On a gloomy New England afternoon last winter, I climbed the stairs of the Adams Free Library, a grand Beaux Arts building in the Berkshires, to join in a historical commemoration. The venue was itself historic, a designated Civil War Memorial, its second floor originally the meeting hall for Post 126 of the Grand Army of the Republic, the association of Union veterans of Adams, Massachusetts. The post’s high-backed chairs are still on display, along with flags, swords, and sepia photographs of soldiers; the coffered ceiling is emblazoned with the names of bloody battles: Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, Antietam.
The day I visited, a crowd filled the rows of folding chairs and spilled into the aisles. We were there to honor a leader in another historic battle, Susan B. Anthony, on the occasion of her 203rd birthday. Anthony’s childhood home, a mile and a half away from the library, opened in 2010 as the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum. Its declared mission is “raising public awareness” of Anthony’s “wide-ranging legacy”—including her purported crusade against abortion.
You can spot the museum’s agenda in the offerings in its gift shop, from books (ProLife Feminism) to bumper stickers (WOMEN’S RIGHTS START IN THE WOMB), or in the inscriptions on the walkway’s bricks placed by donors, alluding to “the murder of the innocents.” On that February day at the library, Patricia Anthony, a museum board member and wife of a descendant, made that message explicit, enlisting an old civil war in service of a newer one. “Anthony and the women suffrage leaders allowed their previous work in the abolition antislavery movement to instruct them,” she told the assembled, not only to believe that “a human being could not be owned by another human being” but also that “a mother could not own her unborn child.” The antiabortion proprietors of the Birthplace Museum understand the uses of history.
Or its strategic misuses. Vanquishing abortion was never Anthony’s cause. The editors of her newspaper, The Revolution, ran or reprinted a number of articles and letters that pro-life advocates interpret to be against abortion. Yet in their voluminous public record, neither Anthony nor her lifelong collaborator Elizabeth Cady Stanton called for its prohibition. Stanton vigorously championed women’s right to control their own procreation.
While pro-life activists often attribute a supposed antiabortion quote in The Revolution to Anthony, because it’s signed “A.,” the letter most likely stood for “Anonymous”: Anthony signed her pieces “S.B.A.” Anyway, the article opposed criminalizing the procedure, endorsing instead voluntary motherhood and sexual restraint on the part of men. The evidence of a “pro-life” Anthony boils down to a passing mention of the word “abortion” in an 1875 speech—in a list of ills men inflict on women—and in a pair of brief diary entries from 1876 in which she notes that her sister-in-law, gravely ill after a self-induced abortion, will “rue the day she forces nature.”
That hasn’t stopped antiabortion advocates from calling Anthony one of their own via everything from billboards to campus pamphlets that proudly dub her “Another Anti-Choice Fanatic.” Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, whose president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, famously promised to support presidential candidate Donald Trump in exchange for antiabortion Supreme Court justices, heralds Anthony as a “trailblazer for the rights of women and the unborn.” Mike Pence declared Anthony and Stanton “pro-life and unapologetically so.” Sarah Palin proclaimed that the modern antiabortion movement is the true descendant of “our feminist foremothers.”
Progressives have been known to deploy history to make their case—witness the 1619 Project. But when it comes to invoking progenitors, the American left and right are engaged in asymmetrical warfare. Maybe that’s because the left’s conceit of radicalism—that its legions are ever young and its ideas ever a corrective to all that’s been thought before—rejects the very concept of heritage. Its adherents are more inclined to pronounce on the sins of their famous forebears, especially their famous foremothers: Anthony and Stanton (racists!), Margaret Sanger (eugenicist!), Betty Friedan (bourgeois suburbanite!). The left could, more honestly and as easily, also celebrate the suffragist duo’s fervent abolitionism or Sanger’s close collaboration with Black leaders in bringing a family-planning clinic to Harlem in 1930, and her work with Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Mary McLeod Bethune.
The American right, meanwhile, positions itself as staunch defender of tradition and “originalism,” invoking the Founders even while confounding the Founders’ intent and repurposing feminist icons as right-to-life revolutionaries. “What would Susan say?” the pro-life writer Erika Bachiochi (director of the Wollstonecraft Project at the conservative Abigail Adams Institute) asked in 2016 of an antiabortion Texas law. Susan, she answered, would cheer—Bachiochi based that claim, she said, on her tour of the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum.
In the museum’s main exhibition room, as I saw on my own recent visit, a full wall is devoted to “Opposition to Restellism,” a reference to the nineteenth-century midwife and abortionist Ann Trow Summers Lohman, aka Madame Restell, who remains as much a bête noire of pro-life America as Susan B. Anthony does its faux advocate.
In 1839 Ann Lohman began advertising her midwifery practice in the New York newspapers and eventually adopted the moniker “Madame Restell”—claiming to be the granddaughter of a noted, and fictional, French female physician. From colonial America until the mid-1800s, abortion was largely uncontroversial, unregulated, and legal before “quickening”—when the pregnant woman feels the fetus move in her uterus. When Restell launched her business, New York had only a decade earlier passed a law classifying abortion before quickening as a misdemeanor (one of the first states to do so) and as a felony afterward. The statute was primarily intended to protect patients from injury by incompetent practitioners and was enforced only on the rare occasion that a woman died. By 1872, abortion in New York at any point in pregnancy had been upgraded to a felony, with sentences of four to twenty years in prison, a law that criminalized not only the provider but the patient. By 1910, abortion was illegal in every state.
Restell is central to the story of the dismantling of American women’s reproductive freedom during the last half of the nineteenth century, yet she has largely been treated as a curiosity and a footnote. So it’s a welcome development to have two biographies come out this year, devoted to restoring her life to the historical record: Nicholas L. Syrett’s The Trials of Madame Restell and Jennifer Wright’s Madame Restell. The works fill a grievous void. Two previous biographies of Restell, published in the 1980s, read like overwrought melodramas. Syrett, a professor of gender studies at the University of Kansas, has written a thoroughly researched and scholarly account, blessedly free of academic jargon. Wright, the former political editor-at-large at Harper’s Bazaar, has produced an engaging, breezier chronicle, with clear passion for a figure who “deserves a place in the pantheon of women with no fucks left to give.”
Between Restell first putting out her shingle and the New York State legislature declaring abortion felonious, the newly minted American Medical Association sought to establish its authority by discrediting female midwifery; a nativist movement claimed that white middle-class women’s declining birth rates threatened the “Anglo-Saxon race”; and a new mass-circulation, scandal-hungry press seized on abortion, as The New York Times put it in a multipart series in 1871, as “The Evil of the Age.”
By the mid-1840s Restell had been elevated to public enemy number one: “Mrs. Herod of America,” the “mistress of abominations,” the “hag of misery,” and one of the “lieutenants of Satan,” whose hands were “stained with the blood of numberless innocents” and whose practice, along with that of two other women in Manhattan known to provide abortions, had reduced New York to a “vast, continuous city of the dead.” A front-page news illustration featured Restell with a demonic bat blossoming from her crotch, devouring a full-term baby. The tabloid Polyanthos, one of her most devoted maligners, equated Restell to
an adder that had long been lurking in security among the reeds, but feeling the end of a sharp stick upon his back, raises his poison head, and darts forth his tongue, while his red eyes blaze with fury.
Editorials called for her lynching. The city police stationed officers at her door to spy on her movements and interrogate her patients. Restell was repeatedly arrested, tried, and, in 1847, imprisoned for a year in the Dickensian penitentiary on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island.
Restell’s life began inauspiciously. She was born Ann Trow in 1811, one of nine children of mill-working parents in the textile town of Painswick, in the English Cotswolds, and was sent into domestic service to a local butcher at fifteen. About two years later she married Henry Summers (or Sommers), a tailor and a drunk. The couple and their infant daughter immigrated to New York City, where Henry soon died. Unable to make a living doing garment piecework—one of the few forms of (legal) livelihood for women in the city—the newly widowed Ann learned pill compounding from a neighborhood pharmacist and schooled herself in midwifery. With an assist from her new husband, Charles Lohman, a printer and “freethinker” who became a longtime aide and advocate of her work, Restell began running ads in the city newspapers for her “celebrated preventative powders for married ladies whose health prevents too rapid an increase of family.”
Restell’s sales pitches were as political as they were promotional, mini-treatises on the virtues of family planning:
Much of the suffering, misery, wretchedness and vice existing around us can be attributable to our ignorance of the capacity granted to us for a wise end to control, in no small degree, our own destinies…. Are we not bound by every obligation, human and divine, by our duty to ourselves, to our husbands, and more especially to our children, to preserve, to guard, to protect our health, nay our life, that we may rear and watch over those to whom we are allied by ties the most sacred and binding?
In rural America, women facing an unwanted pregnancy might turn to a trusted female network to find a sympathetic midwife. Newcomers to a strange city had no such recourse. “Madame Restell had melded a traditional woman’s role, that of midwife, with the urban economy,” Syrett notes, “at precisely the moment when gender roles and traditional conventions of marriage and sexual propriety were also undergoing seismic shifts, especially in cities like New York.”
Within a few years Restell had leveraged her marketing abilities and her skills as a pill maker and midwife to build a thriving business. She was reputed to administer to a wide-ranging clientele, from society wives to servants. Her services included a lying-in hospital, a dispensary of contraceptives and potions to “restore” menses, and, when these treatments failed, a rudimentary form of abortion using a sharpened whalebone. Rudimentary but apparently safe: no one has found evidence that a patient died in her care.
Not that her antagonists didn’t try. When Mary Rogers, a tobacconist’s assistant known as “the beautiful cigar girl,” was discovered dead in the Hudson River in 1841, the case became a front-page sensation and the press trumpeted the theory that Restell had dumped her there after a botched abortion. Allegations that Restell was burning babies in her basement circulated so widely that the city’s sanitary department investigated (and found…a furnace to heat the house). Seemingly every event in her life was cast in lurid terms. When she built a mansion on Fifth Avenue, directly across from the newly erected St. Patrick’s Cathedral (outbidding the archbishop, an archenemy), her decriers anointed it the “palace of death” and said “the mortar was mixed with human blood.” When her husband of more than forty years died of kidney disease, a news account insinuated that she’d poisoned him.
After the Civil War, Restell acquired a new and more treacherous adversary: Anthony Comstock, the priggish and relentless investigator of “indecent” literature for the YMCA, and later the director of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose crusade was sponsored by wealthy industrial moralists (including J. Pierpont Morgan and the soap and toothpaste magnate Samuel Colgate). That campaign led Congress to pass—with virtually no debate—the Comstock Act of 1873, banning the mailing of “obscene” materials, which included not just smut but “every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for preventing conception or producing abortion.”
In the winter of 1878, Comstock twice showed up at Restell’s door, pretending to be seeking abortifacient pills and contraception for a woman in need. Restell handed over some medicinal powders and explained how to use them. A few days later Comstock returned with a warrant for her arrest. On April 1, the night before her trial was to begin, Restell was found dead in her bathtub, her throat slashed with a carving knife, apparently by her own hand. Rumors were soon flying that she had planted a look-alike corpse—supposedly obtained by bribing an undertaker—and was living the high life in Europe. Her body had to be exhumed to confirm her death. “A Bloody ending to a bloody life,” Comstock wrote in his ledger. He boasted that Restell was the fifteenth abortionist he’d driven to suicide.
How do you write a biography when the voice at the center is absent? Ann Lohman left no diaries or correspondence. Nor did her husband or her only child (the daughter from her first marriage) or her two grandchildren, who assisted in her midwifery practice for years. Silent, too, were the countless women who turned to her for care, except for the few dragged into court.
“The hegemony of patriarchal thought in Western civilization,” Gerda Lerner wrote in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993), “is not due to its superiority in content, form and achievement over all other thought; it is built upon the systematic silencing of other voices.” Recovering those voices is one of the foundations of feminist scholarship. “Women’s history challenges traditional history in a far more basic way than do any of the other new subspecialties in conveniently labeled ‘minority history,’” Carroll Smith-Rosenberg wrote in her anthology Disorderly Conduct (1985), which includes a trenchant analysis of the forces behind abortion’s criminalization in the nineteenth century.
Women constitute the forgotten majority in virtually every society and within every social category. To ignore women is not simply to ignore a significant subgroup within the social structure. It is to misunderstand and distort the entire organization of that society.
But how can we learn to see accurately a woman who was not so much forgotten as buried in calumny?
Jennifer Wright tries with mixed success to fill in the blanks in Restell’s story. She valiantly attempts to rescue her protagonist from symbol-hood, though at times a you-go-girl enthusiasm threatens to substitute one caricature for another. (“Madame Restell was so much more than any one thing. She was unrestrainable. Unapologetic. A survivor. The kind of woman who has always existed in America, and always will.”) Wright is strongest when she places Restell’s occupation in its larger social setting—the rampant sex trade, the baby farms where abandoned infants were fed pap made from boiled bread, the foundlings who died in almshouses at the staggering rate of nearly 90 percent, the orphan trains that shipped children to the countryside to labor on farms, the surplus of ill-trained male graduates of for-profit medical schools determined to seize maternal care from female hands. “Essentially, you could graduate and go to work as a doctor without ever seeing a sick person up close,” Wright notes. With midwives in attendance, one in two hundred women died in childbirth; with doctors presiding over deliveries in the new maternity hospitals in the US and Europe, the maternal mortality rate was ten to twenty times higher.
Both Syrett and Wright mine the public record for clues. The transcripts of Restell’s court cases yield intriguing asides, suggesting that she had a social conscience and a kindly, dare we say maternal, side. The patients coerced into testifying revealed that she lowered her prices for indigent women, told them to call her “mother,” slept by their side and comforted them when they were in pain. Financial records hint at her generosity to family: she funded a first-class education for her daughter and bought her a house, covered her brother’s room and board, doted on and largely raised her grandchildren.
Restell’s transactions also indicate business smarts: she invested early in uptown property and, when no one would buy the lot she owned beside her Fifth Avenue “palace of death,” she commissioned the construction of what was then the second luxury apartment building in the city, complete with steam elevators. From her will, we might deduce that she believed in women having their own money. Restell left her daughter an annual income of $3,000, but only “for her sole and separate use, free from the control of any husband.” Then again, Restell might just have been furious that her widowed daughter had chosen to remarry a city cop. After the wedding, mother and daughter were estranged for several years.
The most substantial expression of Restell’s views are the ones she published in her own defense in the press. When the editor of the New York Sunday Morning News railed that her practice “will demoralize the whole mass of society and make the institution of marriage a mere farce,” Restell’s eye-rolling reply in the New York Herald observed that the Sunday Morning News ran ads for contraceptives: “These, I presume, if paid for are, of course, very conducive to morals, piety, and virtue.” Perhaps, she tartly remarked, the editor was just upset that “I did not deem your scurrilous sheet of sufficient importance” to advertise in its pages. When the press cast her practice as a threat to “public morals,” she countered:
What! Is female virtue, then, a mere thing of circumstance and occasion? Is there but the difference of opportunity between it and prostitution? Would your wives, and your sisters, and your daughters, once absolved from fear, all become prostitutes?
But even here, is it Restell’s voice we’re hearing? The second passage is cribbed from social reformer Robert Dale Owen’s 1831 treatise, Moral Physiology, which advocated for family limitation. As both biographers note, Restell and her husband were regrettably prone to such plagiarisms. Charles Lohman ripped off large sections of Owen’s (and others’) writings in his The Married Woman’s Private Medical Companion, which he published in 1847 under the nom de plume A.M. Mauriceau.
What to do with so little material, and so much of it suspect? Maybe the important story here is not the real Ann Lohman but the “she-devil” Restell, the monstrous projection generated by a culture unhinged by breakneck economic and demographic change.
Syrett’s analysis proves most illuminating when he turns his attention to the class and gender dynamics that fueled male rage over Restell. What Victorian men seemed to see in the reflecting glass of the “mistress of abominations” wasn’t the midwife; it was their own unbearable shame. On February 23, 1846, a mob of mostly young working-class men gathered in front of Restell’s house, shouting curses and threats. They had been drawn by handbills plastered around the city, accusing her of kidnapping an infant born to an unwed working-class woman in her charge. The young mother, a seamstress named Mary Applegate, had become pregnant by her employer’s son. The handbills were posted by George Washington Dixon, the former editor of the Polyanthos, a provocateur and blackface performer famous for his tune “Ole’ Zip Coon.” Only a police presence prevented the mob from storming Restell’s home. The men’s fury, Syrett perceives, had as much to do with class as with sex. They “blamed upper- and middle-class men for seducing working-class women, as well as Madame Restell for helping the men to get away with it.” In this drama, Restell played the gilded accomplice, her “bloody empire,” as the press characterized it, built on cleaning up the rich seducer’s mess.
Restell’s wealth might have shielded her if she had been a man. Syrett’s previous book, An Open Secret (2021), chronicles the long live-in romance of Robert Allerton, the “richest bachelor in Chicago” and arts benefactor, and John Gregg, a college student when the two men met in the 1920s; Allerton, who was twenty-six years older, passed off his boyfriend as his “son” (and later literally adopted him). How did they accomplish this fiction? While those riches “thrust Allerton into the spotlight,” Syrett said in an interview, the two men “were protected because they were so wealthy.” For Restell, wealth brought only added peril.
The trial that landed her in prison for a year and made her a household name took place in 1847. Maria Bodine, a twenty-six-year-old maid with a child by her employer, had sought out Restell’s services. More than a year after her abortion, Bodine fell ill. The symptoms of her illness were almost certainly the result of venereal disease, not miscarriage, but her male doctor reported her abortion, in writing, to the mayor of New York.
The court drama turned on which woman could best play the female victim, a contest Restell was destined to lose. Bodine approached the stand “with a feeble, tottering walk…evidently in a rapid decline of health,” the National Police Gazette reported, creating “much excitement and sympathy throughout the crowded court-room.” At one point, Bodine fainted. Meanwhile, the prosecution portrayed Restell as “fiend-like” and “unsex[ed],” “the butcher” to Bodine’s “lamb.” An all-male jury delivered a guilty verdict in less than an hour.
In the end, the victors in the proxy class war were not the workingmen riled up by the tabloids but the upper-crust “regular” male physicians of the American Medical Association, who took advantage of the inflamed climate to stamp out midwifery and claim the field of obstetrics and gynecology for themselves. That charge was led by Horatio Robinson Storer, a Harvard Medical School graduate and gynecologist, who persuaded the AMA to formally oppose abortion in 1859.
Central to Storer’s success was his creation of a new “victim,” the fetus, whose life, he insisted, began not when a woman said it did—at quickening, which he dismissed as “but a sensation”—but at fertilization. “The child is alive from the moment of conception,” he wrote in a letter the AMA issued in 1860, a theme he reiterated in multiple missives and an 1866 book. Once the egg “reached the womb,” he held, it “assumed a separate and independent existence.” The zygote was now the patient—and a sexed one. Storer and his AMA fellows called that autonomous embryo “the potential male” and “the future young man.”
As for the pregnant woman, the AMA’s new policy “seems to have thrown out of consideration the life of the mother,” one dissenting doctor remarked at the time. Storer maintained he was saving her life—from the toll of abortion, which was “a thousand fold more dangerous” than childbirth, leading to invalidism, incurable disease, cancer. Even thinking about having an abortion could bring on insanity.
Not discussed in the biographies, but worth noting: Storer had his wife put away in a mental institution, where she died. He then married her sister, who died giving birth to their only child. The lives of Storer’s wives are part of that vast forgotten record of female experience, what Gerda Lerner called “the systematic silencing of other voices.”
I recently came across a note to myself in a 1999 journal. I’d been reading about Madame Restell while pondering the Clinton impeachment. “Parallels with D.C. media’s trashing of Hillary Clinton as a ‘parvenu’ and not ‘of our set’?” I’d scribbled. “Comstock = Com-Starr?”—a reference to independent counsel Ken Starr, whose understudy Brett Kavanaugh now sits on the Supreme Court. “And the Cigar Girl?” Whatever the merits of that equation, other and more immediate parallels abound. Restell’s legacy haunts the present, all the more for her erasure, which has left her memory at the mercy of the modern-day right. Her significance lives on through that demonization. History has not so much repeated as continued.
Now as then, an embryo is granted “personhood” and the champions of the fetus “have thrown out of consideration the life of the mother.” Now as then, “post-abortion syndrome” is falsely promulgated as a scourge to women’s physical and mental health. Now as then, a Great Replacement theory fuels rage at white women’s failure to produce more babies. Now as then, antiabortion state lawmakers race to draft ever more punitive laws—earlier this year, twenty-four South Carolina legislators sponsored a bill to make a woman who has an abortion eligible for the death penalty. Now as then, pro-life advocates frame family-planning clinics as a “bloody empire” profiting off poor women to feed “the abortion-industrial complex.”
The Comstock Act is invoked by name in a bid to stop the mailing of mifepristone, and Comstock’s sting operations continue under the auspices of the pro-life Center for Medical Progress, whose undercover videographers claimed (incorrectly) to have caught Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue. George Washington Dixon’s mustering of a mob continues with the 2021 Texas state law authorizing vigilante justice against anyone who aids or abets an abortion. The heirs of Polyanthos and the National Police Gazette continue at Fox News and Newsmax. What are “crisis pregnancy centers,” with their pitiful supply of diapers, and Safe Haven Baby Boxes, with their self-locking metal drawers, but the latest manifestation of baby farms and almshouses for foundlings?
In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote: “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions. On the contrary, an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.” To make this assertion, Alito had to skip over more than two hundred years of American history—from the earliest colonial era to the mid-1800s. In short, he had substituted the late-nineteenth-century backlash against abortion for the actual legal precedent. That sleight of hand also had the effect of recasting midwives who practice abortion as simultaneously medieval—“barbarous and unnatural,” as Alito approvingly quotes a British judge declaiming in 1732—and freaks of modernity. In a real sense, Madame Restell was an unnamed codefendant in Dobbs.
And Ann Trow Summers Lohman herself? How do we find the “real” woman behind the fearsome reputation? Curiously, she may come most alive in My Notorious Life, Kate Manning’s 2013 novel based on Restell’s story. Even as Manning takes liberties with the facts—making her protagonist an Irish orphan from New York named Ann “Axie” Muldoon who stages her own death and leaves behind a written account of her life—she recovers her subject’s humanity. That’s in large measure because Manning turns the lens around. We are looking at the world through a midwife’s eyes, asking not our questions but hers: Is what I do moral? What do I owe the women who come to me? How do I survive ignorance and hatred?
Muldoon’s political awakening unfolds through her confrontation with the gray areas not only of her professional practice but of maternity itself. She becomes an apprentice to Mrs. Evans, an elderly midwife who teaches her to navigate the murky waters of their calling. After she completes her first abortion—at the desperate pleading of her pregnant best friend, a destitute and homeless single mother—Muldoon struggles to come to grips with what remains in the basin:
It was the tiny mitt of a salamander which is a fairy spirit who lives in fire. To the fire is where this sprout was given, for it was not alive yet, no more than a seed is alive, never quick at all, at all…. I reasoned that to deliver it now was only to prevent a death or a doomed orphan, to save my friend, and my friend’s son. Still I shuddered, for a spirit had passed its touch along my spine. Did I feel I had done a murder? No. I felt I had done a mercy. And yet I was altered ever since, for the tracing of bone I seen was the outline of what might have been and now wasn’t, because of me, and I knew myself after that to have the soul of a midwife, who could live with the complexities.
Perhaps the only way to see clearly a woman so impugned by fictions when she was alive, and so obscured by fictions after her death, is through fiction.