Hughretta Binkley

Hughretta Binkley30s, 1890s, illegaldoctor, 19thcenturySUMMARY: Hughretta Binkley, age around 27, died April 19, 1898 after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Belle Howard in Peoria, IL.

A Visit to Dr. Howard | Dumped on the Doorstep | Truth and Consequences | Justice?

HughrettaBinkley.pngHughretta May “Etta” Binkley was an unmarried woman about 27 years old. She had worked in her home town of Dublin, Indiana, as a teacher, but decided she wanted life in the city.

She moved to Indianapolis, where she studied shorthand and typing. Through the school she got a job as a stenographer and typist at for Fred Patee at a bicycle company that he managed.

Patee moved to Peoria, Illinois, with his wife and two children, to manage Peoria Rubber and Manufacturing. Etta relocated to Peoria as well, continuing to work for Patee as his personal stenographer. When Patee started his own business, he brought his stenographer with him.

She lived in a boardinghouse owned by George H. Lilly, where she shared a room with Lilly’s daughter.

A Visit to Dr. Howard
At lunchtime on April 1, 1898, accompanied by Fred Patee, Etta went to the residence/office of Dr.
Belle Howard, aka Belle Shotwell, age 50, about four blocks from the boarding house. After work the following day, at about 6:30 PM, she returned to Dr. Howard’s house and was sent to a room on the second floor. Etta had a bag packed with a nightgown, robe, fountain syringe, and a bottle containing about two ounces of ergot.

Dr. Howard was a colorful character. Originally a circus rider from Rome, New York, she married a man named Shotwell while she was young. Accounts differ as to whether or not she divorced Shotwell before he died. She eventually married George Howard, identified in one source as a physician and in another as a businessman.

According to Ida Kennedy, Belle Howard’s nurse, at about 10:00 the next morning, Etta went into the doctor’s office where she remained about 20 to 30 minutes. She then went upstairs to her room, in Ida’s care.

Etta was in pain, and bleeding heavily vaginally. At around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, Belle Howard visited her in her room, then had her come back downstairs to his office where she again remained alone with her for between 20 and 30 minutes. Again, Ida took Etta to her room.

Soon after returning to her room, Etta suffered from rapid pulse and a copious discharge of blood and clear fluid. Etta remained at Dr. Howard’s house, attended by the doctor and nurse, until the evening of Saturday, April 9.

During this time, Fred Patee paid for Etta’s care and board, and visited her often.

Dumped on the Doorstep
It was on the evening of Saturday, April 9, that Belle Howard drove Etta in her buggy back to the boarding house, where she left her alone on the porch. Mr. Lilly found her there as he was locking up for the night. He described her as being in “a very helpless and distressed condition.”

Mr. Lilly brought her into the house, where she went to her room and retired to her usual bed with Lilly’s daughter. (It was not uncommon at that time for adults to share a bed in a boarding house, purely as roommates.)

The following morning, at about 9:00, Etta somehow managed to trudge to the nearby Cottage Hospital, where she was immediately admitted. Staff physician Otho B. Will was immediately summoned to care for her.

Dr. Will found Etta to be trembling, breathing rapidly, suffering a pulse of 140 and a fever of just over 102 degrees. She was frequently vomiting. Dr. Will later expressed astonishment that she had been able to walk to the hospital at all. He examined her and performed surgery to remove decaying and fetid retained portions of placenta.

During her hospitalization, Belle was visited by her mother, to whom she confessed the abortion. Patee visited Belle frequently at the hospital.

Etta remained hospitalized under Dr. Will’s care until April 19, when she died of septicemia.

Truth and Consequences
Etta’s mother reported her daughter’s death to the coroner and asked him to investigate before taking Etta’s body home for burial. Patee paid the funeral expenses.

For some reason, the coroner waited until April 23 to have Etta’s body exhumed for an autopsy, which confirmed that the septicemia which had killed Etta had been caused by an abortion. Experts estimated that Etta had been four to five months pregnant.

Immediately after Etta’s death, the two Dr. Howards fled the state separately. An intensive manhunt eventually located them at a small ranch near Olympia, Washington. Dr. Belle Howard was arrested, but Dr. George Howard boarded a freight train and had to be tracked down at Bucoda.

Belle Howard maintained her innocence and insisted that she had merely been treating Etta for complications of an abortion performed either by Etta herself or by some other party.

The prosecution asserted that up until her arrival at Dr. Howard’s house, Etta had been in good health and had performed her duties at work. However, Miss Lilly reported that Etta had not seemed to be in her usual health just prior to the 2nd of April, and that she had observed bleeding that she took to be Etta’s period. Ida Kennedy, the nurse, also testified that on her way to her room on the 2nd, Etta left drops of blood on the floor.

Evidently the prosecution witnesses were more convincing than the defense witnesses. Dr. Howard was convicted of manslaughter in Etta’s death and sentenced to seven years in prison.


Belle Howard was still out pending appeal in April of 1900, when a report in the Galena, Kansas Evening Times said that she was in Cottage Hospital — the same hospital where Belle had died a year earlier — suffering from terminal cancer and not expected to survive long enough to go to prison. Her appeal was denied and she was sent to Joliet prison, where she served 15 months before being paroled.

Adding to the scandal were allegations that Fred Patee, Etta’s employer, had offered Belle’s mother, Mrs. Demree, $2,500 to remain silent about her daughter’s death, to be paid out as a $500 per year annuity. Patee, in a separate trial, was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to five years. His wife had given birth to another child during the investigation and trial for Etta’s death. Patee won another trial on appeal and was acquitted.

Etta’s abortion was typical of criminal abortions in that it was performed by 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




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