Mary Narusavage

Mary Narusavage1930s, californiaSUMMARY: On April 19, 1939, 27-year-old Mary Narusavage died from an abortion perpetrated by licensed midwives in Long Beach, New York.

The Circumstances | The Abortion | Signs of Trouble | The Home Visits | Hospitalization and Death | The Raid | Conviction | Context

The Circumstances
In January of 1939, 27-year-old Mary Narusavage of Long Beach, New York learned that she was pregnant. This was confirmed on March 29 by Dr. Sophie P. Erlich, also of Long Beach, who estimated the pregnancy as being about six or seven weeks. Mary told Dr. Erlich that she had experienced some brief bleeding on March 19th.

Mary already had a baby, Mary Anne, around eight months old, so for several weeks she spoke to some of her friends about her situation. During that time she tried to get some medications from the drug store in hopes of causing an abortion that way.

In April, one friend, Ruth Mansfield, provided the names of two midwives, 59-year-old Josephine Williams and her daughter-in-law, 33-year-old Adele Sassen. Williams had been a licensed midwife for thirty years but had given up her practice a little over two years previously due to health issues.

The Abortion
On April 13, Mary and her husband, 28-year-old Joseph “Joe” Narusavage, placed a phone call to Williams’ home and spoke to Sassen, who also lived there. They then went to the Williams home and were greeted at the door by Sassen, who took them down the hallway to a large sitting room on the left. There, they discussed Mary’s pregnancy and how Mary had gotten the referral. Joe, a waiter, had expected the abortion fee to be $35, so he had brought that amount with him. Sassen said that actually the fee would be $45, but Joe could pay the additional $10 later.

Sassen took Mary through a pair of double doors into a windowless dining room with a bed and a sink in it. The bed was set up with rubber sheets. There was also a low chest of drawers topped with a rubber mat that had blood on it.

Joe waited for about seven or eight minutes. Saussen came out and told Joe, “Everything is OK. Your wife will be all right. Everything is fine.” She even indicated that there was no need to go straight home but could go to a movie if they wanted to. Joe gave Saussen $35 of the $45 abortion fee. Sassen sent Mary home with three pills, and told the couple to call her if there were any problems.

Signs of Trouble
The couple went home to their two-room apartment that evening. During the night, at around 3:00 a.m., Mary’s water broke. There was blood in the fluid. Joe cleaned things up for his wife.

When he came home from work in the afternoon he found Mary still in bed, and in quite a bit of pain. They discussed what to do. Joe had to return to work, so Mary asked him to send her friend Rose Molesky by with some tea. When Joe came home later, Mary was in even more pain so Joe called the number Sassen had given him and described his wife’s symptoms. “Why, she will be all right. Just give her a good physic,” Sassen instructed him. Joe gave Mary some milk of magnesia as instructed, but it didn’t help with the pain.

The Home Visits
The next day, Joe again called Sassen. She and her mother-in-law rode over with her husband, Ferdinand, arriving at around 11:30 that night, the 14th. Williams helped Mary to get on the kitchen table and administered a douche made of Lysol and hot water. Fragments of matter came out, which Williams believed was bits of placenta. She then used a curette on Mary, causing her to scream out in pain.

Mary continued to discharge blood, which had taken on a strong, foul odor. Again, Joe called Sassen. She, her husband, and her mother-in-law returned, carrying a large paper bag and a cloth bag, like a pillow case, that sounded as if it held pots and pans. Williams and Sassen went into the bedroom to attend to Mary. They were in there for about 20 to 25 minutes, then came out and told Joe that she would be fine.

He sat in the kitchen with Sassen and Williams. Williams said that she’d given Mary two pills. She left three additional pills with Joe, instructing him to give one to Mary at about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., and another one or two in the morning.

Joe acknowledged that he still owed $10 for the abortion fee, but indicated that he only had $7. Williams agreed to take the $7 and left with her son and his wife.

Hospitalization and Death
The next day, April 18, Joe was so alarmed at Mary’s condition that he called Dr. David Schiff. Describing the visit, he said, “I was struck by the appearance of the very toxic, pale, white ghostly like woman who was in agony.” Upon examining Mary, Schiff found her to have a rapid pulse and a severely distended abdomen, and a foul-smelling discharge. Believing that she had peritonitis, he immediately called an ambulance to take her to Long Beach Hospital, where he cared for her, assisted by intern Henry Miller.

Though a normal white blood cell count would be 7,000 – 10,000, Mary’s white cell count was 29,000, indicating massive infection. Mary was treated with a blood transfusion and what Miller indicated was routine treatment for toxemia such as forcing fluids and elevating the head of the bed to promote drainage. In spite of their efforts, she died at around 10:00 p.m. on April 19.

Dr. Theodore Curphey testified that Mary’s breasts had been full, and he had been able to express some colostrum. She had a purulent discharge in her vagina. In her pelvic cavity there was a large quantity of pus that tested positive for streptococcus and B. coli, which is usually found in the bowels. Her uterus had a large, ragged hole in it and contained a mix of foul-smelling pus and clots. Dr. Curphey estimated that the infection had started between four days and two weeks prior to Mary’s death.

The Raid
The following day, at around 5:20 a.m., police raided Williams’ home, where they found abortion instruments including speculum, a curette and a catheter, wrapped in a wet towel and hidden behind a piece of furniture. Williams begged the police detective not to take the instruments, to forget he had ever seen them, and even tried to thrust a wad of cash into his hands. She later claimed that she used the instruments to care for her husband, saying she used the curette to cut callouses off his feet. She was unable to explain how she could have used a vaginal speculum on her husband, who had died in 1938. She also couldn’t explain why, if she hadn’t used the instruments since September of 1938 at the latest they were wrapped in a wet towel.

She insisted that while she had indeed gone to Mary’s apartment, she had merely administered the douches, for which she accepted payment of $7 of her $10 fee. The detective arrested her.

Sassen, who had gotten a call at about 3:00 a.m. informing her of Mary’s condition, had fled. She later turned up in a hospital, recovering from some sort of surgery.

On March 20, 1940, Williams and Sassen were both convicted of first-degree manslaughter and abortion, and was sentenced to two to four years. On April 17, 1940, Williams and Sassen were sentenced to prison, but the following month, both woman were released on bail pending a new trial. They’d won the new trial on technicalities rather than on evidence of their guilt. One of the issues raised was whether Mr. Narusavage’s testimony should be admissible, since he was a co-conspirator. Another was whether the case was prosecuted in the correct county, since the initial abortion was perpetrated in Manhattan and further attendance was in Nassau County.

Their request for a new trial was denied.

During the 1940s, while abortion was still illegal, there was a massive drop in maternal mortality from abortion. The death toll fell from 1,407 in 1940, to 744 in 1945, to 263 in 1950. Most researches attribute this plunge to the development of blood transfusion techniques and the introduction of antibiotics. Learn more

external image MaternalMortality.gif

For more on pre-legalization abortion, see The Bad Old Days of Abortion


  • “2 Women Jailed In Fatal Operation,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr. 16, 1940
  • “Two Midwives Get Bail Writ Pending Appeal in Abortion, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 May, 1940
  • New York Times 3-21-40, 4-17-40
  • State of New York vs. Williams and Sassen


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