In A Nutshell
Madame Restell was a notorious 19th-century purveyor of birth control powders and pills and, when those didn’t work, of abortions. In spite of having no real medical background, she built up quite the empire before being targeted by anti-choice, anti-porn legislator Anthony Comstock. Facing another trial and realizing she was fighting a losing battle, she ultimately committed suicide instead of going back to jail for violating new anti-abortion laws.
Note: The above image is an illustration of Restell’s arrest.
The Whole Bushel
Whether fairly or unfairly, the woman born Ann Trow in May 1812 would become known as the “Wickedest Woman in New York”—in spite of her claims that she only wanted to help her fellow women.
Originally from England, she went to the United States with her first husband and their daughter. He died not long after, and she became Ann Lohman when she married again. It wasn’t long after this marriage that she decided to set out on a new career—a female physician, provider of birth control, and abortion doctor.
By all accounts, she didn’t have any actual medical training and her trip overseas—supposedly to return to Europe and train with physicians and midwives there—was a ruse. Once she returned from her supposed trip, she began placing ads in the New York papers, offering her services. She started out advertising her “Preventative Powders” and “Female Monthly Pills,” which offered her clientele affordable birth control methods. Most of her pills and powders contained the same ingredients as folk remedies that had been around for generations, and they weren’t always that reliable.
That was where her other service came in. By now, she was known throughout the city as Madame Restell, and she offered abortions out of her Greenwich Street building. For those who didn’t want to go through an abortion but didn’t want their baby, either, she opened a boarding house next to her office that expectant mothers would stay at—in privacy. After the babies were delivered, Restell would arrange for their adoption.
For all her business sense, Restell couldn’t stay away from the law.
According to New York State law at the time, an unborn baby wasn’t alive until it started to move; that made abortions pretty legal up until the pregnancy was about four months along. While most accounts say that Restell was pretty respectful of this law, the deathbed confession of a woman dying of tuberculosis suggested otherwise. Maria Purdy confessed to drinking one of Restell’s mysterious concoctions (later revealed to contain mostly turpentine), before re-thinking how she was going about killing her baby. She went to Restell for an abortion, and received one.
Restell’s arrest for giving a pregnant woman a dangerous tonic to drink was the first of several arrests. It was ultimately decided that a deathbed confession wasn’t admissible in court, and Restell was found innocent. She went back to her business, with a massive advertising campaign that tried to convince New York that she was only trying to help women—and families—crippled by the overwhelming burden of bearing child after child.
New York law changed in 1845, making abortion illegal. Her next arrest followed on the heels of that, when she says she was harassed into performing an abortion on a woman with a very, very insistent lover. Found guilty, she served time in jail.
By the time she got out, Anthony Comstock had begun his campaign against pornography and birth control. In the wake of the flames he was fanning, Restell became known to the papers as a “hag of misery” and the “wickedest woman in New York.” When she returned to her very, very successful business on her release from jail, the Comstock Law had already been passed—now, selling her birth control pills and powders was a crime.
Comstock himself visited her, begging for something to give his wife. She finally obliged and was arrested the next day. Having been in prison and not wanting to go back, Restell slit her own throat in her bathtub on April 1, 1878. Bizarrely, when news got out, the first reaction was that it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
The church condemned her, and the public passed legislation against her, but according to Madame Restell, everything she did was for the benefit of women who had no other way to help themselves. Throughout her career, she painted a picture of herself as the champion of women who were in too ill health to bear the children that society stated they should, and created an image of herself as a protector of female virtue. While undoubtedly, many of the good, upstanding women of the time would deny ever having anything to do with her, business was so good that by the time she died, she not only had offices in New York City, but also Boston and Philadelphia; newspaper articles of the time point to her furs and jewelry, her servants and her horse-drawn carriages, suggesting that it was a much more widespread practice than most would want to admit.