SUMMARY: On March 16, 1875, aspiring opera singer Annie Curtis, age 28, died in New York from an abortion perpetrated by midwife Annie Ihl.
Annie Curtis, age 28, had a mixed past behind her but a bright future ahead of her in March of 1875.Who Was Annie Curtis?
Annie Josephine McKenzie was born in San Francisco to an American father and a mother from the Sandwich Islands. Accounts differ about her family. One said that her father was working as a notary of little financial means. The New York Times cites a San Francisco newspaper in identifying Annie’s father as Col. J. W. McKenzie. The Washington DC National Republican says that Annie’s father had been a county sheriff and had also been San Francisco chief of police for a while. San Francisco papers of the era and earlier show both a Colonel J. W. McKenzie and a J. W. McKenzie who was very active in musical circles. Given the course Annie’s life took, I think that the last is most likely the case, since he arranged music lessons for his talented daughter.
When young, Annie McKenzie married a Mr. Bradshaw who had money. After their daughter’s birth Annie sought a divorce on the grounds of cruelty. I have been unable to determine what became of Annie’s daughter.
“Mrs. Bradshaw, after her release, resumed her musical studies, and performed several successful operatic engagements on the San Francisco stage.” She might have resumed her maiden name, since she was listed as Annie McKenzie as a headliner in one concert and as a soloist in the Harmonic Society in others in 1872.
It was during her operatic career in San Francisco that she attracted the attention of Tyler Curtis, a widower and father of two daughters. He was wealthy, a politician who had served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Commissioners for several turns and ran an unsuccessful San Francisco mayoral campaign.
Curtis took Annie to Europe so that she could study Italian and music and he could, as one newspaper snidely put it, practice “devoting himself almost exclusively to drinking.”Dark Times But Bright Prospects
Somehow they went broke while in Europe and returned to New York. Curtis left Annie and his daughters in lodgings in New York and left for San Francisco, saying he’d send for them shortly. At first he wrote regularly and sent sufficient money, but the letters and money slacked off. Annie contacted her father, who tracked down the neglectful husband and found him dissolute. Annie’s father recommended that she give up on him. Max StrakoschAnnie tried to resume work in opera, and managed to attract the attention of prominent New York impresario Max Strakosch, well known for recruiting operatic talent including Emma Thursby, dubbed “the American Nightengale” in homage to “the Swedish Nightengale,” Janny Lind.
Strakosch considered Annie to be very promising and arranged lessons for her with noted opera singer and instructor Achille Errani. He discouraged Annie from taking paying engagements with other opera companies, saying that he wanted to manage her career, which he believed would be spectacular.Achille ErraniThough Strakosch was arranging for Annie’s training, he was not, evidently, arranging for her livelihood. Looking for work as a vocalist but off the operatic stage, she answered an ad and auditioned for a position in the choir of the Church of the Atonement. The choir was under the direction of the church organist, Benjamin Gregory. She won the job.
Benjamin Gregory’s father, Dudley S. Gregory, had been mayor of Jersey City and a principal stockholder in the New Jersey Railroad. He had died shortly before his son met the aspiring opera singer, leaving an estate of seven million. His son was a patron of the arts.
Learning that Annie was living in substandard lodgings with her two stepdaughters, Benjamin Gregory paid the arrears on her rent and relocated the little family, at his own expense, to better quarters in an upper story in a more reputable neighborhood.
The two became lovers. In early 1875, Annie became pregnant.Annie’s Fatal Choice
Strakosch had scheduled Annie to debut at the Academy of Music in March of 1875. She was to perform Aida under the stage name Anna Cartez. Strakosch had also given Annie a five-year contract, planning to send her to Italy in May for further study. Pregnancy would derail all of this.
“She decided upon infanticide, despite the protest of the partner of her shame.”
She underwent the abortion on March 9, perpetrated by Annie J. Ihl, “a woman long under the surveillance of the Police,” whom Annie had found from a thinly-veiled ad in the New York Herald. Ihl performed several abortion attempts. Annie’s friends became alarmed when she suddenly took terribly ill and called in Dr. Barry, who got the truth from her and alerted the authorities.
Convinced that Gregory had nothing to do with the abortion, police allowed him to remain at Annie’s bedside as she died, though under police supervision. He was reportedly very attentive of Annie in her illness, staying at her bedside once peritonitis set in, there in the lodgings he had rented for her.
She made deathbed statement given to the coroner the night of March 15, 1875:
“A week ago yesterday I went to see Doctress Ihl. She lived at Third avenue and Forty-ninth street. The woman here present is the woman I went to. I am a bad woman for telling of her. God will punish me. My husband’s name is Tyler Curtis. He is in San Francisco. He has been there fifteen months. I went of my own accord to Doctress Ihl. I met Mr. Gregory in the Church of the Atonement. He did not send me to Doctress Ihl. He did no know that I went. I have told the truth. If I were to go before my God this moment I would say the same.”
When asked who her baby’s father was, she pointed to Benjamin Gregory. When asked “Who performed the operation of infanticide?” she “pointed to a gross, ugly picture of Sairey Gamp [an unsavory nurse in the novel //Martin Chuzzlewit// by Charles Dickens], who sat in the corner between two policemen.”
Annie died from peritonitis four hours after giving her statement, at 12:15 a.m. On March 16. Benjamin Gregory, overcome with grief, took to his bed.
As for Ihl, the papers had nothing good to say about her. Ihl “is about fifty years old, large, fat and repulsive looking. She is a professional midwife, having lately blossomed into an advertised abortionist, and has long been registered by the police as worth watching.” Ihl admitted that Annie had consulted with her, but says she only provided instruments and Annie did the abortion on herself.
An autopsy found that Annie’s organs had been healthy, except for her uterus, which had suffered lacerations which allowed a massive infection to take hold.The Husband who had Abandoned Annie
The Columbia, South Carolina Daily Phoenix, on April 29, paints Annie’s absent husband in a highly sympathetic light: Tyler Curtis”Mr. Tyler Curtis, at one time a prominent citizen of San Francisco, Cal, and an early settler there, died at Barnum’s Hotel, in New York, on Friday morning. He was the husband of Annie Josephine Curtis, who died a few weeks since from the effects of malpractice. Mr. Curtis had previously been married to a woman of considerable means, by whom he had three children, two of whom were living in New York. On the day of Mrs. Curtis’ death, the husband, who was in San Francisco, was informed of the sad event. He hurriedly telegraphed to have the body placed in a receiving vault until his arrival. While packing up his effects, preparatory to leaving San Francisco, he got an evening newspaper, in which he read with grieved amazement the story of his wife’s shame. Dazed and heartbroken, he took the train for New York, where he arrived on April 8. The sudden shock to his feelings was too much for him to bear, and he sank rapidly, dying on Friday last from grief and prostration under the blow which he had received.” The World’s Loss
“In the untimely taking off of Mrs. Curtis, the operatic stage has lost a promising neophyte. Her voice, in the opinion of excellent judges, was a dramatic soprano of greater compass, strength, and sweetness than that of any performer on the stage. In person she was of medium size, with a gracefully-rounded classic figure. Her face was a study for an artist. It was not a perfect representative of any time of beauty. Neither a blonde nor a brunette, with a Roman nose, large, firm chin, shapely but oversized mouth, blue-gray eyes, and dark hair, shoe could not be assigned to any school. Every emotion was reflected in her countenance, and, backed by a cultivated intellect, made up a rarely attractive woman.” said the March 22,1875 Chicago Tribune.
- “The Fennor and Curtis Cases,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar. 17, 1875
- “Death From Malpractice,” Washington DC Evening Star, Mar. 17, 1875
- “Criminal Malpractice,” New York Times, Mar. 17, 1875
- “Deaths From Malpractice,” Reading (PA) Times, Mar. 18, 1875
- “The Malpractice Case,” New York Times, Mar. 18, 1875
- “A Malpractice Tragedy,” Washington DC National Republican, Mar. 19, 1875
- “A Deserted Wife’s Death,” Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, Mar. 20, 1875
- “A Sad Story,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Mar 21, 1875
- “Antecedents of Mrs. Curtis,” New York Times, Mar. 28, 1875
- “Fatal Effects of Grief and Shame,” Columbia (SC) Daily Phoenix, Apr.. 28, 1875
- “Madame Ihl,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 4, 1875