Mary Burns

Mary Burns1860s, 40s, newyork, illegaldoctor, 19thcenturySUMMARY: Mary Burns, age about 40, died in July of 1862 after an abortion evidently perpetrated in Brooklyn by Dr. Peter Ray.

It was July of 1862 in Brooklyn. Mary Burns, about 40 years of age and a servant for “a respectable family”, lay near death. She was an unmarried woman, not known to have any children. A woman named Mrs. Cunningham took down Mary’s deathbed statement to the coroner:

  • I do not know my age; my child was born on Monday; Dr. Ray attended me, and some days prior to the birth of the child performed an operation on me with an instrument; I cannot describe the instrument because the Doctor did not let me see it; I paid him four dollars for this operation, and he did it for the purpose of effecting an abortion; he never produced an abortion on me before; I went to him without being directed by any third party; Dr. Ray has called on me since he performed the operation; he furnished me with medicine for the purpose of producing an abortion previous to the operation; I took six bottles at six and sixpence per bottle, but it did not have the desired effect; the operation was performed in Dr. Ray’s office; the colored Doctor is the one I mean…. The child is now in the out-house where I threw it; I know that I am in a dangerous condition and have no hope of getting well, and knowing this, the statements I now make are correct.

Dr. O.H. Smith saw Mary a few hours before her death. She was very feeble, with a very weak pulse, and “evidently near her end.” She said she’d had a lot of hemorrhage but could give no reason for it. A servant in the family said that Mary had suffered a miscarriage.

Dr. L. N. Palmer had known Mary for the past 5 or 6 years, treating her several times. He had attended her during her last illness. She was suffering uterine hemorrhage of unknown cause. Palmer testified medication that seemed to help, as the hemorrhage abated for a few days. Mary was eating and her condition seemed improved. He had been unable to go to her when summoned shortly before her death.

Dr. Smith was present at the autopsy and noted an enlarged uterus, consistent with a pregnancy of about six months, with a portion of placenta still adherent. Everything seemed consistent with a miscarriage, with no sign of instrumentation. Smith did not suspect induced abortion. He had seen Mary three times before her death, and had administered stimulants. Smith believed that Mary had died from the blood loss.

Dr. N.L. North, assisted in the autopsy, and noted evidence of a recent 5-6 month pregnancy, with a retained placental portion probably causing fatal hemorrhage. North saw no signs of instrumentation, did not suspect an induced abortion. North estimated that the fetus had been expelled a week or more before Mary’s death.

Cornelius H. Schapps, who actually performed the autopsy on July 31, saw no external signs of violence or disease. Schapps found an enlarged hemorrhagic uterus with some placenta adherent. He believed that there must have been an induced abortion due to the adherent portion of placenta, which he said would not happen in a case of a miscarriage.

An investigation found a bottle in Mary’s bedroom, with a label indicating that Dr. Ray had prescribed it for Mary on June 18. It was to be taken three times a day. The prices was six and sixpence. And a “night scavenger” named John Bauer discovered the body of a baby floating in the water behind the house where Mary lived. The child’s body was brought to the coroner’s office.

The investigators concluded that Mary had died of the effects of an abortion performed by Dr. Peter B. Ray. Ray, who was Black, had been denied membership in the Kings County Medical Society, though whether due to race or due to being a reputed abortionist I have been unable to determine.

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


  • “District”, The Brooklyn Eagle, August 5, 1862
  • “The Alleged Abortion Case in the Eastern District”, The Brooklyn Eagle, August 4, 1862
  • “A Case of Malpractice”, The Brooklyn Eagle, July 30, 1862


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