Margaret McCarthy19002, chicago, illinois, illegalmidwife, 1990sSUMMARY: On May 18, 1904, 18-year-old Margaret McCarthy died at Chicago’s Mary Thompson Hospital after an abortion perpetrated by midwife Gertrude Plenz.
Margaret Goes for an Abortion
On May 13, 1904, 18-year-old music student Margaret McCarthy and her paramour Benjamin A. Tedrick, a boiler inspector for the city of Chicago, met at a Chicago drug store. From there, they went to the home and practice of midwife Gertrude Plenz. The Inter-Ocean noted, “The house is handsomely furnished and in sharp contrast to its poorer neighbors.” As a confinement hospital, it was equipped to keep inpatients.
Tedrick later said that he’d not known why Margaret had wanted to go to the Plenz home. He’d believed, he said, that Margaret had been planning to visit an aunt on Chicago’s south side. He remained there, he said, for half an hour before leaving. Margaret, he said, told him she’d go home later to tend to some laundry. Plenz’s daughter, Rosa, said that at first her mother hadn’t wanted to do what Margaret was asking of her, but gave in after Margaret persisted in her request.
Rosa also insisted that Margaret, poorly dressed and with only 25 cents in her purse, had been sick on arrival and had fainted. Her mother, Rosa said, told her that Margaret was suffering peritonitis from an abortion that had been perpetrated elsewhere.
A Muddled Timeline of Sickness
The timeline has been difficult to sort out. Plenz’s sister, Mrs. Sophia Kaiser, said that she had helped to care for Margaret, who had been doing well for three days, then suddenly became ill. They sent for Dr. Gowan, who cared for Margaret for two days before ordering her to be removed to a hospital. This would have put Margaret in the hospital on May 17, the day prior to her death. News coverage indicates that Margaret had actually been hospitalized for three days prior to dying there.
Somebody called Tedrick, who went to the house asking for his wife. Rosa said that Margaret “didn’t act like a wife. She denounced him at first, then said, ‘Why don’t you kiss me?’ He kissed her. Then he sent for an ambulance.” Rosa said she’d asked why he’d requested an ambulance to Mary Thompson Hospital when there were other hospitals nearer “He said something about being able to get her into any hospital because of ‘political pull.'”
Rosa said that Tedrick asked for, and received, $10 from her mother.
Off to the Hospital
The ambulance driver later said that Tedrick addressed Margaret as “Kid,” and said that she was suffering from appendicitis. He helped the driver carry Margaret to the ambulance, lamenting that if he had known how sick she was he’d have taken her to the hospital sooner.
Margaret was conscious on arrival at the hospital and identified herself as Margaret Tedrick. She said, “Ben will pay” for the care. While at the hospital, she gave a statement implicating Plenz in the abortion that had caused her illness.
Evidently somebody managed to learn Margaret’s real identity, because the hospital called her brother, D. F. McCarthy, in the morning on May 18, telling him that she was dangerously ill. She was already unconscious when he arrived at the hospital, and she died that evening. Her body was taken to the O’Brien undertaking establishment where an autopsy confirmed that she had died from peritonitis caused by an abortion. Police spoke to Margaret’s other brother, Timothy, but were unable to get any useful information from him.
“The efforts of the detectives assigned to the case were hindered by numerous obstacles,” the Chicago Tribune noted on May 20, “and friends of the young woman were found to have been warned to silence, while little aid was given by officials of the hospital in which she had died. Political influences were brought to bear to suppress details of the case, and only determined efforts by the police and threats of arrests as accessories led to the revelation of the names of the persons held responsible by police.”
Investigation and Arrests
At first, police were unable to locate Plenz. Rosa said, “My mother will be back in time for the inquest. She is somewhere in Austin. She does not want to answer these eternal questions over and over again.” However, when police finally located Plenz, she insisted that she had been at home the whole time they’d been looking for her.
Both Plenz and Tedrick were held by Coroner’s Jury. Plenz insisted that she had not perpetrated an abortion on Margaret, but that Margaret had “admitted taking potent drugs, but said they were for a cold.”
Though both Gertrude and Rosa Plenz had insisted that Margaret appeared to be indigent, the Chicago Tribune identified her as “an orphan and heiress to a large estate.” Her late father, T. McCarthy, was identified by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the oldest residents of the city” who had left a lot of real estate.
Plenz was arrested three years later for the abortion death of Sarah Cushing.
Margaret’s abortion was unusual in that it was performed by a midwife, rather than by a doctor, as was the case with perhaps 90% of criminal abortions.
Note, please, that with general 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. 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
- “Involved in Girl’s Death,” Chicago Tribune, 20 May, 1904
- “Arrest Follows Girl’s Death,” Chicago Tribune, 21 May, 1904
- “May Be Held for Girl’s Death,” Chicago Tribune, 22 May, 1904
- “Woman Physician Eludes the Police,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 22 May, 1904
- “Mrs. Plenz Appears at Inquest on Girl’s Death,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 29 May, 1904
- “Elusive Witness is Found,” Chicago Tribune, 29 May, 1904
- “Mrs. Plenz Says She Did Not Hide From Police,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, 30 May, 1904
- “Two Held to Grand Jury for Young Woman’s Death,” Chicago Tribune, Jun. 1, 1904
- “B. A. Tedrick and Mrs. G. Plenz Held,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, Jun. 1, 1904
- 19th century
- abortion mill
- abortion mortality
- abortionists — female
- abortionists — male
- black women
- botched abortion
- delay in transport
- delay in treatment
- district of columbia
- dumped body
- falsifying forms
- fetal indications
- former criminal abortionist
- george tiller
- hemorrhage death
- illegal – doctor
- illegal – midwife
- illegal – nurse
- illegal – paramedical
- illegal – post roe
- illegal – unknown
- illegal – untrained
- illegal abortion
- inadequate documents
- inadequate equipment
- inadequate resuscitation
- incomplete abortion
- legal abortion
- maternal indications
- maternal mortality
- national abortion federation
- new jersey
- new mexico
- new york
- north carolina
- planned parenthood
- pre-roe legal
- previous misconduct
- questionable stories
- secret abortion