Mary Ackerlynewyork, 1846, drshove, january20, january, 1840s, 19thcenturySUMMARY: Mary Ackerly, age 19, died January 20, 1846 after a forced abortion performed in New York, purportedly by Dr. Seth Shove.
Mary’s Path to the New York Brothel | What Happened at the Brothel | Mary’s Final Weeks | | The Trial | Mary’s Death in ContextThe following story is pieced together from old news clippings, many quoting court testimony in some detail and at some length.Mary’s Path to the New York Brothel
Mary Ackerly of White Plains, New York, was the uneducated daughter of Sutton Ackerly, a shoemaker, and his disreputable wife Martha.. From the time she was around 9 years old, Mary’s family had begun sending her to live with other families, for reasons that are presumed to be understood by newspaper readers of the time. I am assuming that, since her parents had no money to spare, she was sent out to work as a servant.
Mary didn’t take well to her peripatetic life, it seems, since she rarely stayed with one family longer than a few months. Sometimes she’d return to her parents; sometimes she’d be passed along to the next family.
At the age of 19, Mary went to work in the home of Mrs. C. Nelson, near Sing-Sing. Mrs. Nelson had a married son, Harry, who lived nearby. Mary, whom the White Plains Journal said “made no particular claims to chastity,” returned to her parents’ home in December of 1845 for two weeks before telling them she was going to New York with Harry Nelson, who had promised that if she went with him he would pay her $27 that he owed her.
Mary had three uncles in New York — Felix Ackerly, who worked in a brewery, James Ackerly, who kept a shoe shop and grocery, and Jospeh Ackerly, also kept a shoe shop. Mary’s mother later said that she had expected Mary to visit at least one of her uncles while she was there.
What Martha Ackerly hadn’t known about Mary, if her testimony is to be believed, is that Mary was “in an advanced state of pregnancy when she left for New York with her married lover. Nelson set Mary up to room at a “house of ill fame” at 174 Broom Street. There, on the night of December 14, 1845, one of the women who lived at the brothel told Mary that somebody was up in the attic room to see her. When Mary got upstairs she found Nelson, along with Dr. Seth Shove, who served as a sort of house doctor of the “house of assignation.” Mary had actually lived as a servant in Shove’s household at a time, so she knew him.What Happened at the Brothel
Nelson told Mary that Shove was there to perform an abortion on her. Mary said that she tried to get out of the room, but Nelson and Shove had locked the door, pushed her onto the bed, and blown out the candle. Mary didn’t see what instrument the appropriately-named Shove used on her, but what he did was incredibly painful. Mary told her mother that she had screamed for help but nobody came. Shove finished what he was doing then he and Nelson left.
Mary Kearney, a girl who lived at her house, said that in the evening of Tuesday, December 15, Mary went into labor, delivering the baby about 2:00 in the morning of the 16th. Miss Kearney found the baby left on a marble-topped table. Seeing the baby move its hand and foot, Miss Kearney placed the child in a warm place by the stove hearth, where it died about half an hour later.
Other than doctors attending her from time to time, Misss Kearney said, Mary Ackerly had no visitors after the birth and death of her baby. After the night of the abortion, Mary never saw Harry Nelson again. Mary sickened and suffered wretchedly during the ensuing weeks, her condition deteriorating.Mary’s Final Weeks
She was sent home some time during the first week of January, 1846. She arrived with a woman named Sarah, and had to be carried into the house by her father. She managed to take some medicine Sarah prepared for her and to sit up for a meal, after which the mysterious Sarah left.
Over the ensuring days, Mary had a dark red, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, and frequent bouts of vomiting. She told her other little of her visit to New York, admitting that she hadn’t visited her uncles, but her mother didn’t press her for information.
At Mary’s request, she was visited by a minister every other day who prayed with her and urged her to clear her conscience. As it became clearer to Mary that she wasn’t going to recover, she wept and told her mother all about her pregnancy and the abortion.
Dr. William Belcher, the family’s usual doctor, tended to Mary three times before her death. She complained about having “quick consumption,” though Belcher had detected nothing wrong with her lungs. Mary did have frequent vomiting of foul greenish material. This led Belcher to conclude that Mary had intestinal issues as well as lung problems. The night before her death, Dr. Belcher made it plain to Mary that she was dying, and she told him the same story she had told her mother about Harry Nelson, Dr. Shove, the unfamiliar house she’d been taken to, and the forced abortion. She was dead by around 6:00 on the morning of January 20.
Belcher and another doctor performed an autopsy, finding multiple adhesions around Mary’s uterus. There were no signs of injury inside the uterus or vagina, but there were injuries causing fecal impaction and large abscesses around the bowel and bladder. Her uterus was enlarged and showed signs of recent pregnancy.
In coverage of his trial, Shove was described as “a rather small man,” in his early 30s, who had “heretofore stood high in the estimation of his acquaintances.” He was from Ossinging, which is near Sing Sing. A man who ran a boat to New York, and who knew Mary Ackerly, Harry Nelson, and Seth Shove testified that he had seen all three of them on the boat on the evening Nelson had taken Mary to New York. Nelson disembarked with Mary. The man hadn’t noticed when Shove went ashore.
An assortment of doctors testified that they’d known Shove well and respected him professionally. Some had seen Shove perform surgery and considered him to be skilled. The doctors also testified that for an abortion, the patient would have to be cooperative in order to carry it out. Both hands would be needed, so a doctor would not have spare hands to hold down a struggling patient. Mary’s injuries, as described by Dr. Belcher, were not consistent with those that would happen if a qualified doctor was doing an abortion procedure. At no point did there seem to be the issue raised, nor answered, as to whether Mary’s injuries were consistent with a skilled surgeon attempting to perform an abortion on a struggling woman.
As the jury went to deliberate whether Shove should be convicted of murder, manslaughter, or neither, they had to take into account:
whether Mary had been “quick with child,” meaning that she had been able to feel the baby move and know that the baby was alive
whether she had gone to New York for the purpose of an abortion
whether she had consented to the abortion
whether Shove had indeed been the person who had perpetrated it
Much of this hinged on how much credibility the jury would give to the testimony of Mary’s mother and of Dr. Belcher regarding what she had told them as she lay dying. Shove’s attorney had brought forth many witnesses against the character of both Mary and her mother. Mary was described as a thief, a prostitute, and an arsonist. Both women were described of being of bad moral reputation and as utterly untrustworthy. One witness said that she had taken Mary into her home at age 12 on a trial basis and only kept her there for a few days before sending her away. A minister whose family had taken Mary in for a while but started hearing ill of her after she had moved out.
The judge told the jury that Martha Ackerly’s credibility had been completely impeached, and hence, by implication, that they could discount anything she’d said. The judge also indicated that though Mary ordinarily would be considered of such bad character that they could dismiss her testimony as well, they could choose to give credibility to what she said on her deathbed under the presumption, common at the time, that people about to meet their Maker would want to do so having confessed all of their sins before doing so.
Some testimony also seemed to hinge on whether somebody had paid Mary’s parents to make themselves scarce after Mary’s death. The implication seems to be that the Ackerly family had been trying to blackmail Shove. Martha Ackerly said that Shove had given Mary some money, wages that had been due to her.
The defense arguments — that Shove can’t have been the one who had perpetrated the abortion because it had been done so sloppily, and that after all he was respectable and Mary and her family were disreputable and thus couldn’t be believed — worked. Shove was acquitted.Mary’s Death in Context
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
- “The Abortion Case in which Dr. Shove Stands Indicted for Murder”, Brooklyn Eagle, Oct. 17, 1846
- “Acquitted,” Public Ledger, Oct. 21, 1846
- “Trial of Dr. Shove,” Eastern State Journal (White Plains, NY), Nov. 5, 1846
- “Another Victim of Seduction,” Eastern State Journal (White Plains, NY), Jan. 29, 1846
- “Acquitted,” Troy (NY) Daily Whig, Oct. 21, 1846
- “Horrible Disclosures of Seduction, Abortion, and Murder, in a House of Ill Fame in New York; revealed on the trial of Dr. Seth Shove at White Plains,” National Police Gazette, undated