Harriet Reece20s, illinois, 1890s, illegaldoctor, 19thcenturyTable of ContentsFrank’s StoryAiken’s StorySUMMARY: Hattie Reece, age 25, died on March 16, 1899 after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. James W. Aiken in Tennessee.
Harriet “Hattie” Reece was a 25-year-old primary school teacher in Browning, Illinois. Her husband, Frank, was also a teacher and principal at the school where Hattie taught. They had been married two and a half years in 1899, when the events unfolded that ended Hattie’s life on March 16. And the finger pointed at Dr. James W. Aiken, who seemed to be a bit of a George Tiller precursor — somebody who would find a “life of the mother” case in any pregnancy. But unlike Tiller, Aiken couldn’t just buy his way out of trouble. He was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years.
News coverage in The Quincy Daily Journal gives us two perspectives — Frank Reece’s and James Aiken’s — with a bit of other folks’ input scattered about. See whose testimony seems more credible to you.Frank’s Story Frank testified to the coroner’s jury that he had been unaware of his pregnancy, but then testified that they had suspected pregnancy two months earlier and had consulted Dr. Blankinship, who was not certain but believed that Hattie was indeed pregnant. Hattie, Frank said, reported severe pains. Frank said that “Dr. Blankinship said it would be best for her health if such was the case.” The “it” to which Blankinship referred seemed to be continuing the pregnancy.
But Frank evidently had some concerns about his wife’s plans after they spoke to Blankinship. “In talking with her I learned that she did not want to have a child, as she wished to continue teaching. She said if there was any way out, she did not want the burdens. We called Dr. Blankinship in again. She was feeling blue and despondent and I asked him in her presence if he had any medicine for despondency. He said that there was a medicine that would relieve her but that he had no right to give it. Neither of us asked him for it. That was a month ago.”
This seemed to have been a roundabout way to request an abortion to remove the underlying cause of Hattie’s “despondency”.
Frank indicated that he wrote to Dr. Stremmel of Macomb, Illinois, at his wife’s request. Stremmel, Frank said, also recommended continuing the pregnancy because, Frank said, “an operation would ruin her health.”
“She then said she was going to write to Dr. Aiken of Tennessee. I told her as far as I was concerned I would have nothing more to do with it. I knew Dr. Aiken only by hearsay and had no confidence in him.”
Hattie wrote to Aiken and showed her husband the letter she got in response, indicating that “such an operation would be a delicate one, but that he could take her through it safely and have her on her feet in ten days. …. I said I would not listen to such a proposition nor tolerate it.” Hattie continued a correspondence with Aiken, over her husband’s protests. “I said to her, ‘If you do what you contemplate it will result in death and disgrace.'” He would only consent to an abortion if it was a legal abortion, necessary to protect her health. Hattie proposed going to Aiken for a consult. Frank thought a consult was a good idea but was opposed to Aiken. He offered to pay for the expenses if she went to see doctors in Macomb, but would not underwrite any involvement with Aiken.
Hattie went anyway, paying the expenses from her salary, leaving on the 24th and planning to stay somewhere under Aiken’s care. She sent Frank a letter “in which she said she had done nothing but what clear conscience would approve and that I would when she saw me.” She sent several other letters to Frank, saying she was not well, concluding with a telegram — which was later presented as evidence at trial. Frank finally went to Tennessee to speak to her.
When Frank arrived, Hattie said that Aiken had examined her, told her she would not survive childbirth but that he could “safely take her through it” — presumably meaning an abortion. Aiken told Frank that “the danger was not over and that the trouble was with her stomach.”
Frank went back to Hattie’s room, begged her forgiveness for having been harsh with her, and returned home.
He got a telegram from his wife saying that she was worse and to come at once. When Frank arrived, Aiken told him that Hattie was dying and that he’d sent for her father. The prosecution was able to present this telegram to confirm that Aiken had contacted Hattie’s family:
- Tennessee, Ill., March 15, ’99 — Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy — Your daughter Hattie is here quite sick from tympanus of stomach and bowels. In all probability she can’t get well. Come at once, as there is no time to lose. Yours, Dr. J.W. Aiken
This missive had been sent to Hattie’s parents the day before her death.
Then Aiken told Frank that “he had told the people Mrs. Reece had died of peritonitis. That was the story he had been telling and we must both stick to it as I was in it as deep as he.” Frank told Aiken that he’d tell the truth, and went to speak with his wife.
She told Frank that the abortion had been performed on Saturday (most likely March 4) with blunt instruments, and that she had expelled the dead baby on Wednesday (most likely March 8). Aiken had put the baby in his pocket and left with it.
The coroner’s jury concluded that Hattie had died of peritonitis caused by an abortion performed by Aiken. Aiken told the coroner’s jury that he was innocent and would reveal the real culprit.
Aiken’s trial was held before a packed courtroom in Macomb, Illinois.
When the defense cross-examined Frank, they brought out that he had met John Shippey on the evening train the first time he’d gone to see Hattie. Shippey had said, “How is this, are you not teaching at Browning?” to which Frank had replied that there would be no school that week. He told Shippey that Hattie had gone to Colchester to see a sick aunt, and had herself come down with tonsillitis. I’m uncertain as to the significance of this testimony; perhaps it was meant to discredit Frank as a liar, or perhaps it was intended to show that Hattie had been sick from something other than an abortion.
The defense also asked Frank if he had paid Mrs. Ellis (on whose premises Hattie had died, and who had witnessed Hattie’s statement exonerating Aiken) $15. This question related to supposed efforts to cover up the real cause of Hattie’s death. The prosecution objected.
The defense questioned the telegraph operator who had supposedly sent the telegram to Frank from Hattie; he said he had no such telegram in his files. A different telegraph operator said that he had sent a telegram from Aiken, summoning Frank, on March 15.
Anna Aiken, Aiken’s niece, testified for the defense that she had gone through her uncle’s office and had found no letters from Frank or Hattie Reece.Aiken’s Story Aiken took the stand in his own defense. He admitted that he had corresponded with Hattie, who he had known since before her marriage and had treated earlier for tonsillitis. He could not produce the letters in question. He said that she had written complaining of being run down, suffering from hemorrhoids and “suppressed menses”. She had asked, he said, if he could either treat her without seeing her or if he could come to her home in Browning and treat her there. He denied there being anything in the letter about “being in a delicate condition” or requesting an abortifacient — odd claims, since “suppressed menses” was at that time coy way of referring to pregnancy while not outright admitting it, and a woman with severe hemorrhoids would hardly want to undertake a long train ride to get treatment when there were any number of doctors closer to home.
Aiken said that his reply had been that he could not come to her, but that if she came to him he could treat her, but that “some rectal troubles required delicate operations” but he could have her okay in a week or two, or maybe ten days, and that this care might cost as much as $35. She had, he said, replied, “If nothing happens I will come to Tennessee March 3rd.” She had also, he said, indicated that she didn’t want her friends to know she was there until she had recovered and could visit them. He had, he said, secured accommodations for Hattie at Mrs. Ellis’ place. He also said that he’d gotten a letter from Frank indicating that Hattie was coming to him for care.
Aiken said that he met Hattie at the train station, took her to Mrs. Ellis, introducing her as “the lady who came to stay with you for a short time; you may call her Hattie for the present.” He said that he left her, and returned on Saturday morning to find her in bed with a fever. He examined her, he said, “for piles and also for female trouble”. Twice during the examination, he said, Hattie asked him to stop. She also, he said, asked him if she was pregnant. He asked her if she had taken any drugs. She said that she had. Aiken said that he then treated her for constipation, fever, and “nervousness”.
Frank arrived on Thursday night, which would have been March 9. Aiken met him on the sidewalk and took him to Hattie. Aiken said that he told Frank that Hattie’s period had started on Tuesday and that she’d caught cold. The coverage gets confusing at this point — it says “he did not tell Reece then that he had performed the operation”. Whether this constitutes Aiken admitting that he had performed “the operation” but not telling Frank, or a denial that Aiken had performed “the operation” at all I can’t discern.
At any rate, Aiken said that Hattie’s condition worsened, so he told her to send for her mother, but Hattie declined. He then suggested that she hire a nurse and get a second opinion. She agreed to this. Aiken first telegraphed Dr. Bolles, but couldn’t get him. He then telegraphed Dr. Lewis.
Mrs. McKenzie (another witness to Hattie’s statement) arrived at “the hotel” before Dr. Lewis did. Lewis and Aiken consulted briefly, then Lewis examined Hattie. Lewis testified about his examination, which involved instruments for “cleansing the organs”. The details of his testimony were not reported. After Lewis left, Aiken telegraphed Hattie’s parents and husband. He then asked Hattie if she wanted to leave any message for her parents in case she died before they arrived. Aiken said that Hattie told him, “I want to make a statement that you did not perform an abortion on me, and have always treated me like a gentleman.” He then wrote up the statement as dictated by Hattie, Miss McKenzie copied it. Hattie by then was too weak, he said, to sign it, but the witnesses signed it. The defense presented it as Exhibit B:
- Tennessee, Ill., March 15, ’99 — I want to make this statement before these witnesses. Dr. Aiken has not produced an abortion on me. I think I took cold. The doctor has treated me kindly for which I am thankful. Signed in the presence of these witnesses. Hattie Reece. Witnesses — Willia McKenzie, S.E. McKenzie, Lydia Ellis
Miss Willia McKenzie testified before the coroner’s jury, corroborating evidence given by her mother and by Mrs. Ellis. They indicated that Hattie had indeed signed the statement exonerating Dr. John W. Aiken.
Hattied died Thursday at around 4 p.m. Her father had arrived Wednesday evening, her mother the next morning. Aiken expected to be arrested. He consistently held that he had never performed an abortion on Hattie or given her an abortifacient, and denied that she had miscarried wile under his care. His defense brought forth about twenty character witnesses who said that he’d been practicing for over thirty years and had a good reputation.
Aiken was typical of criminal abortionists in that he was a doctor.
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
- “Aiken Must Answer”, The Quincy Daily Journal, Mar. 20, 1899
- “Dr. Aiken’s Story”, The Quincy Daily Journal, May 25, 1899
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