Belle Wertz19thcentury, indiana, coverup, illegaldoctorSUMMARY: Belle Wertz died in December of 1874 after an abortion perpetrated in Cincinnati by a Dr. Hilt.
The first known sign that Belle Wertz of Miamitown, Ohio, was making the choices that would end in her death was a small one. She and her lover, James E. Collins, had gone to Cincinnati and registered overnight as husband and wife at the Walnut Street House on February 24, 1874.
In early October, Belle left home again, telling her family that she planned to visit some friends in Greensburg, Indiana. She did so, or, rather, she imposed herself on her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Little, traveling there on a ticket Collins had purchased for her.
Exactly how far advanced Belle’s pregnancy was is unclear, though her condition “was apparent” when she descended upon the Little household. Through the coming weeks, “she was recklessly violent, and probably took medicines, bought with money Collins had furnished her, for the purpose of ridding herself of her shame.”
On December 1, Charles Little’s mother, Catherine Little, came from her Miamiville home to Greensburg, ostensibly to tend to the younger Mrs. Little, who was about to give birth. Catherine was the widow of a physician, which might be why care of Belle fell to her.
The following day, Belle left the house for about two hours and returned sick. She “took to her bed and remained there until her death near two weeks later.” The Widow Little did her best to care for the sick woman on her own, but finally called in Dr. Hilt.
Hilt wanted to know why he hadn’t been called in sooner, and was told that Belle had refused to allow a doctor to be called. He attended her for two days, until her death at 5 a..m.
Belle’s father was summoned to Greensburg with the news that Belle had died. Dr. Hilt, who said that she had died from inflammation of the bowels. By the time her father had arrived in Greensburg, Belle’s body had been transported to Cincinnati, and from there to Miamiville.
“Suspicions of foul play were aroused, but nothing was done until the funeral was progressing. While in the church the excitement increased and the ceremonies were stopped. A jury was empaneled and an inquest was held on the spot. About midnight the examination of the witnesses was concluded, the church was closed, and a post mortem examination was made, which proved that Belle Wertz’ death had been caused by an abortion. The examining physicians state that it was a bungling and brutal operation, and must have resulted in speedy death, as the organs were terribly ruptured and lacerated.”
A search was made and the body a term infant, apparently born alive, was found in the privy vault.
Dr. Hilt was charged as the principal in the death, with Belle’s lover, sister, and brother-in-law were charged as accessories. Then James Collins turned state’s evidence against the elder Mrs. Little, turning over to prosecutors letters such as the following one:
Greensburg, Dec. 7, 1874
Mr. J. Collins — I came out to this place by Charley’s request to see his wife through a trouble, but, to my great surprise, I found Belle ahead of her. Paper, pen, and ink can not explain what we have gone through with. Last Wednesday night was the most horrible night I ever witnessed in my life. Since that times she keeps Charley and me on watch night and day to keep this thing hid. Belle murdered her infant after taking the medicine that you had got her. We have scarcely eat or slept since Belle was near death’s door, but fortunately I caught out her heinous and diabolical act, which makes me heart-sick, when I think about it. The infant now lies where we are in torment for fear it is discovered. James, Charley feels as if he could not forgive you and her mother for sending Belle out to his house to perform such a thing as she has done. There is not a soul that knows one word but us, but we are in fear every minute of our life. James, come out here on the afternoon train. You can go the next morning house if you wish. We will tell you all, and show you where the infant is, I cannot explain on paper, but come out. no one will know you are here if you don’t want them to. now I will tell you the conclusion Charley says if you will hand him over the sum of two hundred dollars, and one hundred to me, then it will be forever a secret between us, and if you don’t, he will expose the whole matter and it will be a penitentiary act for both of you. let us know your conclusion immediately. I would not be hired to do another such thing. * * * If you write to me or Charley, don’t let any one know it. Don’t tell any one you got this. * * * *
She wrote another letter, which I have not yet found in print, that included the words, “Oh, horror of horrors, I will not put on paper what I will tell you. You will stagger when I tell you what Belle has undergone.”
Two lengthy trials ended with Mrs. Little being acquitted. The jury saw that although Mrs. Little had served as an accomplice after the fact, she had really, as far as they could tell, just been dragged into things she had wanted no part of.
“Meanwhile the seducer and villain Collins, walks the earth a free man haunted only by the memory of his victim and their murdered child mouldering among the clods of the valley.”
Lest anybody attribute the brutality of Belle’s abortion to its illegality, I remind my readers of the horrible safe, legal deaths suffered by Magdalena Rodriguez, Guadalupe Negron, and Carolina Gutierrez. Legalization protects quacks from prosecution; it does diddly-squat to protect women from quacks.
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
- “Ohio: Another Abortion-Murder”, Winona Daily Republican Dec. 22, 1874
- “The Belle Wertz Abortion Case at Greensburg,” New Albany (IN) Daily Ledger Standard, Nov. 22, 1875
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