bade to be alert for the police. “She shook hands with me on parting,” said Bodine, “gave me a kiss and told me I must never do so again.”

Unfortunately, Lohman’s legal defense consisted of little more than a long, sustained personal attack upon Bodine, during which numerous witnesses were produced to testify, in effect, that she was an unreliable slut. “As regards women,” said her attorney, James T. Brady, “when they part with their chastity, disgrace and infamy follow them through life….When that departs, no reliance can be placed in her that loses it.” Such sentiments were not limited to the defense, however. Assistant District Attorney Jonas B. Phillips, in opening for the prosecution, expressed shock that Lohman had “unsexed herself” by destroying the “germ of nature” that it was women’s purpose to nurture and protect. All of these proceedings were published by the National Police Gazette in a pamphlet unironically entitled “Wonderful Trial of Caroline Lohman, alias Restell.”

Unconvinced that “quickening” had occurred in Maria Bodine’s pregnancy, the jury found Lohman “Not guilty of manslaughter, but guilty of the misdemeanor charged.” Spectators applauded as she was sentenced to the maximum sentence of one year in the city penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island.

The public would be less jubilant, however, when it came out that Madame Restell had been passing her time in prison sleeping on a large feather bed that was aired out and remade for her daily; that she received food from the prison-keeper’s table three times a day on trays covered with white towels; that she was was not only living like a lady on Blackwell’s Island, but that had actually been placed in charge of the women’s prison and was running its hospital. When she was summoned before a grand jury to answer these charges, she benignly professed to having no idea why everyone had taken to treating her so well.

After being granted credit for the seven months minimal confinement she spent at the Eldridge Street Jail during the course of the appeals process, Madame Restell was released after having served less than five months on Blackwell’s Island. She emerged from prison in June of 1849, and promptly resumed business, not at her old Greenwich Street address, but at a new uptown residence on Chambers Street; a Federal-style brick building that was fearlessly ensconced in the immediate neighborhood of the city’s courts and law offices—ha! ha! ha!

 

The Salad Days

By June of 1853, Lohman had no less a personage than Jacob A. Westervelt, the major of New York City, in her home to perform the wedding of her daughter, Caroline Summers, to Isaac L. Purdy of Tarrytown. She entertained wealthy gentlemen in her parlors and promenaded about on her oft-mentioned carriage with righteous impunity. On April 5, 1854 she became an American citizen.

Only once, during the entire decade, was Lohman charged with a crime. In August, 1856 a German immigrant named Frederica Medinger came forth with an abduction story similar to that of Mary Applegate, but her accusation was soon revealed to be little more than a cynical extortion attempt. Medinger’s case collapsed, and she promptly faded back into obscurity.

Meanwhile, Madame Restell thrived in an atmosphere of endemic vice, corruption and apathy. The Common Council of 1852-1853 was referred to as the “Forty Thieves.” An up and coming “Boss” Tweed was cutting his teeth running the seventh ward for Tammany. Greene Street was, in the words of Keller, nothing more than “one long string of whorehouses,” well-beknownst to everyone. This was also the time and place when Mortimer Thomas published his book on the “Witches of New York,” with its acerbic descriptions of former prostitutes-turned-fortune tellers inhabiting filthy apartments in Broome Street and the Bowery.

In 1857, corruption under mayor Fernando Wood had become so endemic that the New York state legislature voted to dissolve Matsell’s Municipal police and replace it with a new “Metropolitan” police force, controlled by a governor’s committee—but Wood refused. It was not long before the Metropolitan police attempted to serve an arrest warrant on the mayor, leading the two forces to literally do battle on the steps of City Hall. The resulting confusion created the conditions for a two day long citywide gang war between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys that had to be put down by the New York State Militia. These events, in turn, foreshadowed the infamous Draft Riots of 1863, during which angry Irish mobs nearly toppled the city government.

Needless to say, with New York City operating like a stereotypical banana republic, Madame Restell was hardly at the top of anyone’s agenda. In 1862 construction began on her sumptuous Fifth Avenue mansion that Comstock would one day refer to as a “gilded palace of death:”

 

Madame Restell's Fifth Avenue Mansion

Charles Lohman had slyly purchased the site out from under the nose from Archbishop John Hughes, who was to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral nearby. Neighbors, fearful ofa their property values, made a vain attempt to buy the Lohmans out, but soon found themselves being put to shame by the house that abortion built. “Her mansion,” writes Browder, “embodying the profits of three decades of crime, proclaimed the importance of justice and the rewards of vice.” He quotes one observer who wrote in 1869:

“Whenever I pass it it seems to cast a deeper shadow than any other house, and a sense of chilliness, such as comes from opened vaults in the graveyard, [seems] to steel from its grim doorways and windows hung with showy curtains, which shut in what few of us dare to believe, and none of us care to see.”

—ha! ha! ha!

At her new Fifth Avenue address, Lohmann left behind her competition and firmly established herself as New York’s premier upscale abortionist. According to the press, she is said to have boasted that, were she to reveal her client list, it would shame so many wealthy and influential families that she had effectively become immune from prosecution. The Civil War and its aftermath, meanwhile, afforded her an ideal business climate, rife with all the vice and destitution that are normally associated with periods of armed strife.

The 1870′s, however, saw a dramatic change in fortune for Ann Lohman and her colleagues. The fires of public outrage were stoked by a new series of scandals associated with sketchy, “back-alley” abortionists like Jacob Rosenzweig, the “fiend of Second Avenue,” who stuffed the body of one of his dead patients into a trunk and abandoned it at a local railroad depot. In 1871 the Times published Augustus St. Clair’s “The Evil of the Age;” a damning undercover exposé in which clinical interviews with the Lohmans and other New York abortionists were printed in embarrassing detail. This provided the impetus for the state legislature to pass, in April of 1872, a new law which raised the penalty for preforming an abortion to a maximum of twenty years, and criminalized the advertising, manufacture and sale of related drugs and materials to the tune of up to two years hard labor. Worst of all for Ann Lohman, she lost her steadfast husband and business partner, Charles, to natural causes in January of 1877, leaving her emotionally vulnerable to attack by the likes of…

 

 

Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock was on a mission from God. Unlike ordinary men, he was never hampered by doubts, remorse or introspection. His convictions were unassailable, his moral certainty absolute. He began his career as a teenager, when he single-handedly drove a local tavern-keeper out of town. As Keller relates it:

He asked the sheriff to aid him in closing the tavern, but the sheriff had his own reasons for declining. Young Comstock then formed a one-man vigilante committee, stole through the night to the saloon, and broke in. He had a holiday inside, opening the taps and bungs of the beer kegs and smashing whiskey bottles. As the spirits ran onto the floor Anthony penned a note warning that if the publican reopened  for business the building would be torn down board by board ad [sic] shingle by shingle.

Comstock kept a diary in which he dutifully reported the temptations he had resisted, the evil-doers he had punished, and, in general, what a good boy he was being. When he moved to New York in his twenties the naive young man was shocked to discover an open trade in pornography and obscene articles; suppressing this was to become his lifelong obsession. “Like a cancer,” he wrote in his book Traps for the Young, obscenity

…fastens itself upon the imagination, and sends down into the future life thousands of roots, poisoning the nature, enervating the system, destroying self-respect, fettering the will-power, defiling the mind, corrupting the thoughts, leading to secret practices of the most foul and revolting character, until the victim tires of life, and existence is scarcely endurable. It sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul. It leads to lust and lust breeds unhallowed living, and sinks man, made in the image of God, below the level of beasts. There is no other force at work in the community more insidious, more constant in its demands, or more powerful and far-reaching than lust. It is the constant companion of all other crimes.

Under the auspices of the YMCA, and later his own “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,” Comstock carried out relentless sting operations against New York’s booksellers and publishers. In 1873 he successfully lobbied the federal government for passage of what would come to be known as the “Comstock law;” an item of legislation which made it a misdemeanor to sell or advertise obscene matter by mail. To enforce this law, Comstock had himself appointed a special agent of the Post Office, with the full authority of a postal inspector.

Comstock was a bully and a moral tyrant who not only targeted pornographers but artists, activists, medical writers, and intellectuals; notably, Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull. Abortionists were, for him, a natural extension of his crusade to enforce sexual morality. Browder writes:

To be sure, his definition of obscenity was generous, embracing any public allusion to all matters sexual whatever. Abortionists, then, he assailed not so much out of a concern to preserve the life of the fetus, or to protect the life and health of the mother, nor even because (as he stoutly maintained) they abetted lewdness by striving to conceal its results, but because their ads were inherently indecent. He similarly judged the manufacturers and advertisers of contraceptives, whose rubber products—now available throughout the country—he saw as facilitating masturbation as much as preventing conception. Between birth control and abortion he drew no distinction, often referring to dealers in contraceptives as “abortionists.”

By this time, people had taken to using the word “Restellism” as a euphemism for abortion. In the future, they would speak of “Comstockery”—a form of censorship, justified by perceived obscenity or immorality.

 

“A Bloody End to a Bloody Life”

Anthony Comstock arrested Ann Lohman on February 7th, 1878, bursting in on her with deputies and reporters in tow as she was in consultation with a patient—the veiled, weeping woman who appears on the New York Illustrated Times cover at the introduction to this article. The woman was not weeping in shame, as the illustration seems to suggest, but rather in fear of being arrested by Comstock, who, playing to the press, released her with grandiose magnanimity: “Go sin no more. Your secret shall be kept sacredly by me.”

As Comstock and company searched her residence, Lohman struggled to maintain her poise. “You must excuse me ladies,” she said to her female callers, “These gentlemen are here, acting in a very officious manner, and they will now allow me to see you.” The party succeeded in locating Lohman’s secret stash of unlabeled drugs, advertising material and medical equipment, which provided the basis for one count each of selling drugs for “purposes of malpractice” and for contraception.

In the days that followed, Lohman became the object of a humiliating spectacle as the press caught wind of the fact that she had been forced to pay bribes in order to secure bondsmen willing to go on public record as having secured her release. Through early March, she was in and out of the Tombs as various legal proceedings took place, the court going out of its way to be as punitive and uncompromising as possible as the gleeful press looked on. It is no wonder, then, that when asked how she plead to charges against her, she answered with a disdainful silence.

 

Lohman in the Tombs, New York Illustrated Times, Feb. 23, 1878

As the date of her trial approached, the sixty-seven year old widow who had, so many times before, defied the authorities and the collective scorn of New York City, rapidly lost her nerve. Browder writes:

With intense interest she read everything about herself in the papers, which referred to her as “wicked,” “nefarious,” “infamous,” and “vile.” Not one defended her; all proclaimed her guilt without a word about Comstock’s trickery. The press’s presence, encouraged by the court and prosecution, had turned the bail proceedings into an agony of delay and expense. Even if she got off now, she told [her lawyer] Stewart, they would take up some old charge against her and see to it that she spent her last years in prison. Impossible, said Stewart: there was only one charge against her, which he hoped to refute by one means or another. No, she insisted, they would trump up some other charge against her. He could not convince her; the woman had become a monomaniac!

“Why don’t they leave me alone?” she would complain to her family. “Why do they persecute me? Why will they not let me die in my own house, and not want to send me to prison? I have never wronged anyone!”

When Lohman left Blackwell’s Island in 1849, she had promised never to return, and she made good on her promise. On the Sunday before her public trial was to begin, she stole into a second floor bathroom, drew a bath, and, with the steely resolve of a lady villain, defiant to the end, slit her own throat. Her body was discovered on Monday, April 1st.

 

Ann Lohman's Suicide, from George W. Walling's 1888 Recollections of a Police Chief

“A Bloody ending to a bloody life,” was what Anthony Comstock wrote in closing Ann Lohman’s file. She is said to have been the fifteenth offender he had driven to suicide. He and God, that is. But Comstock’s work was far from finished; he still had a long and illustrious career ahead of him. He died in 1915, at the age of 71, but not before he had the opportunity to inspire a young law student named J. Edgar Hoover.

 

Conclusion

While Allan Keller’s biography more or less parrots the newspaper accounts of Lohman’s time, Browder takes a more critical view. “Ann Lohman did not deserve to be known as the ‘wickedest woman in New York,’” he writes,

Snob, opportunist, lawbreaker, and part sham she certainly was—roles that she shared with many a politician and capitalist of the time—yet in her forty years of practice, there is not one confirmed instance of her ever having lost a patient—a record matched by few of her competitors, and for that matter by few M.D.’s…Had she been able to speak candidly, surely she would have said that she had injured no one, that she salvaged lives and reputations by the hundred, repaired the grave damage inflicted by social hypocrisy, and relieved suffering wives from the ordeal of constant child-bearing.

Restell may have been the most notorious of the abortionists, but given her long experience and success, and the clandestine and unregulated state of the profession at the time, she was certainly the best, and by far, of a bad lot.

If Madame was hunted down in the end, it was less because she had killed countless fetuses and broken many laws, than…above all because, through her ads, her jewels, her carriage, and her brownstone, she had flaunted herself until she stuck in the craw of the age…Ironically, worldling and realist through she was, Restell failed to grasp that in the long run society may tolerate discreet offenders, but it strikes down the brazen…

These are compelling points. As New York’s upscale abortionist, many wealthy, powerful individuals had to have been entrusting their wives, daughters and mistresses to Lohman’s care. She could not have obtained that position had she been an irresponsible, hack physician, killing her patients and selling their bodies off to medical colleges, as she had been so often portrayed. On the contrary, she was likely one of the best obstetricians in 19th century New York, such as they were.

The editors who decried Ann Lohman the loudest profited by her the most. By printing salacious, titillating accounts of her crimes—real or imagined—they knowingly excited prurient interest in order to boost their sales. The same public that had perennially expressed outrage over “child murder” and the plights of hapless women like Maria Bodine and Mary Applegate, likewise, did nothing to alleviate the circumstances which led women to seek abortions in the first place. They did not establish an openly-accessible system of foundling hospitals, or seek to change the prevailing attitudes that so cruelly shamed unchaste women.

By her conspicuous success, Ann Lohman was a constant reminder to New Yorkers that they were failing to live up to their own idealized image of themselves. Their wives were cheating on them, their daughters were going astray, and New Yorkers were, by their own cruelty and intolerance, driving them to dangerous acts of desperation. In the final analysis,  ”Madame Restell” was a woman who exposed the hypocrisy of the society in which she lived, and incited its wrath as a consequence. That is to say, she was wicked.

 

Sources

Browder, Clifford. The Wickedest Woman in New York. (1988) {This article closely follows the thread of Browder’s book}

Keller, Allan. Scandalous Lady. (1981) {unreliable}

Mauriceau, A. M. The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion. (1860)

National Police Gazette. Wonderful Trial of Caroline Lohman, alias Restell. (c1847)

Unknown. Trial of Madame Restell, Alias Ann Lohman for Abortion and Causing the Death of Mrs. Purdy. (1841)

Walling, George Washington. Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. (1887)

Wikipedia: Anthony Comstock, History of Abortion.

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Searchable online archives of many of the major New York City newspapers which covered the events of Ann Lohman’s life, including the Herald, National Police Gazette, Sun, and Tribune are available at Fulton History.

 

Fifth Avenue four years after Restell's death, as imagined by Puck in April 17, 1878

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12 Comments to “Who was Madame Restell?”

  1. I had read a little about Madame Restell (largely through accounts of the Mary Rogers case) but I didn’t know her story in detail. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    • Thanks–glad you liked it!

      For me it was the opposite: I was vaguely aware of Mary Rogers from reading Poe when I was in high school, but rediscovered the case while researching Madame Restell. Every time I read about history I find more and more interesting threads to follow up–it’s addictive that way.

      Love your site.

  2. “Every time I read about history I find more and more interesting threads to follow up–it’s addictive that way.”

    This! One intriguing story or fact leads to another and another. It’s a never-ending fascinating journey.

    Great post. Considering the sexism and hypocracies of that time, I would not take anything written about her in the papers at face-value.

    • Editor Haystack

      It’s like every time you get one piece of the puzzle, you learn that the entire mosaic is so much larger than you had originally thought. And if you try to get enough pieces on the table just to form a coherent picture of the period you’re studying…you end up becoming a history professor somewhere. *grins* I didn’t mean for this post to become so…compendious…but the topic really sucked me in that way.

      One day I’d like to put together a book called “Madame Restell’s Scrapbook,” which would narrate her story through newspaper clippings, etc, of people denouncing her.

  3. Wonderful!I’m working a research project to denounce Washington Irving’s “anti-feminism,” in which contains reference to the uncommon power and equality of women in New York, particularly upstate… And Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown, of course. This is one of the only well-written and well-documented accounts of Mme. Restell I found. Thank you so much for your work!

  4. If only she’d kept a diary we wouldn’t be forded to desensationalize reports of the day in search of reality which we will now never find. I love that your article is as balanced as possible under the circumstances.

    • Thank you.

      It would be nice to have a diary, though, on the other hand, she wouldn’t be quite so intriguing and enigmatic if we did. I’d love to see a novel based upon her.

  5. I just came across your article by chance. A good compendium and a very sane, reasonable, and compassionate approach. The book is out of print but available second hand at outrageous prices (of which I get not a cent). You make her story available to everyone at no cost — the wonders of the Internet! Another good point: in the absence of a memoir or diary or correspondence — so frustrating for a biographer — she does come off as intriguing and enigmatic. The background research I did for her and my other biography led me into historical fiction. I present her at intervals in several unpublished historical novels. (My novel The Pleasuring of Men, published last year by Gival Press, treats the gay scene of that time but doesn’t mention Restell.)

    • Thanks for writing in! I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your book. Restell is such a colorful and still-relevant figure, and her history gave me a whole new perspective on how the modern abortion controversy emerged.

      It does look your book is destined to become something of a gem in the used book market, unless there’s a reprint. I wonder–assuming you still hold the rights–if you’ve looked at print-on-demand services at all?

      Background research for my own historical fiction project is what led to this site; I’m interested in the East End of Victorian London, poverty and the underground. I hope your work involving Restell finds a publisher; it would be interesting to see how you portrayed her.

  6. You might find my blog of interest: “No Place for Normal: New York”: cbrowder.blogspot.com. It deals with any and every aspect of life in New York, past and present. Posts #29 and #30 deal with Howe and Hummel, the most notorious defense attorneys of that period. Posts #31 and #32, dealing with “Spooks, Ghouls, Mummies, and Related Horrors” (my Halloween salute), discuss bodysnatching in the old days, with mention of Restell and her arch rival Madame Costello, whose husband was tried as a bodysnatcher. My new posts come out on Sunday mornings. Next week I do insects, but the week after I’ll recount the trunk murder of 1871, perpetrated by Jacob Rosenzweig, the so-called Fiend of Second Avenue, with lots about abortion again.

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