Once called “the wickedest woman in New York” in the tabloids of the time, Madame Restell, the notorious abortionist of 19th-century New York City, is rebranded as a saintly “protector of women’s reproductive rights” in a new book by Jennifer Wright. Published earlier this year, Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist is described in promotional materials as “the story of one of the boldest women in American history … a woman beloved by her patients and despised by the men who wanted to control them.”
With a major publicity campaign and book tour, Wright’s pro-abortion tome has been promoted by some of the most influential commentators in the country. Journalist Katie Couric provided a front-cover endorsement proclaiming the murderous Restell a “badass” who “protected women’s reproductive rights decades before they could even vote.” Writer Jill Filipovic described the book as “delightful” and “indecorous,” adding that “if you want to read a truly captivating tale of the most important woman you’ve never heard of, don’t miss Madame Restell.” Salon columnist Amanda Marcotte promoted the book as “inspiring,” commenting that its presentation of Madame Restell’s “battles with sanctimonious hypocrites and condescending men feels all too modern, especially in an era when basic rights are once again being taken away.”
Restell was born in 1811 as Ann Trow in a small English town called Painswick. Ann married Charles Lohman, a printer for the New York Herald — one of a few city newspapers that ran what were called “whispering ads” for abortion potions and medications. Lohman recognized that there was much money to be made in the emerging abortion industry, so he began advertising himself as “Doctor Mauriceau” and creating abortifacients, which he sold for exorbitant prices. In the extensively researched Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, scholar Marvin Olasky writes that “Mauriceau was a brazen Barnum with an audacious sales technique.”
Lohman encouraged his young wife to learn about drugs and potions from the doctor who lived next door. Adopting the trade name “Madame Restell” because Americans considered the French to be the most up-to-date in all things related to sexuality, Ann Lohman and her husband began purchasing ads in the New York Herald and the New York Sun for “female monthly regulating pills” promising to “end monthly blockages” and “cure the stoppage of the menses.” These newspaper ads were always accompanied by tragic vignettes of women dying in childbirth or women burdened with “too many” children. Neither Ann nor Charles had any medical training, but they began building an abortion empire on the strength of their marketing and the powerful potions and poisons developed to end unwanted pregnancies. (RELATED: Abortions and Mass Shootings)
Her first notice ran in the New York Sun on March 18, 1839:
To Married Women: It is not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate … The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.
The only problem was that the potions did not always work. Many women died, and even more women ended up remaining pregnant. Never one to back down, Madame Restell began to offer and advertise surgical abortions, claiming that she had been trained in the “medical arts” in Europe. Ever the savvy marketers, Restell and her husband concocted an elaborate story of a sojourn to Paris, France, where Ann had allegedly trained as a midwife with her grandmother, a renowned French physician named Dr. Restell.
None of that was true — there was never a French grandmother. But although Restell had no formal training, The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652–2022, written by Marvin Olasky and abortion reporter Leah Savas, had to acknowledge that Restell became quite skilled at surgical abortion — including late-term abortion.
Eventually, Restell and her husband built an abortion empire with seven abortion parlors strategically placed throughout Manhattan, Newark, and Hoboken. Later, they expanded branch offices in Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia.
Even though Restell trained her abortion providers in infection control and surgical precision, women still died after unintended abortion mishaps. All of this brought unwanted media attention. She was accused in the press — based on hearsay and gossip — of performing a fatal abortion on Mary Rogers, the real-life inspiration for the title character in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” But Restell paid off the police and the politicians to help them look the other way.
The New York Times was one of Madame Restell’s harshest critics. But, of course, author Jennifer Wright does not mention that inconvenient fact. In 1871, the New York Times wrote that the “perpetrators of both abortion and political corruption lived in splendor … Great mansions on grand avenues are occupied by disgusting practitioners who continue to escape prosecution.” Both Restell and the infamously corrupt Tammany Hall politician Boss Tweed lived in neighboring mansions on Fifth Avenue. The tabloids of the time described Restell’s brownstone as “the mansion built on baby skulls.”
Amassing a fortune from her abortion business, Restell had evaded prosecution and punishment. As an article in Crisis magazine points out:
Even when arrested and sentenced to a one-year term on Blackwell’s Island in the East River, Restell was able to use her financial resources and political connections to purchase excellent accommodations in prison — bringing her own featherbed, carpeting and easy chairs into the prison suite. Visiting hours were altered so that her husband was able to visit at will and remain alone with her as long as he wished.
They ordered elaborate meals to be delivered from the city’s best restaurants.
All of this enraged the public. Concerned about the Restell abortion empire, the New York Times prodded the New York Legislature to raise the maximum penalty for abortion to 20 years’ imprisonment. But Restell continued to be so successful at evading the abortion laws that the National Police Gazette reported that these new laws actually had the effect of “sweeping every rival from her path as she remained mistress paramount in the scheme of practical destruction.” In an attempt to confront the culture of bribery and extortion, New York Times editor Louis Jennings used his newspaper to attempt a major anti-abortion crusade. Citing scripture about the “most vulnerable” among us, Jennings focused on the growing number of abortions that ended with the death of the mother. The New York Times complained about the extreme rarity of trials for abortion deaths in the city: “Abortionists have openly carried on their infamous practice in this City and have laughed at the defeat of respectable citizens who have vainly attempted to prosecute them.”
Restell seemed to successfully evade the police and the laws. But, in 1878, Restell became ensnared in an elaborate sting operation perpetrated by Anthony Comstock, the celebrated anti-vice crusader. Comstock — who is portrayed as a ludicrous figure in Wright’s mean-spirited book — pretended to be purchasing abortifacients for his wife. Once he had the evidence, he brought the police to Restell’s home. Restell was arrested, and she knew that the stricter laws could no longer be circumvented and that she was facing a long prison sentence. After posting bail on April 1, 1878, Restell returned home to her mansion, drew a warm bath in her extravagantly appointed boudoir, and proceeded to slit her own throat.
The New York Times editorialized the bloody death of Restell in 1878 as a “fitting end” to an odious woman. But none of that is mentioned in the laudatory book review of Wright’s new biography published in the New York Times on Feb. 28, 2023. And although it was reported that a chambermaid found Restell’s body submerged in the bathtub, Wright’s new book suggests that it is “possible” that Restell had manipulated the media by faking her own death as she continued to practice her abortion trade while living in splendor in Paris.
It is difficult to understand how the “wickedest woman in New York” could be successfully rebranded by Wright as a saintly provider of “reproductive health.” But in these contentious days following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the battle lines are drawn and, as in all wars, truth remains the biggest casualty. Wright’s book is filled with exaggerations about the “evil men” like Anthony Comstock and some unnamed newspapermen who tried to stop the saintly abortion provider.
Written in an engaging style, Wright makes light of the actual victims of Restell, dismissing the very real consequences of her deadly trade. But this is typical of Wright, whose previous books made light of homicide in her humorous Killer Fashion: Poisonous Petticoats, Strangulating Scarves, and Other Deadly Garments Throughout History and She Kills Me: The True Stories of History’s Deadliest Women.
There is nothing light about the consequences of the murder of unborn children — and sometimes the unintended deaths of their mothers — at the hands of an untrained abortionist like Restell. Glossing over Restell’s duplicitous claims of medical training in Paris with her grandmother, Wright’s misguided attempt to make this deadly abortion story “inspirational” fails on every level. Yet, the abortion debate is so contentious right now — and the stakes are so high — that even a once-serious journalist like Katie Couric could affectionately call the “wickedest woman” a “badass” in her glowing endorsement of this dishonest book.
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