Marie Oganesoffnewyork, 19101919, infection, illegaldoctorMarie Oganesoff, 33-year-old wife of the Russian Attache in Washington during WWI, died on July 11, 1919, from complications of a criminal abortion performed in New York on July 5 by Dr. Julius Hammer, father of industrialist Armand Hammer. Hammer, a 1902 graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, reported used instruments on her. She had been about one month pregnant.Dr. Julius HammerMarie’s maid testified that she’d accompanied her employer to Hammer’s office on July 5, in perfectly good health, but that Marie had been pail and weak upon leaving, needing help to go downstairs and get into her car. Marie had told her driver to drive very slowly. The chauffeur corroborated this testimony. Upon their return home, the maid helped Marie to to bed, and noticed bright red spots of blood on her underwear.
Mr. Oganesoff testified that Marie had been fine the afternoon of the 4th. The couple and their 14-year-old son had visited a friend for several hours, returning home at about 7 p.m. He had then left his wife and son at home and gone to a dinner party. She had been fine as well when he’d left the house on the morning of the 5th. he came home between 4 and 5 p.m. to find her in bed. The next morning was a Sunday. He spoke to his ailing wife, then called Hammer and reported that Marie was very ill and had a high fever. Hammer, he said, came that evening, peered in Marie’s throat, and said “She had grippe and maybe flu.” Mr. Oganesoff expressed great anxiety about his wife’s condition, whereupon Hammer admitted that he had performed “a little operation”, but that Marie was in no danger.
Hammer made house calls again on Monday and Tuesday, examining her and reassuring her husband that she would recover. Mr. Oganesoff wanted to call in another doctor, whereupon Hammer said he’d return the next day with a doctor friend of his own. Mr. Oganesoff asked about getting a nurse to care for Marie; Hammer indicated that he could get a nurse as well.
The next day, Mr. Oganesoff called another doctor on his own initiative. This doctor examined Marie and immediately got two nurses to help him. Oganesoff testified that when Hammer learned of the second doctor, he admonisted Mr. Oganesoff to keep the “little operation” a secret. This other doctor called Hammer, who insisted that Marie was suffering “grippe and influenza” for which he’d been treating her and requested that when the patient died, he himself should fill out the death certificate since he’d been the attending physician. Hammer also asked Mr. Oganesoff, after Marie’s death on Friday morning, to allow him to fill out the death certificate himself.
The doctor Oganesoff had called consulted with two other doctors, and all three agreed that she had died of peritonitis.
The defense claimed that Marie had used a crochet hook on herself, and that Hammer had merely been treating her for the peritonitis she’d thus brought on herself. The defense argued as well that Marie had suffered for years from a heart ailment that made pregnancy dangerous for her. Hammer indicated that Marie had absolutely insisted on coming to his office, that she’d come to him the previous July as well to be curetted after having aborted herself with a crochet hook, which, he said, was her usual method of bringing on late periods. He testified that Marie had told him she’d been terribly sick for two weeks, vomiting and unable to tolerate food, suffering from headaches and otherwise miserable — in stark contrast to the testimony of the maid and driver. He said that she had absolutely insisted that he treat her, that “she will not go from the office until he relieved her from her condition,” that she had said, “You know I can’t give birth to a child. I am not poor.”
Hammer said he’d brought in Dr. Diamond at that point — who the court noted as “a young physician of about 18 months’ experience, who was an office associate of the defendant and who lived with the defendant’s family. Hammer said he scrubbed up to examine Marie while filling Diamond in on the particulars of the case. Hammer said he examined Marie, found blood on his fingers, showed the blood to Diamond and asked “What would you do under these circumstance?” Diamond, Hammer said, had pressed him to curette her immediately.
Hammer said he dismissed Diamond and curetted Marie — denying that she was necessarily pregnant and insisting that she “had often been told by doctors both abroad and in this country that her heart and kidneys were in such a condition that she was not able to bear children.”
Diamond testified that Hammer had indeed called him in to consult about Marie, who told him she’d been bleeding since the day before, and that her period had been nine days late. He said that she’d told him she’d attempted a self-abortion with a crochet hook, and that six or eight years previously, while living in Europe, she’d become so very dangerously ill during the third or fourth month of a pregnancy that she’d been hospitalized and told she had kidney and heart problems, and that they’d advised her to immediately terminate that pregnancy to preserve her life, and that she must never become pregnant again. She had said, Diamond testified, that after that she had always either self-initiated abortions with a crochet hook or gotten doctors to perform abortions on her.
On cross examination, Diamond indicated that he had listened to Marie’s heart with a stethescope — supposedly in anticipation of anesthesia, though none was used — but he hadn’t examined her kidneys or tested her urine. He concurred with a diagnoses of grippe, saying that Marie had complained of sore throat and malaise.
Some other doctors testified on Hammer’s behalf. One said that he’d cared for Marie in July of 1917, when she’d been in the middle of an evident miscarriage. He said she had a heart disease, and that she’d told him that a European doctor had told her she must not bear any more children. Another doctor testified that he’d treated Marie in January of 1918, that she’d made similar statements about her medical history to the statements Hammer had reported, and that since her uterus appeared possibly diseased, he did not confirm or rule out pregnancy but performed a prophylactic currettage.
But two other doctors who gave expert testimony — called by the defense — testified that the would not, as Hammer had done, perform an outpatient currettage unassisted on a patient clad in her street clothes. They’d have performed the procedure in her home or a hospital where she could be kept in bed for 24 hours afterward.
There was wrangling testimony about the onset of Marie’s symptoms. Hammer insisted that a fever would not set in for at least 18 hours after an abortion attempt, and that since Marie had a fever upon returning home, she must have gotten sick from having earlier attempted a self-abortion with a crochet hook. However, nobody had testified that Marie had a fever that early. She had been suffering from a headache and pain, but the first report of a fever was later.
The prosecution pointed out the numerous fishy aspects of Hammer’s claims:
1. The questions he reportedly asked Marie about her condition were not what a reputable physician would have asked a patient suspected of having attempted an abortion.
2. The examination he performed wasn’t an adequate examination, given the circumstances he described.
3. He did not tell any of the physicians Mr. Oganesoff had consulted about the curettage — which surely he’d have done if he had performed the curettage in good faith, believing it to be necessary to preserve Marie’s life.
4. He had insisted on wanting to put influenza or grippe on the death certificate, rather than infection as he clearly knew was the case.
Dr. Hammer was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 3 1/2 – 15 years.
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.
In fact, due to improvements in addressing these problems, maternal mortality in general (and abortion mortality with it) fell dramatically in the 20th Century, decades before Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion across America.
For more information about early 20th Century abortion mortality, see Abortion Deaths 1910-1919.
For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion
- “Denies Hammer Appeal“, The New York Times, August 24, 1920
- New York Supplement, Volume 186;