Magdalena Philippi

Magdalena Philippi1860s, newyork, illegaldoctor, 19thcenturyOn March 16, 1869, Magdalena Philippi died in New York of pelvic infection caused by an abortion performed on her, evidently, by 48-year-old French immigrant Dr. Gabriel Wolff.

Her husband, George, said that his wife had told him about the pregnancy about three weeks before her death.’

She had been attending to her usual household chores and helping out in the saloon until March 1, when, George said, she went to see a doctor. She began to feel unwell that evening and went home early. When George got home he found her in bed and suffering from abdominal pain. She told him that she’d gone to Dr. Wolff, saying that she felt too sick to have another child, so he had given her some medicine “to rid herself of it.”

Wolff had said that she’d “feel badly for three or four hours” but would quickly recover. When morning came and Magdalena was still sick, George wanted to call in a different doctor, but Magdalena refused.

Wolff came to check on her at about 4:00 that afternoon. Again, George suggested that they call in another doctor, but Wolff said that this wasn’t necessary, and that Magdalena would recover quite well under his care.

She seemed to be doing better, but began bleeding on the morning of March 13. George went to Wolff’s office to report the bleeding. Wolff said to give her lemon water and that he’d check on her in the afternoon. George expressed concern that Magdalena’s condition was worse than what lemon water was going to cure, and Wolff told George to go talk to a woman on 3rd Avenue who would set his mind at ease by telling him how well she had recovered from a similar situation under Wolff’s care.

Wolff went to the Philippi home that evening, examined, Magdalena, and gave her some medications.

She got worse during the night, vomiting greenish material. Wolff came back the next morning and performed “an operation” before providing George with some medicinal powder that he was to dose Magdalena with hourly.

Her condition, however, continued to deteriorate. George sent for Wolff, who increased the dose of medication. This did no good at all; Magdalena couldn’t keep it down. Wolff tried applying leaches to his patient’s abdomen, which, hardly surprisingly, did nothing to help.

Wolff then called in another doctor, and the two of them tried mustard plasters and additional medications which Magdalena would promptly vomit right back up. None of this, of course, was to any avail, and the patient died.

Although Magdalena was four or five months pregnant, prosecutors had no way of proving that she had felt movement in the fetus, so they could not prosecute Dr. Wolff.

The next day, a bill was introduced in Albany to eliminate the quickening distinction in prosecuting abortion cases. This would make it easier to prosecute abortionists like Wolff.

MagdalenaPhilippiMalpractice.pngMagdalena’s abortion was typical of illegal abortions in that it was performed by a physician.

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
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.


  • Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in American, by Marvin Olasky
  • “The Recent Abortion Case,” New York Herald-Tribune, Mar. 25, 1869
  • “The Malpractice Case,” New York Herald, Mar. 25, 1869
    “The Recent Malpractice Case,” New York Herald-Tribune, Mar. 24, 1869

    • MagdalenaPhilippiNotice.png

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