Although abortions were very dangerous, as well as socially unacceptable during the nineteenth century, women were not altogether unable to obtain abortions and many suffered accusations of infanticide. Here I will present a few of the more famous cases from the period, demonstrating the occurrence of abortion, the availability of providers, and the consequences faced by those who necessitated the procedure.
One case that dominated the pages of The Revolution, the paper owned by Susan B. Anthony and edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury, was the sentencing of a young girl to hang for the death of her child. While not a case of abortion, the death was termed an infanticide and drew strong opinions from the public as well as both the editors. The unfortunate Hester Vaughan, an English girl living in Philadelphia, was discovered in a tiny tenement room devoid of furniture February 8, 1868, forty-eight hours after giving birth. Alone during labor, without food or heat, she was found frail and feverish with her baby dead beside her. She was immediately brought to the police and imprisoned, under the assumption that she had killed her child. For thirty dollars, she acquired the services of a lawyer by the name of Goforth and underwent a brief trial. Having never actually confessed to committing the crime, she was nonetheless sentenced to death by County Judge Ludlow, and placed in Moyamensing Prison until her execution.
Once news of the case reached the public, the women of The Revolution unleashed their sympathies in article after article denouncing the indictment. In an August 6, 1868 editorial it was written:
“ If that poor child of sorrow is hung, it will be deliberate, downright murder. Her death will be far more horrible infanticide than was the killing of her child. She is the child of our society and civilization, begotten and born of it, seduced by it, by the judge who pronounced her sentence, by the bar and jury, by the legislature that enacted the law (in which because a woman, she had no vote or voice), by the church and the pulpit that sanctify the law and deeds, of all these will her blood, yea, and her virtue too, be required! All these were the joint seducer, and now see if by hanging her, they will also become her murderer.”
However, Hester never had to face the day of her execution and instead spent nearly two years in jail. Despite this reprieve, many were angered that she had been unjustly incarcerated. It was clear to them that she had been abandoned by a man whom she had trusted, a man who to this day remains unknown, his own reputation left untarnished. It appears that he acted first as her rescuer, saving her from life on the street and employing her in his own home. It is likely that he had a family and perhaps turned Hester out upon discovering that she had become impregnated from their transgressions. As far as the law was concerned at this time, the death of Hester’s baby only meant that she deserved punishment. It does not appear that the child’s paternity was ever fully investigated. Elizabeth Cady Stanton proclaimed the case as an example of “the unjust laws that make crimes for women that are not crimes for men” (The Revolution, 11/19/1868) and Parker Pillsbury reiterated that “woman has no vote or voice in the law that ruthlessly robs her of life. Her consent to be thus governed, to be thus killed, has never been obtained.” (The Revolution, 12/10/1868).