Antoinette Fennor1870s, newyork, 19thcentury
SUMMARY: On March 7, 1875, 20-year-old Antoinette Fennor died at the home of New York midwife/abortionist Catherine Maxwell.
- Coroner Simms last night resumed the inquest touching the death of Miss Antoinette Fennor. Seated in a corner of the room … was the father of the unfortunate girl, buried in the great crowd which surged about the doorway and pressed against the railing which inclosed the space where the jury, reporters and counsel were seated, anxious to hear every word as it fell from the witnesses’ mouths.
News coverage of the coroner’s inquest into the March 7, 1875 death of 20-year-old Antoinette Fennor gives us an interesting glimpse into how abortion was practiced, investigated, and prosecuted in Brooklyn in the late 19th century, and how the public responded to abortion deaths.
They certainly didn’t take the bored, “You pays your money and you takes your chances” attitude I see people taking toward modern abortion deaths.
This article focused mostly on the testimony of Detective James H. Roche, given March 17, and how he verified the identity of the abortionist.The Sting
On the Saturday before the inquest, March 13, 1875, Detective Roche went to Mrs. Catherine Maxwell’s home, and found her seated at the window in the front parlor. Mr. Maxwell admitted him. Roche had to wait for a couple, not identified, to finish whatever business they had with Mrs. Maxwell.
Posing as a young woman’s debaucher, Roche indicated to Mrs. Maxwell that he wanted to arrange an abortion. Mrs. Maxwell asked how advanced the pregnancy was, and he said about five months. “She said that was a very bad case but that she could attend to it all right as she had forty years’ experience in New York City in that kind of business.”
She asked how old the girl was and if she was living with her parents. Roche said that the girl had been living with him for about two years. Mrs. Maxwell asked for $100, and said that Roche would leave the girl at a nearby boarding house run by a friend of hers, who would charge $25 a week. He would also have to furnish a doctor to provide aftercare, and that Mr. Maxwell would check on the girl daily to see to it that the aftercare was adequate.
Roche asked if there was a risk of death, and Mrs. Maxwell said that there was no more risk for the abortion than for an ordinary childbirth. She also said that the procedure itself could be done in half the time they had spent talking about it.
When asked about instruments and medicines, Mrs. Maxwell said that she would use a syringe and some medicine.
Finally, Roche asked if it was better to have a woman, rather than a man, performing such a procedure. Mrs. Maxwell told him “they were much better, and that men should not be allowed to touch women at all”. She cited a case in Brooklyn, in which she said Dr. Estes had been arrested and his patient had died.
Roche spent some time dickering the price down to $75, then tried to get a discount on the boarding house. There Mrs. Maxwell stood firm, saying that it was not she, but her friend, who set the price for that, and the price was not negotiable.
It was then that Roche admitted his true identity and presented his warrant for her arrest in Antoinette Fennor’s death — the Brooklyn girl whose death Mrs. Maxwell had blamed on Dr. Estes.
Mrs. Maxwell wanted to know what evidence he had against her. Roche told Mrs. Maxwell that a woman had said she had come to Maxwell’s home with the Antoinette. Mrs. Maxwell began asserting that she’d be in the workhouse if she didn’t go into the abortion business, since her husband was “feeble” and unable to work, that she had rent to pay, servants to pay. She admitted that she’d been arrested twice for abortion previously. As her husband went to get the carriage to bring her to the station, she told Roche that she felt sorry not for herself, but for her children, since she would likely die in prison.The Unsavory Mrs. Maxwell
One of Mrs. Maxwell’s priors was then brought out in the inquest. On February 16, 1846, she had been found guilty under the name of Catherine Costello, alias Maxwell, of doing an abortion on Emily D. She had been sentenced to 6 months, and fined $250. The girl’s “seducer”, Charles Mason, who had arranged the abortion, was sentenced to four months.
The other abortion had evidently performed on a Mrs. Jennie Gale, who testified against Mrs. Maxwell at the inquest at some point, and who evidently had referred for the abortion that had killed Antoinette. Mrs. Gale was arrested as an accessory, and her attorney protested that she had come to the inquest as a witness and therefore should not have been subject to criminal charges.
Mrs. Maxwell was then brought into the room to be identified by Roche. Snidely Whiplash couldn’t have gotten a more negative response:
- As she is unable to walk, she was carried into the court room on her chair by two officers, who placed her in the centre of the room, facing [Roche]. In answer to the Coroner’s inquiry, “Do you identify that woman as the person whom you arrested?” the officer replied, “I do,” and the woman was wheeled back to the private room on the Coroner waving his hand, saying, “Take that woman away.” The woman is anything but an agreeable looking personage, and the great crowd that looked upon her seemed to feel the contempt and disgust which the Coroner’s words and actions showed he had for the woman as he turned his gaze from her and ordered her taken from the room.
Nathaniel Ford had been called to see Antoinette in consultation with Dr. A. W. Ford on Wednesday or Thursday, the 3rd or 4th. He saw her daily until her death.
He testified, “She died from injuries caused by an abortion, which, she said, was brought about by an instrument, used by a woman in New York, who performed the operation.” Antoinette told him that she’d gone to the woman accompanied by a female friend who did not stay in room with her during abortion. The abortionist, Antoinette said, had told her to keep mum about it or she could end up in prison for twenty years. Antoinette told him that the woman said she’d been an abortionist for forty years, never had a woman rat her out. She would give each woman alcoholic drink before the abortion. Antoinette and her friend had taken a carriage to town and paid $40. She didn’t mention then name of abortionist or of who had provided the money, telling Ford that she’d told her mother about it.
Dr. A. W. Shepherd had participated in the autopsy. He testified that the baby had been of four months’ gestation. He testified that Antoinette had died from abortion injuries, which he described but the news coverage skipped.
James said that he knew Antoinette only by sight, but that they had known her family since childhood. He spoke well of Antoinette’s reputation and said he’d never known her to have stayed overnight at the hotel. He had seen her at ladies’ parlor and ladies’ restaurant with lady friends once or twice, once with “my brother and other gentlemen.” He said he didn’t know of any “intimacy” with John and Antoinette, though he did see them speaking sometimes. Sometimes he saw Antoinette’s father in the bar or speaking with John. His wife told him of Antoinette’s death after reading it in the papers. He did not discuss the death with his brother until after he’d seen John’s name in the paper in relation to the crime. John said that he had known that Antoinette was in trouble and had helped her, but did not go into specifics.
Amelia Betts, John Betts’ sister-in-law, was married to James. The couple lived at the hotel. She testified that she had seen Antoinette at the hotel, but only twice had seen Betts even speak to her. She was seen, Mrs. Betts said, “in company with another gentleman.” She denied any knowledge that her brother-in-law and Antoinette had “an intimacy.” She said she’d first learned of Antoinette’s death the day after it had happened, by reading about it in the newspaper. The first she saw Betts after Antoinette’s death was about a week later. The two of them never discussed it.
John Vessser was the proprietor of a hair salon near the hotel, and knew Betts. He had seen Antoinette passing and repassing the hotel but didn’t know of her visiting the hotel or of any “improper intimacy” between John and Antoinette. He said he had thought that she’d died of brain fever. He hadn’t known that “she had been in a delicate condition.”
Errand boy Daniel Bellows knew both Betts and Fennor, and had carried letters back and forth between the two of the about thirty times. Sometimes Antoinette’s mother would accept the letters. Once he had carried a package to her. He had seen Antoinette at the hotel twice. On one occasion he had carried a verbal message that Antoinette would meet Betts to go to a ball. The most recent letter he had carried had been about a week before her death.
Mrs. Ellen Wood was an acquaintance of John H. Betts, the father of Antoinette’s baby. Wood testified that Betts had spoken to her the previous July about an abortion for a young woman named Annie Clews, and had offered the girl $30.
Annie Clews was called as a witness. She testified that she had a baby by Betts. He’d offered her money to abort the child in question, but she had refused.Maxwell’s Granddaughter Speaks
Catherine Maxwell’s granddaughter, Mrs. Anna Jackson, said that at the time of Antoinette’s death she had been visiting grandmother from Boston. She said that her grandmother was a midwife, then noted, “She does not make outdoor visits, as she is not strong in her limbs, being unable to walk.” Anna said that her grandmother had no apartments furnished at her house for ladies, and that she would give advice that any physician would give to patients who call upon her. Her grandmother, she said, compounded her own medicines. She’d never heard of her grandmother being arrested.
The verdict was that Antoinette died of peritonitis March 7, 1875, from an abortion performed about February 26 by Mrs. Maxwell. Jennie Gale, the witness who admitted to having Maxwell do an abortion on her, and John Betts were accessories. All three were arrested.
The Brooklyn Eagle spared no words in its castigation of Betts, saying that he “helped [Antoinette] into her grave, and cheated a product of love and guilt out of its right to be born.”
In striking contrast to a modern abortion death case, there were none of the signs of concern for women’s lives that you see nowadays. There was no knot of supporters outside holding signs saying “Mrs. Maxwell Helps Women”. There was no ad-hoc coalition of lobbying and activist organizations forming a legal defense fund for the woman who killed Antoinette. And there was no group of young admirers asking Mrs. Maxwell to come speak to them about how they could follow in her footsteps. There were none of those familiar signs we see nowadays about how important it is to protect women from lethal butchery. No, back then, when nobody cared about women’s lives, being party to a woman’s abortion death just got you scorn, infamy, and a prison sentence.
How times have changed.
I have no information on overall maternal mortality, or abortion mortality, in the 19th century. I imagine it can’t be too much different from maternal and abortion mortality at the very beginning of the 20th Century.
Note, please, that with 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.
For more on this era, see Abortion Deaths in the 19th Century.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
- “Malpractice”, The Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 18, 1875
- “The Fennor and Curtis Cases,”The Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 17, 1875
- “Malpractice,” The Brooklyn Eagle, Mar. 19, 1875
- 19th century
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