Inez Reed

Inez Reed19101919, californiaSUMMARY: Inez Elizabeth Reed, age 28, died in San Mateo, California on March 7, 1919 after an abortion perpetrated by Dr. Ephraim Northcott, a relative of the notorious serial murderer Gordon Northcott.

The Gruesome Discovery | The Abortionist’s Nasty Family Connection | The Referring Physician and Other Witnesses | Trial and Sentence | Northcott’s Spurious Grounds for AppealI originally learned of the death of the unfortunate Inez Elizabeth Reed comes from a 1919 reprint of an editorial in The San Francisco Star:

  • InezReedNursingPortrait.jpgInez ReedPoor Inez Reed, the betrayed Red Cross nurse, who died from the effects of an illegal operation, and whose body was brutally thrown over a cliff in San Mateo county, certainly erred, but she did not deserve the cold-blooded report of an army board of inquiry, that she “came to her death thru her own misconduct.”
  • There are thousands who will think that she came to her death thru the misconduct of the “man in the case” — who must be a wretch so vile that he is beneath the contempt of men. She was evidently deserted by him after her betrayal, for she had borrowed money from a friend to bring her here from Camp Funston; and desperate lest her condition should become known, had sought to hide her shame in the same way so many others like unfortunates have done. ….
  • The dread of the world’s knowledge of her lapse from virtue, of being the subject of men’s ribald jests, and of the sneers and jeers of her own sex, which she felt would be her punishment, were, perhaps, more than Inez Reed could bear, and she sought to conceal her sin in the only way she could. May a merciful God judge her more kindly than the army board of inquiry has done.

My copy cuts off in the middle of the next paragraph, calling for “the one who caused all her trouble” to be identified and called to account for his actions.

The Gruesome Discovery
On March 8, 1919, a laborer saw a woman’s hand protruding from a clump of weeds in a rocky ravine along Halfmoon Bay Road in San Mateo County. Thousands of people went to the morgue to view the body in hopes that the dead woman could be identified. It was only a week later that the identity of the dead woman was ascertained when relatives recognized the descriptions printed in the San Francisco Chronicle. The body was that of 28-year-old Army nurse Inez Reed, who had last been seen alive on March 3..

The Abortionist’s Nasty Family Connection
Further search found an entry in
The Pacific Reporter, covering the appeal of northcott.jpgEphraim NorthcottEphraim Northcott, the abortionist convicted in Inez’s death, and a section in //Nothing is Strange With You: The Life and Crimes of Gordon Stewart Northcott//. (Ephraim, it turns out, was a relative of the more infamous Gordon Northcott, perpetrator of the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.” One of his victims was Walter Collins, whose disappearance and faked rescue was the subject of the film //Changeling//, starting Angenlina Jolie.) The two sources enabled me to determine that she probably died on March 7, 1919.

Northcott was arrested on June 26, and found guilty of second-degree murder after the jury had deliberated a mere two hours and fifteen minutes. Northcott was sentenced to between ten years to life at San Quentin.

The authorities found the evidence against Northcott so strong that the San Mateo County District Attorney also planned to charge all of Northcott’s alibi witnesses with perjury, other than Northcott’s wife, for whom the prosecuting officials pitied. During closing arguments, her friends had to lead her weeping from the courtroom.

The prosecution was also so confident that they didn’t bring forward any rebuttal witnesses after the defense had finished presenting its case.

Some of them were also to be charged as accessories to the murder of Inez Reed. Two nurses, Frances Cronin and Marion Ayers, were said to have been specific accomplices. Cronin was said to assisted Northcott in perpetrating many abortions. She denied having ever seen Inez Reed, and said that she had been at a party at Northcott’s house — from which the host was somehow absent — the night of Inez’s fatal abortion.

The defense only called a total of seven witnesses: Northcott, his wife, Northcott’s daughter-in-law, nurses Frances Cronin and Marion Ayres, Mrs. F. B. Marshall, and Arthur Pidgeon.

Cronin also was reportedly the one who had met a woman named Eleanor Anderson in Golden Gate Park, taken her to her home, and called in Northcott to perpetrate an abortion there. Eleanor died subsequently in a hospital. Northcott was indicted for Eleanor’s death, and the authorities had come to court armed with a warrant for Northcott’s arrest should he have been acquitted of murder for Inez’s death.

Cronin’s fiance, San Francisco traffic officer Allan E. Noreen, admitted that he’d been at Northcott’s home around the time of the fatal abortion. He was believed to have been the one to drive Inez’s body to the ravine and dump it. At the time of Northcott’s trial he as on the lam, facing charges of passing bad checks.

Ayers fled the area immediately after Northcott’s original arrest.

Northcott, at the age of 49, had opened a maternity home, thus making him a promising person to approach for an abortion.

The Referring Physician and Other Witnesses
Dr. F. R. Jordan testified that during the last week of April, Inez had visited his office, reporting that she was four or five months pregnant, and requesting an abortion. Jordan said he’d refused to perpetrate the abortion himself, but had told her Northcott’s address, which she then wrote down. Jordan also testified that he and Northcott had discussed establishing an abortion facility “down the peninsula” for “long-time (abortion) cases.”

KathrynFisherNorthcottNurse.jpgNurse Catherine Fisher, who had worked for Northcott, testified as to the nature of the work he did. A milk wagon driver identified a photograph of Inez as the woman he’d seen in a house that Northcott used as his private hospital.

Northcott had an office on the second floor of the Hotel Turpin; when police went to arrest him at 2:00 a.m. on March 9, before Inez had even been positively identified, they found a woman there who had taken the elevator to the 4th floor, then taken the stairs down to Northcott’s second-floor office.

Northcott had performed the fatal abortion on Inez in his San Mateo house. Testimony was presented that Northcott had performed other abortions.

Trial and Sentence
Northcott was found guilty of murder for Inez’s death and was sentenced to serve at least ten years.

Since California prison policy was not to release a prisoner who had a separate murder indictment pending, it looked unlikely that Northcott would ever be freed.

Northcott’s Spurious Grounds for Appeal
Issues: Northcott’s attorney held that photos of where the body was found, in a ravine, were irrelevant. The state held that the way Inez’s body had been dumped was evidence that the abortion had been performed unlawfully, and the body dumped to hide the crime. In particular, Northcott’s attorney complained that one of the photos of the dump site had a lizard on a rock. “The picture of the scene was taken after the body had been removed. We have examined it with some care to find the lizard complained of, and by no stretch of the imagination does it conjure up any of the horrors which the attorney for the appellant fears may have resulted in the minds of the jurors.”

Northcott’s attorney also objected to a photo of Inez’s body at the dump site, but the state pointed out that the photo in question had only been entered into evidence in response to the defense’s claims that the body might have been brought to the dump site from quite some distance away. “The photograph was then introduced … showing bruises on the head and face as indicating that the body had not been carefully handled, and that it was therefore highly unlikely that it could have been brought for any considerable distance without the loss of much of the blood that was found in the abdomen by the physician who examined the body.” The photograph also helped to establish that the external injuries to Inez’s body were inflicted after her death. The photo also allowed Inez’s sister to identify the clothing.

Northcott’s attorney also played games with the dead woman’s name, because some court documents cited her names as “Elizabeth Inez Reed” and others as “Inez Elizabeth Reed”. The court rejected this tactic, and Northcott remained at San Quentin, where he died on July 1, 1928.

InezReedFiveWitnesses.pngFive of the witnesses in the trial, posing for the camera and in the courtroom

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 information about early 20th Century abortion mortality, see Abortion Deaths 1910-1919.
During the first two thirds of the 20th Century, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality, including mortality from abortion. Most researches attribute this plunge to improvements in public health and hygiene, the development of blood transfusion techniques, and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more here.

external image MaternalMortality.gifexternal image MaternalMortality.gif

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion


  • “One More Unfortunate”, Fort Collins Courier, Apr. 5, 1919, reprint from The San Francisco Star
  • “Attorneys For Convicted Physician Will Argue For Appeal; Special Grand Jury Session Will Be Called,” Oakland Tribune, Jun. 29, 1919
  • “Dr. Northcott Faces New Murder Charge,” Oakland Tribune, Jul. 3, 1919
  • “Ten Years Up for Northcott in Reed Case,” Oakland Tribune, Jul. 5, 1919
  • “Dr. Northcott Sentenced to Prison Term,” San Francisco Chronicle, Jul. 6, 1919




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