Eva Swan19101919, california, illegaldoctor, dumpedbody, coverupSUMMARY: Eva Swan, age 24, died on April 30, 1910 after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. James Grant in San Francisco.
In September of 1910, The San Francisco Examiner and the Oakland Tribune gave extensive coverage to the gruesome death of 24-year-old Eva Swan.
Eva, a native of Ruby Hill, Nevada who is described in the census as a stenographer and in news coverage as a schoolteacher, died after a” Dr. James Grant” performed an abortion on her.
Eva had spent her childhood with her family in Paso Robles, California, where she graduated from high school.Eva then moved to San Francisco and got a teaching certificate from San Francisco Normal School. She began her teaching career in Monterey, then moved to back to San Francisco, where she decided to give up teaching and take training to become a stenographer. The last her uncle had seen of her had been around Christmas of 1909.
Eva had a sister, Nettie McKenzie in Washington, and another, Rose Adler, who had preceded her in death. A former classmate described her as “a good girl and a diligent one, although not exceptionally bright.”
The chronology that finally emerged is as follows:
Paul P. ParkerAround February 14, Eva went to live at the boarding house where Paul P. Parker was a lodger. Parker was described as “a magazine writer and former Stanford student and athlete.”
Eva’s landlady there was Mrs. Carrie Ware. The house was reputable, home to a wide range of boarders of honest means, including a licensed nurse, a magazine writer, a shipwright, a insurance adjuster, a woman who too in embroidery work, and a railroad engineer.
April 16, Eva went to “Dr. Grant” for an abortion. She returned the next day for a follow up.
On the 18th, she was very ill and went to Grant’s office, but wasn’t offered any help. Finally, on April 20, she went to Grant’s office, but he wasn’t there. She cried out, “I can’t stand this any longer!” and went to Grant’s home, where she remained under his care. She was visited there twice by Parker.
On April 21 her family reported her missing to the police. Her uncle, Henry G. Swan, said that he’d “been besieged with letters from members of the family and her friends to have the mystery of her disappearance cleared up.” They didn’t think it possible that she had committed suicide. She had a steady job and money in the bank.
He went to the boarding house. “From the appearance of her room she had made no preparations for going. Her clothes were just as she had left them, with only the suit she wore missing.”
Henry Swan spoke with his niece’s friends, but none of them offered any help in locating the missing woman.
On April 30, Eva died.
Around May 1, Eva’s uncle said, a young man had asked called the boarding house, saying, “Oh, I have seen her since [the time she went missing] myself.” Mrs. Ware, the landlady, told Uncle Henry that she didn’t recognize the man’s voice.
On May 8, grant told Parker that Eva was recovering, and had gone to Mill Valley to recuperate at the home of her uncle.
Homer HatchOn May 20, farmer Homer Hatch, Eva’s former classmate and a man later named as the possible father of Eva’s baby, went to the boarding house looking for Eva. The story of her visit to Mill Valley was relayed to him. He left a note for her. He later insisted that he had not seen Eva for roughly a year and a half before her disappearance, and that it had been only a coincidence that he had stopped by while she was missing.
Around May 30, Eva’s brother asked the police chief to investigate his sister’s disappearance.
On July 5, a police detective wrote to Eva’s brother, saying that she was safe in Mill Valley. Eva’s Uncle Henry went to Mill Valley. “I tramped all over the place several times, but could never find the person [she was allegedly staying with].” He left his address with several people, asking them to let him know if they learned anything of Eva’s whereabouts.
Henry Swan got a lead that Eva had applied for a job at the Remington Typewriter Factory eight days after she’d disappeared. He went there and looked at the job application they had on file, but the Eva Swan who had applied there had given her age as 30, and he thought it unlikely that a young woman would claim to be four years older than she actually was. The woman’s resume also listed former employers, and Eva had never worked at any of those places.
On September 19, Ben Gordon told the police that Eva was dead, buried at the Eureka Street house. The police were skeptical. Gordon had complained that Grant owed him back pay, and detectives were at first convinced that Gordon was just trying to make trouble for Grant.
On September 23, the police finally followed up on Gordon’s report, as unobtrusively as possible, since they still thought the boy was just trying to get revenge on a skinflint employer. “No word was sent to the coroner’s office, as is usual in such cases, and no word was permitted to leak out at police headquarters and it was not until the detectives had come upon the grewsome find that word was flashed to Coroner Walsh and the story of the crime became known.
Detectives had gotten the key from a neighbor, who was holding it for the landlord. Accompanied by young Gordon, they “made their way from the front door through the little parlor, all covered with dirt, and into the little cellar, the scene of the work of the midnight ghouls.”
“The drill was used as a crowbar to force out the block of cement, and, hardened as they were to scenes of crime and murder, even the detectives shrank back affrighted at the odor from the grave, which told only too conclusively that the object of their search lay before them.”
“Trembling at the sight before him, young Gordon would have fled the scene but for the strong arm of one of the detectives, who held him tightly and would not let him leave the basement.”
“There before the small audience were the outlines of a head wrapped in an old comforter, but so carelessly wrapped that here and there a few strands of long hair protruded, telling only too well that what was contained in the makeshift grave were the remains of a woman.”
At that point the coroner was summoned, along with additional police.
“Even before the cordon of police arrived the news of the tragic crime had percolated through the neighborhood…. Before long the little obscure dwelling was surrounded by a crowd of hundreds, who, although barred from the interior, were content to gaze awe-stricken through the windows and catch as best they could some hint of the morbid circumstances attending the finding of the body in the basement beneath.” The crowd grew so large and unruly that every police officer available had to be called in to clear them back.
“The black morgue wagon clattered up the street, and those of the neighborhood who had heard the rumors and discredited them, followed in its wake. It required the combined efforts of the police on guard to force a path through the morbid crowd. A long straw basket was carried in and the guardians almost had to resort to clubs to drive the excited crowd back and keep many from rushing inside.”
Once the coroner arrived the task of removing Eva’s body was begun. “It had been crammed and jammed into the hole apparently in a frenzy of excitement. Mingling with the accompanying odor was the pungent smell of nitric acid. In an effort to consume entirely traces of the crimes it was apparent that several gallons of the fluid had been poured upon the body after it had been wrapped for burial.”
They found Eva’s body and arrested both Grant and his nurse, 26-year-old Marie Messerschmidt.
Grant was booked, photographed, and fingerprinted, then interviewed by a Tribune reporter. “I have nothing whatever to say to reporters. I will have to refer you to my counsel, Fitzpatrick & Greeley.” Neither Grant nor his attorney would so much as give his real name.
Nurse Messerschmidt (pictured, left), the daughter of a shoemaker, had been born and raised in Berkeley and had graduated from Lincoln School there. After working a short time as a store clerk, she entered nursing training at Berkeley’s Roosevelt Hospital at around 22 years of age. Messerschmidt turned out to be a less than stellar nurse. She was let go from her job. She went to San Francisco and in the fall of 1909 took the job as Grant’s nurse.
Messerschmidt became so close to “Grant” that they were often taken for husband and wife. After her arrest, Messerschmidt said that she had only done what “Grant” had told her to do because she was so afraid of him, but she also said that she might marry him so that she could not be forced to testify against him.
Upon learning of her arrest, Messerschmidt’s family, including her father, a sister, Mrs. Nisson, and two brothers, Henry and Conrad, rushed to her defense. Conrad made a public statement asserting his sister’s innocence and insisting that Grant must have kept her in ignorance of the illegal goings-on.
On September 24, the police learned that a man named William “Willie” Saack (or Saach, pictured, right) was also connected with the crime, and that a man named Glenn Pike (pictured, left) had learned about the disposal of Eva’s body and had been blackmailing Grant.
On September 25, Nurse Messerschmidt was further pressed.
The police had been having no success in questioning her, so they brought her brother-in-law in to talk to her. At first Messerschmidt continued to insist that the knew nothing. Borman showed her a photo of her late mother and said, “If you have any respect for her memory you won’t continue to act this way.”
Messerschmidt stared a while at the photograph, then burst into tears, crying, “I’ll tell everything!”
It was then that the mystery of “Dr. Grant’s” real name was solved. “Dr. Grant,” Messerschmidt told them,, was actually a Dr. Robert Thompson, a graduate of Dartmouth and Baltimore Medical College. Coverage in the Examiner later painted a picture of a pudgy, heartless man who showed no emotion during his trial.
Once Messerschmidt was prepared to make her confession, Thompson was brought to her cell. He urged the nurse not to say anything, but when it became plain that she was going to make a clean breast of it he tried to leave but was restrained by the police.
Messerschmidt said that Eva had come to Thompson’s residence on the evening of Saturday, April 16 for the abortion. She returned the next day for follow-up. On April 20, she returned and was ensconced in a bedroom behind Thompson’s office, where Marie provided nursing care. The next day Thompson declared her case to be hopeless, and began preparing the trunk for the disposition of her body.
“Eva Swan stayed in bed for ten days after April 20, and so far as I could judge she never regained consciousness. As far as I can remember, it was on April 30 that death came to relieve her suffering. She died alone in the night in a darkened room, and the doctor found the body the next morning.”
“Blood poison had disfigured the face, and although I am a professional nurse, I could hardly bare [sic] to look at the poor thing as she lay there dead and so frightfully alone.”
After discovering that Eva had finally died, Messerschmidt said, Thompson went into his outer office and she heard him rummaging around in his cabinet. He returned with some sort of cutting instrument. “I don’t know which it was because the horror of it all had so affected me that I had difficulty in restraining myself from dropping off into a swoon.”
“I saw the doctor hacking at the legs and thighs of the body until he could bend it and cram it into the trunk. When the body was finally in the trunk he slammed down the lid and snapped the catchers.”
She also told of the renting of the Eureka Street house and how Willie Saack had ridden with the cartman and Thompson had gone separately by street car to meet them so as to avoid arousing suspicion.
“Messerschmidt also gave information she must have gotten from Saack or from Thompson himself. Thompson had chosen the basement for burial because there were too many nosy neighbors for him to bury the body in the yard. One of those neighbors was brought in to identify Thompson as the man she had seen in the back yard of the house where Eva’s body had been discovered.
Messerschmidt also told the police that Paul Parker had visited three times during Eva’s illness. He was arrested “as the mysterious friend who was suspected of being responsible for the condition which induced the young woman to submit to the criminal operation which resulted in her death.”
The police also were finally able to locate and question Saack, who had fled to Everett, Washington. Another man, Moses “Moe” Black, an electrician, was also identified as a man “who was for several months attentive to Miss Swan and wrote many letters to her.”
Messerschmidt also identified Paul Parker, who was clandestinely brought to the police station, sweaty and weak-kneed. He was permitted to hand off a letter to his father for a friend to mail before being questioned about his involvement in Eva’s pregnancy and the abortion. He identified “Dr. Grant” and admitted to visiting Eva at his practice.
“I saw Eva Swan the last time about the 22nd of April,” Parker told the police, verifying the date on a calendar the detectives had found during their investigation. “I called at the hospital, as I thought it was, and saw her in bed. She did not have much to say — in fact she talked very queerly at times. I went away and returned a week or so later and the doctor told me that he had received some money and had sent the girl away.”
After they were finished questioning him, the police turned Parker over to the press briefly for photographs, but did not allow him to speak to them, though they were given a statement in which Parker said that he had known Eva four or five years. The first time he had gone to see her at Thompson’s “hospital” at 1293 Golden Gate Avenue was in response to a phone message left for him at work giving the address and saying that Miss Swan was there. He said that this was the first he had known that she was seeing a doctor for anything. He recalled the date as April 20.
He went back for a second visit around April 22, he said, saying, “she would talk oddly about things, but she seemed confident of recovering.”
but when he went a third time, Thompson told him that Eva’s sister had sent $200, which Eva had used to go to a sanitarium. Parker said that this seemed plausible so he went about his business.
Parker was placed in a cell, though he was visited briefly by a few friends and at length by an attorney.
On September 26, Grant was charged with murder in Eva’s death. Parker and Messerschmidt gave further statements, and rumors were circulating that Messerschmidt might marry Grant in order to avoid having to testify against him.
Messerschmidt continued to spill her guts. She said that Thompson had been confident that Paul Parker would stay quiet because he was the father of Eva’s aborted baby. Thompson also had showed her a gun and said that he would “plug” anybody who “would welch on him.”
Thompson had an assistant, Willie Saack, rent a house to for the express purpose of disposing of the body.
Saack hired a carter to haul a trunk containing Eva’s body to the rental house, fearful the entire trip that the trunk would fall and the crime be revealed. Thompson met Saack at the house and together they dug a hole in the basement.
Thompson took Eva’s remains out of the trunk, deposited them in the hole, and poured a large container of nitric acid over them. The two men then filled the hole, saturated the makeshift grave with more nitric acid, and covered it with cement.
Saack, evidently plagued with guilt, told Ollie Ben Gordon, another of Grant‘s employees, about the incident. Gordon and Saack told a friend, Glenn Pike, about the situation and the three of them kept the secret until after a fight with Grant over money they were extorting from Thompson to keep quiet. He then went to the police.
Two different men were identified as possibly being the father of Eva’s baby. Paul P. Parker maintained throughout that he hadn’t even known her to be pregnant. Homer Hatch cooperated with the police during their investigation.
The police initially thought that Eva had been murdered to take her jewelry. When “Grant” was arrested, police found rings and jewelry with the diamonds and sapphires missing in his pockets. They believed the jewelry to have belonged to Eva.
Eva’s uncle, Henry G. Swan, was able to add little to the investigation. Her family (her sister, Nettie McKenzie of Vancouver, BC, her brother Reuben in Rome, Iowa, and her father in Tuscan Springs, CA) had all been concerned after not hearing from her. Henry Swan had searched for her when she’d gone missing. He said that Eva’s room didn’t look as if she’d planned to go anywhere. None of her clothing was gone but the outfit she’d been wearing. Her uncle spoke to a number of Eva’s friends, one man and several women. After a few days he finally reported her missing to the police. There were what people believed to be sightings of her, but of course none of them panned out.
The Eureka Street house is gone now, the neighborhood given over to working-class row houses on the odd-numbered side, and gentrified houses across the street.
Eva’s abortion was typical of pre-legalization abortions in that it was performed by a physician.
Note, please, that with general public health 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 information about early 20th Century abortion mortality, see Abortion Deaths 1910-1919.
- Oakland Tribune, Sept. 24, 1910
- “Robbery Motive for Awful Crime is Police Theory”
- “Uncle of Woman Tells of Search”
- “Marie Messerschmidt Failed to Make Good in Training Department of Berkeley Hospital”
- “Gordon’s Story Sets Detectives Working Quickly”
- “Accused Doctor Refuses to Discuss his Own Case,” Oakland Tribune, Sept 24, 1910
- Oakland Tribune, Sept. 26, 1910
- “Chronological Record of the Eva Swan Case”
- “Dr. Grant’s Alleged Horrible Mutilation of Body”
- “Eva Swan Suffered and Died Alone in Night”
- “Rapid Developments in Swan Case Prove Doctor Human Monster”
- “Parker Seized and Questioned by Detectives”
- “Homer Hatch Has Nothing to Add to Story of Girl”
- “Old Schoolmate Recognizes Body of Slain Woman”
- “Marie Messerschmidt May Wed Dr. Thompson to Balk Efforts of Prosecution Attorneys Who Depend Upon her Testimony to Convict Man”
- “Parker Tells of Last Meeting With Miss Swan”
- “Nurse Confesses Passing as Dr. Thompson’s Wife”
- San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 30, 1910:
- “Jury Probes Swan Girl’s Death”
- “Glenn Pike Tells of Blackmailing Doctor”
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