Anna Johnson

Anna Johnson19101919, illegaldoctor, chicago, illinoisSUMMARY: On May 26, 1915, 25-year-old Anna Johnson was found dead in the home of Chicago abortionist Dr. Eva Shaver.

Dr. Eva Shaver was involved in one of the most spectacular and bizarre abortion cases of the century.

A Bullet to the Brain
AnnaJohnson.jpgAnna JohnsonA 25-year-old hairdresser from Ludington, Michigan, Anna Johnson, was found dead with a bullet wound in her head on May 26, 1915, in Dr. Shaver’s home at 1120 Sedgwick Street. Two bullet holes marred the walls of Shaver’s grown son’s room, Clarence, where Anna’s body lay.

The body had been discovered by Willis Harvey, sometimes identified as the widowed doctor’s fiance and sometimes as a boarder, reportedly found Anna’s body at about 7 p.m., but delayed hours before notifying the police. Harvey was charged but later released.

Strangely, though the revolver, belonging to Clarence, was found resting in Anna’s left hand, the bullet had entered on the right and exited on the left.

Shaver told police that she had hired Johnson as a maid, and that the girl had committed suicide. But investigators concluded that Anna had died after Shaver had botched an abortion on her and that she had been shot after her death in order to convince authorities that Anna had committed suicide. The police tore up the floorboards in the house, searching for the remains of aborted babies.

An investigation later revealed that Anna had only come to Chicago and taken up residence in Shaver’s home about a week prior to her death.

Anna’s Choice, a Sweetheart’s Compliance
JohnsonHostetler.jpgAnna and Marshall*Anna’s “sweetheart,” Marshall Hostetler, told the coroner’s jury that he had known Anna for a year and eight months, since they’d met at a dance hall. They had been engaged to marry for eight months. When she discovered that she was pregnant, Hostetler offered to marry her promptly, but Anna didn’t want anybody to think they had only married because of the pregnancy.

A few days later, Hostetler met Clarence Shaver, who was Dr. Shaver’s son, on the elevated train. Hostetler didn’t explain how the topic came up, but said that Shaver offered to sell him some pills he was just beginning to market. “Dr. Eva Shaver’s Specific Relief for Ladies” was marketed at $1.75 a box. Clarence sold Hostetler two boxes for $3. Each box contained nine red pills and three white pills. The red pills were to be taken every two hours, and the white pills were to be taken once daily.

Shaver’s Pills are a Failure
ShaversPills.jpgAbortifacient pills marketed by Clarence Shaver
Hostetler brought the pills to Anna on the evening of May 8, and she immediately started the regimen with one of the red pills. She continued to take the pills, but after twelve or thirteen days, they had not had their desired effect.

Hostetler reported this failure to Clarence, who showed him letters purportedly from satisfied customers. He told Hostetler that the pills could take a long time to work, as long as 14 weeks. He provided Hostleter with two more boxes of the pills.

When this new round of pills likewise failed to dislodge the fetus, Hostleter went back to Clarence, who told Hostleter to bring Anna to see his mother, Dr. Shaver, who employed a midwife and a nurse in her home. Evidently, Anna followed through and paid with her life.

Hostetler reportedly “sobbed” and “collapsed” at the inquest into Anna’s death. New coverage painted him has having been misled by Dr. Shaver and her son, though he had gone into hiding upon the girl’s death at one point been a suspect.

Shaver was tried for Johnson’s death and the abortion death of another patient, Lillie Giovenco, in 1914. As the date for the Johnson trial approached, witnesses reported death threats. Hostetler found the threats so frightening that he refused to leave police custody, even though re was free to do so.

Shaver_Home.jpgThe Shaver home*
Interestingly enough, Anna Johnson’s death sparked a crackdown on midwife-abortionists rather than physician-abortionists, even though the corner’s records showed both professions to be responsible for a roughly equal number of deaths in Chicago during that era. Part of this, Leslie Reagan believed, was due to the public perception that female practitioners were all midwives, and part was due to the political clout that physicians had but midwives lacked.

Note, please, that with overall public health issues such as doctors not using proper aseptic techniques, lack of access to blood transfusions and antibiotics, and overall poor health to begin with, there was likely little difference between the performance of a legal abortion and illegal practice, and the aftercare for either type of abortion was probably equally unlikely to do the woman much, if any, good.

In fact, due to improvements in addressing these problems, maternal mortality in general (and abortion mortality with it) fell dramatically in the 20th Century, decades before Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion across America.

For more information about early 20th Century abortion mortality, see Abortion Deaths 1910-1919.

external image MaternalMortality.gif

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion


  • Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was A Crime, University of California Press 1997
  • “Woman Doctor Must Explain Death of Girl,” The Newark (OH) Advocate, May 27, 1915
  • “Woman Wounded; Couple Must Explain,” The Oakland (CA) Tribune, May 27, 1915
  • “Murder Mystery to Solve,” The Lincoln (NE) Daily News May 27, 1915
  • “Girl’s Body Found, Woman and Son Held,” The Indianapolis Star, May 28, 1915
  • “Two Held for Girl’s Death,” Belvidere (IL) Daily Republican, May 28, 1915
  • “Woman Doctor and Two Others Accused of Murder,” The Indianapolis Star, May 29, 1915
  • “Death of Johnson Girl Stirs Police,” The Lincoln (NE) Daily News May 30, 1915
  • “Threaten to Kill Witnesses,” The Lincoln (NE) Daily News, June 5, 1915
  • Homicide in Chicago Interactive Database


1. Photo credits:
Chicago Daily News negatives collection. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

AnnaJohnsonDeathCert.jpgThe original death certificate blames Anna’s death on a gunshot wound.

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