Mary Donigan

Mary Donigan1870s, abortifacient, newyork, 20s, infection, 19thcenturySUMMARY: Mary Donigan, age 22, died February 6, 1870 after an abortion perpetrated by an unidentified person in Brooklyn.

A Coroner’s Inquest was held regarding the February 6, 1870 death of 22-year-old Mary Donigan (alt. Dunnigan).

Mary died at the Brooklyn home of Mrs. Bridget Dillon, who testified that she’d known Mary for about 18 years. Mary had come to her home on a Monday afternoon about three weeks before her death, looking very sickly but not complaining of illness. By the time Friday came around, Mary was reporting being sick with diarrhea. Mrs. Dillon gave her some brandy at about 11:00 that night, but all this did was make Mary vomit.

Mary slept until noon the next day. Mrs. Dillon checked on her and found her appearing very ill. Mrs. Dillon offered to empty the slop pail in the room, but Mary said, “No, I’ve had a baby and it is in there; my mother sent me down to Margaret Farrell’s, but she wouldn’t keep me, so I thought I would come to you.”

Mrs. Dillon looked in the pail and saw the baby, which she described as large — in keeping with Mary’s report of having been pregnant for about eight months. Mary reported that she had paid a doctor $5 for a bottle of medicine — she refused to name this doctor — and that she had thrown the bottle “in the water closet.” Mrs. Dillon testified that Mary reported having taken the medicine about two or three weeks earlier, and that afterward she’d not felt her baby moving any more.

Mary likewise refused to divulge to Mrs. Dillon the name of her baby’s father.

An old woman Mrs. Dillon believed to be Margaret Farrel came to help Mrs. Dillon care for Mary. Mrs. Dillon testified that she’d asked Mrs. Farrel what to do about the baby, and Mrs. Farrel had suggested getting a small box to bury the baby in. Mrs. Dillon went off in search of a box, and returned to Mary’s room to find both Mrs. Farrel and the baby gone.

By Monday, Mary was up and dressed and went downstairs against Mrs. Dillon’s advice. Mary quickly took ill again, so mrs. Dillon helped her back to her room and dosed her with castor oil. “She was quite exhausted.”

Mrs. Dillon went to a druggist and described Mary’s symptoms. The druggist provided some powders that she was to give to Mary every hour, but Mary didn’t want to take more after the first dose, reporting that they only made her feel worse and blistered her mouth. Mrs. Dillon sent one of her “girls” to consult with the druggist but he had nothing further to offer.

Mary refused the services of either a doctor or a priest. The following morning, Mary had taken such a turn for the worse that Mrs. Dillon sent for both a doctor and a priest. The doctor, Matthew F. Regan, told Mrs. Dillon that Mary was dangerously ill.

Dr. Regan testified that he’d been summoned to a garret room where he found Mary in bed, “suffering from inflammation of the womb and the covering of the bowels.” Mary reported being married and having suffered a miscarriage the preceeding Friday. Dr. Regan prescribed some medication and returned on Saturday.

At that time, Mary admitted that she wasn’t married, and that she’d not seen a doctor or had any sort of abortion performed. He told her that her condition was very grave, “that I had seen women die who were not so low as she was.” Mary identified a Mr. Burdie or McBurdie, who worked in the brick yards in Haverstraw, where Mary lived, as the father of the baby.

When Dr. Regan returned at noon on Sunday to check on Mary, he found her dead.

Dr. A. W. Shepard performed a post mortem examination on Mary and found no signs of instrumentation, but plenty of signs of infection in and around the uterus. He determined that she had died from an 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.
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

Death by Abortion“, New York Times, Feb. 20, 1870

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