Bernice Barnes

SUMMARY: Bernice Barnes died on January 24, 1929 after an abortion attributed to Dr. Ira Willits of Chicago.

On January 14, 1929, James F. Barnes of Chicago noticed that his wife, Bernice, seemed ill. She told him that she had a cold, and for a time he let the matter drop. A few days later, when Bernice didn’t seem to be doing any better, James had Dr. Samuel Abrahams come and check on her.

On Dr. Abrahams’s instructions, nurse Helen Strunsky was brought in to care for the sick woman. Bernice confessed to Helen that Dr. Ira B. Willits of North Clark Street had performed an abortion on her. Helen relayed this information to James, recommending that he immediately bring Bernice to a hospital.

James didn’t have the money to pay for a private hospital, so he arranged with Dr. Abrahams to have Bernice taken by ambulance to Cook County Hospital. She was admitted at 11:05 p.m. on January 23.

Once admitted, Bernice told nurse T. M. Wilmot about the abortion. Dr. Carl Scuderl examined Bernice, who had a 103 degree fever, and found that she was suffering from sepsis.

Bernice told James to go to Willits and tell him where she was. James did so, and Willits told him, “She must be removed from the county hospital at once. She should be taken to the West End hospital, where she can be given proper care.”

James summoned an ambulance and rode in it to County Hospital, signing papers to have his wife released. Dr. Scuderl and other hospital employees protested, saying that Bernice’s fever had risen to 105 degrees and she was in critical condition. They were concerned that moving her, especially in such cold weather, would kill her.

James Barnes was adamant, and Bernice was taken to West End Hospital, where chief surgeon Dr. Benjamin Breakstone performed surgery at around 4:00 p.m. Shortly after that, Bernice died.

Breakstone told the corner that Bernice had been suffering from appendicitis, not a septic abortion, and that he had performed surgery to remove the appendix — along with Bernice’s reproductive organs. When a coroner’s physician demanded that Bernice’s organs be handed over, Breakstone showed him a jar with some organs in it. Since there was no way to verify that the organs were those removed from Bernice during surgery, the coroner’s physician refused to take them. When investigators returned looking for them, Breakstone’s staff said that they were missing and that they’d assumed the jar had been taken to the coroner’s office.


  • “Two Physicians Face Inquiry on Woman’s Death,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 10, 1929