Irma Brown

Irma Brown1900s, 20s, chicago, illinois, illegaldoctorSUMMARY: Irma Brown, age 22, died on November 15, 1901 after an abortion blamed on Dr. Robert E. Gray of Chicago.

On November 15, 1901, 22-year-old Irma Brown (sometimes spelled Erma) of Garden City, Kansas, died at County Hospital from complications of an abortion. Irma had worked at a newspaper office in her home town and had been active in church work.

IrmaBrownPicture.jpgAbortion victim Irma Brown
Dr. Robert E. Gray, age 42, was arrested November 19 and held without bail. The original accusation had come from nurse Margaret Tedford, who had cared for Irma after she’d taken ill.

A police captain said that he had spoken to Irma as she lay dying, and that she said Gray had performed an abortion on her. There was doubt as to whether Irma’s confession would be admitted in the trial because it had been written out by the police officer, but Irma had not signed it. Daniel Healy, the hospital warden, testified that Dr. McPherson at County Hospital had not allowed Irma to sign it because she was so weak that he feared the exertion of signing the document might kill her.

Imogene Huey, who had stayed by Irma’s bedside until her death, said that Irma had told her that Gray had performed an abortion on her. Gray asserted that because of Mrs. Huey, Dr. J. G. Webster, who had already approved Irma’s admission to the hospital, revoked the order. The defense asserted that Mrs. Huey’s interference had prevented treatment that might had saved Irma.

Mrs. Huey, however, said that receiving a letter from Irma’s sister in Garden City, had tracked Irma down and found her at the hotel, looking moribund. Mrs. Huey said that she herself had been the impetus for getting Irma properly hospitalized.

Gray blamed Irma for his downfall, saying that she had undergone an abortion elsewhere at the Veley Hotel and didn’t want to go to the county hospital for aftercare lest her family find out. She had threatened suicide, he said, if he refused to help her. Thus, at Irma’s request, Gray had taken her to Chicago and registered with her at the hotel on November 1, under the names of Irma’s sister and brother-in-law.

He further said that she had asked to go for a walk through the La Salle Street Tunnel, so that she could tell her family and friends that she had actually been under the Chicago River. Because of this walk, he said, Irma had suffered a fall, witnessed by his nurse, that had injured her so that he took action to save Irma’s life. He explained away nurse Margaret Tedford’s contradictory testimony by saying that he’d sent her out of the room to get some hot water, so she had not seen everything that had transpired.

Gray’s assertion was weakened by a letter from Gray that Nurse Tedford produced, saying, “My defense is just as I told you and will not be deviated from. It is that Irma slipped and fell in the tunnel a week ago. This defense will not be deviated from one iota or one jot. Remember, remember. Read quickly; decide quickly. Then destroy. bring no letters or papers of any description.”

Gray’s defense was further weakened by his cross-examination, during which he admitted that Irma had gone to the theater with him the evening after the fall.

Gray’s defense also latched onto a cross-examination of Irma’s sister, Mabel Howard, who said that she had purchased an ounce of the abortifacient ergot, and Irma had taken three doses. Mabel added that Irma had always been “delicate.” She had, she said, gotten two telegrams from Gray indicating that Irma was in satisfactory condition.

Gray’s mother, Mrs. L. W. Gray of Indianapolis, and his sister, Mrs. Ida B. Scott of Chicago, testified in his defense, as did Zola Sigman of Garden City, who had also provided money for Gray’s defense. The three women said that Gray had been going to Kansas City to take care of some business relating to an irrigation project, and that Irma had insisted on accompanying him so that she could go to a hospital there to be treated for a kidney ailment. Gray’s mother produced letters from her son relating to the irrigation scheme.

Gray’s wife attended the trial, evidently with an eye toward collecting information she could use against him when she filed for divorce.

On March 16, the jury took six ballots over six and a half hours of deliberation. The issue at hand was whether or not the abortion which Gray had admittedly performed had been necessitated by injuries Irma had suffered after a fall. The first ballot stood nine for conviction and three for acquittal. The second found seven for conviction and five for acquittal. With each successive ballot, the jury shifted toward Gray until he was finally acquitted.

Gray’s health had deteriorated during the trial. After his acquittal he remained in Chicago until he regained his health, then he returned to his home in Garden City, where public sentiment was divided as to whether his acquittal was just or not.

Irma’s abortion was typical of criminal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

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 about abortion and abortion deaths in the first years of the 20th century, see Abortion Deaths 1900-1909.

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


  • Homicide in Chicago Interactive
  • “Dr. Gray Tells His Story of Irma Brown’s Murder,” Wichita Beacon, Friday, Mar. 21, 1902
  • “On Trial for a Murder,” Indianapolis News, Mar. 18, 1902
  • “Dr. Gray in His Own Defense,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 21, 1902
  • “Jury Ready to Try Dr. Gray,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 15, 1902
  • “Healy a Dr. Gray Witness,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 23, 1902
  • “Dr. Gray Will Be a Witness,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 20, 1902
  • “Capt. Wheeler Appears as Witness Against Dr. Gray,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 18, 1902
  • “Women, For and Against Dr. Gray, Heard on Stand,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 19, 1902
  • “Get Jurors to Try Dr. Gray,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 14, 1902
  • “Three Women Aid Dr. Gray’s Defense,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 21, 1902
  • “Bars Churchmen as Jurors,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 15, 1902
  • “Lawyers Make Gray Wince,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 22, 1902
  • “Must Answer Murder Charge,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 9, 1902
  • “Girl’s Last Words Accused Dr. Gray,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 16, 1902
  • “Warden Healy in Gray Case.,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 23, 1902
  • “Dr. Gray Case Goes to Jury,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 25, 1902
  • “Gray’s Trial Begins Today,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 12, 1902
  • “He Will Face His Defamers,” Topeka Daily Capital, Apr. 3, 1902
  • “Jury Releases Him,” Topeka Daily Capital, Mar. 27, 1902
  • “Dead Girl’s Sister Gives Gray Hope,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Mar. 18, 1902


















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