Jemima Benewayillegaldoctor, newyork, 1858, february, deception, johnolmstead, 1850s, 19thcenturySUMMARY: Jemima Beneway, age 21, died February 13, 1858 after an abortion perpetrated in New York City by Milton W. Gray. I have been unable to determine Gray’s profession.
- The mysterious death of a young lady … has been undergoing a rigid examination before the proper authorities in Poughkeepsie, and has resulted in exposing one of the most diabolical outrages ever committed of the like in this city.
The year was 1858. Jemima Beneway was described as an “unfortunate young girl who has been the victim of her seducer”, from “most respectable parents”, and “highly esteemed by a large circle of friends”. She had been “a well-educated young lady, about twenty years of age, dark eyes and black hair and most ladylike in all her manners.” She lived in Poughkeepsie with her parents, James and Elizabeth, and had four brothers and three sisters.
Over the previous year, she’d had a suitor, a young blacksmith named John Olmstead. The couple became engaged late in 1857, and a wedding scheduled for February. Olmstead told Jemima’s parents that he wanted to take her to his parents’ home in Connecticut for the wedding. They agreed, and at half-past nine on February 4, 1858, Jemima’s happy friends and parents fondly saw the couple off at the train station, heading for New York City.
Since Jemima’s name is consistently given as Beneway, not Olmstead, and Olmstead was referred to as Jemima’s “lover”, not her husband, it appears that the wedding never actually took place.
The couple arrived in New York and checked into a hotel, but stayed the night with Jemima’s cousin in Brooklyn. When they returned to New York City the next day, Jemima took ill suddenly, “and was carried into the office of an alleged abortionist named Milton W. Gray …. From the evidence before the coroner, it is shown that all things were prepared for her reception, and after a short time she was conveyed by her lover and Dr. Gray to No. 218 Grand street, where a most nefarious and brutal abortion was produced, resulting in her death one week from the time she entered this den.” The place on Grand Street was described in one piece as a “house of ill fame,” and in another as “an alleged house of prostitution” that the neighbors complained of as “a perfect nuisance.”.
The people involved kept things so quiet that Jemima’s friends didn’t learn of her February 13th death until two days later. Her body was sent home to Poughkeepsie for burial. Her friends, bewildered by Jemima’s sudden and unexpected death, “immediately after the burial made inquiries into the facts, when they were fully convinced that all had not gone right.” They notified the authorities about their suspicions that Jemima had been a victim of foul play.
An investigator from Albany was sent to Poughkeepsie, and he went first to Jemima’s brother, Peter Beneway. Together they went to the coroner’s office and made arrangements to have Jemima’s body exhumed and sent by train to Albany for a post-mortem examination. A last minute intervention by another coroner changed the plan and arranged for the autopsy to be performed at the home of Jemima’s father, after which Jemima’s remains were returned to their grave.
Since the physical examination revealed the effects of an abortion, a warrant was put out for Olmstead’s arrest, but he fled before he could be located. Earlier in the investigation Olmstead had said that he and Jemima were only passing through New York on the way to his father’s home in Connecticut, but when she took ill he saw a sign for Dr. Gray’s office and took her there.
A coroner’s jury was called at a local hotel, and drew a massive number of curious spectators. However, a decision was made to move the procedure to a private room, restricted to the participants and the reporters covering the case.
The doctor who had performed the autopsy testified that Jemima’s pelvic area had shown signs of inflammation and there was tissue in her uterus consistent with a placenta.
Amelia Provost, the woman who owned the house where Jemima die testified that she was a nurse and that Jemima had been brought to her for nursing care. She kept Jemima in her own bed, sleeping on the floor herself to be near to her patient. Jemima sometimes vomited green bile, which Mrs. Provost took to mean that Jemima was suffering from a gall bladder ailment. She was very ill with severe chills. Mrs. Provost instructed Olmstead to send for Dr. Gray. Gray, Mrs. Provost said, was her family physician.
Grey came and told Mrs. Provost that Jemima was suffering from “bilous fever,” and administered some medications in the forms of both pills and powders. Gray said that these were opium and calomel, which is mercury chloride and was used at the time in the belief that it would purge the body of the excess of bile that was causing illness. Jemima remained feverish and thirsty, often asking for water or milk, which is no surprise since the calomel supposedly purged the excess bile by causing severe diarrhea.
Olmstead, Mrs. Provost said, was very attentive during Jemima’s illness and left her side only to take meals. Jemima, for her part, did not seem to be alarmed at first, told Mrs. Provost that she often had such spells, that she’d come to New York to marry at Olmstead’s father’s house, and that she’d send some wedding cake.
Gray continued to make calls to the house, administering concoctions of mustard and applications of cold compresses to Jemima’s head, treatments that he instructed Mrs. Provost to continue. He added unspecified pills and castor oil to the regimen. The first several days he administered turpentine and camphor for pain. Later he administered antimony, an element that would worsen the diarrhea in order to hasten the departure of the excessive bile.
In the final day of her illness, Jemima reportedly lost her optimism, raising her hands and saying, “I shall die tomorrow.” Gray concurred with Jemima’s assessment of her state, saying that she wasn’t going to survive, and adding that the young woman was “out of her mind.” Still, he testified, he suggested giving her some bread along with brandy and water to strengthen her.
Jemima died at about 5:00 p.m. on the February 13, and her body was kept at Mrs. Provost’s house until the morning of the 15th, when it was sent home for burial. Mrs. Provost hadn’t even known her patient’s name, she said, until she saw it on the coffin, which was brought to the house. Gray as well said that he hadn’t know the patient’s real name until after her death.
Mrs. Provost said that she’d not noted an unusual amount of blood on Jemima’s clothing — which she took it upon herself to wash once the young woman had died. The bed linens as well, she said, didn’t have an unusual amount of blood on them. She said that she’d had no suspicions of an abortion until Jemima’s sister had come to talk to her about the suspicious circumstances.
Gray, who had filled out the death certificate attributing Jemima’s death to “bilious colic,” admitted under questioning that he sold “Madam Vovem’s Pills,” an abortifacient, but he insisted that he had never heard of any ill repute of Mrs. Provost’s house and that he was unaware of having a reputation as an abortionist.
The police, however, testified that in their investigation they’d been told that Gray “was a notorious abortionist and vendor of quack medicines” who “had been implicated in similar cases before.”
The coroner’s jury came to the conclusion that Jemima had died from “a most nefarious and brutal abortion” which was perpetrated by Gray. If Gray was telling the truth about the care he provided, it’s likely that his treatment after the abortion was of far more damage than any abortion alone could have caused.
The coroner’s jury recommended Gray’s arrest, with Olmstead as an accessory before the fact, along with the “keeper of the house of ill fame.” Gray was arrested, and a reward of $500 offered for the capture of Olmstead, who had fled.
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 overall 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 — particularly as evidenced by the care provided to Jemima Beneway.
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.
- “Mysterious Murder of a Young Lady in New York”, The Republican Compiler, Mar. 22, 1858, citing The New York Herald, Mar. 17, 1858;
- “Mysterious Murder of a Young Lady,” The New York Herald, Mar. 17, 1858
- “A Bad Case,” Berkshire County Eagle, Mar. 26, 1858
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