Bertha Kern1890s, newyork, illegalmidwife, 19thcenturySUMMARY: Bertha Kern, age 21, died January 30, 1893 from complications of an abortion perpetrated in New York by midwife Caroline Kraft.
On January 29, 1893, 21-year-old German immigrant Bertha Kern was taken to St. Mark’s Hospital in New York. The doctors who examined her concluded that her case was hopeless and told Bertha that she was dying. Bertha “reluctantly acknowledged that she had been in the hands of Mrs. Caroline Kraft, a woman who called herself a midwife….”
The coroner was summoned, arriving at midnight to take Bertha’s statement. “With death staring her in the face, she declared that a man who lived on St. Mark’s place had betrayed her. But she exonerated him from all complicity in the crime that had brought her to death’s door. Two weeks before, she said, realizing her position, she had gone to Mrs. Kraft. She had read her advertisement in an afternoon newspaper.”
Kraft quoted a price of $20, and Bertha returned with the money. She was taken to “a dark room in the middle of the flat” where the abortion was then perpetrated.
Bertha took ill, but still reported to her job as a domestic servant. Her employers quickly took her to the hospital, accompanied by her sister, Bertha’s only living relative, who was also in their employ.
The coroner notified the police, who quickly went to Kraft’s apartment. A woman there told them that Kraft was out and wouldn’t return for several days. However, the police searched the house, finding a case of instruments.
They then turned their attention to the roof, where they found Kraft crouching behind the chimney. “Of course she denied her guilt. But she was terribly excited.”
The police quickly took Kraft to Bertha’s bedside, where the dying woman made a positive identification of her killer.
Bertha had also said that her lover, Franz Steinbrenner, had purchased abortifacient pills for her at some point, though she insisted that he’d known nothing of her decision to entrust herself to Caroline Kraft.
Police sought Steinbrenner and found evidence that he was planning to flee. Acting on a hunch that he’d want to see Bertha one last time, police staked out the hospital. Sure enough, Steinbrenner went to Bertha’s bedside, where the two of them wept and “renewed protestations of devotion.”
Bertha breathed her last at around 5:00 the afternoon of the 30th.
An autopsy was conducted which found “unmistakably that she had died of septic peritonitis resulting from the operation; had been killed as surely as if Mrs. Kraft had cut her throat.”
A coroner’s inquest was held on February 2, with the coroner’s jury identifying Kraft as responsible for Bertha’s death. Her lover, Franz Steinbrenner, was exonerated even though Bertha had at one point said that he’d provided her with abortifacient pills. Evidently he had no knowledge of Bertha’s decision to turn to Kraft to finish the job.
“To emphasize the deadly character of Mrs. Kraft’s occupation Police Captain Campbell, of Brooklyn, sent word to Capt. Gallagher on the day of the inquest that Anna Dopp, twenty-three years old, was in the Long Island City Hospital suffering from malpractice, that that she accused Mrs. Kraft. …. Anna Dopp swore to [police] that on January 23, 1893, she had paid Mrs. Kraft $15 and that she had suffered as Bertha Kern had suffered.”
During Kraft’s trial, three jurors reported being approached by a man, later identified as John Wagner, Caroline Kraft’s brother-in-law, who attempted to bribe them. In spite of — or perhaps in part because of — the bribery attempt, Kraft was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to six years.
However, Kraft later got the case overturned on appeal based on technicalities surrounding Bertha’s deathbed statement.
A headline relating to the case indicates the possibility of corruption. “Her Husband Has a Political Pull — He Belongs to Keating’s Tammany Club.”
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
- “A Verdict Against Mrs. Kraft“, The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1893
- “Glimpses of Manhattan,”
- “She Accuses the Midwife,” The New York Press, Jan. 29, 1893
- “Recorder Goff Reversed,” The New York Herald, Mar. 4, 1896
- “Attempt to Bribe Jurors,” New York Herald, Apr. 27, 1895
- “Out on Bail” to Kill?” The New York World, Oct. 28, 1894
- “Another Midwife Murder,” The New York World, Jan. 31, 1893
- “The Attempted Jury Bribing,” The New York Evening Post, Apr. 27, 1895
- “Autopsy on Bertha Kern,” The (NY,NY) World, Feb. 1, 1893
- “Caroline Kraft Sentenced,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr. 30, 1895