Mary Nowalowski

SUMMARY: Mary Nowalowski, age 32, died in a Chicago hospital on April 3, 1935 after an abortion perpetraed by Dr. Justin Mitchell.

justinmitchell.jpgDr. Justin Mitchell

A Repeat Offender

On February 12, 1936, Dr. Justin Mitchell, age 57, of Chicago was convicted in the April 3, 1935 abortion death of 32-year-old Mary Nowalowski.

Eleven days before his conviction, another of Mitchell’s patients, Alice Haggin, died from abortion complications. Two years earlier, Mitchell had been implicated in the abortion death of Mary Schwartz.

Arranging the Abortion

The prime witness in the case was milk wagon driver Stephen Zakes, a 39-year-old twice-married father of two, one from each marriage. He and Mary had been in a relationship for a little over a year prior to the events of March and early April of 1935, and were planning a wedding for the upcoming May.

On March 27, Stephen brought Mary to the Chicago office of Dr. Victor J. Neale. His testimony conributed to the following account.

Mary and Neale conferred privately for about fifteen minutes, performing a vaginal examination. He then met with the couple together, telling them that Mary was between two and two and a half months pregnant. Mary began to cry and ask Neale, “What will I do?”

Stephen asked Neale where they could “have it done,” to which Neale replied, “I don’t know. There is lots of them done every day.”

Stephen testified that Neale had referred them to Dr. Justin Mitchell; Neale insisted that he had simply told them they could go to some busy corner and find an abortionist.

Stephen and Mary went to Mitchell’s office on the evening of Friday, March 29. Mitchell examined Mary and confirmed that she was pregnant. She was at least eight weeks along, Mitchell said, and if she returned the following morning at 8:00 he would perform an abortion. The fee would be $50. He assured them that there was no danger for Mary to undergo the procedure.

The Day of the Abortion

Stephen Zakes went to Mitchell’s office at around 11:00 the morning of Saturday, March 30 to see how Mary was doing after the abortion. “She will be all right, she is in a little pain right now.” Stephen went to see Mary himself and found her to be in excruciating pain, unable to even sit up. Mitchell insisted to him, “They are all weak after an operation of that kind.”

Stephen gave Mitchell $50. Mitchell then left the office, saying that he had to see to relocating his practice to another location in the building. About twenty minutes later he returned and Stephen left to escort Mary home. She was weak and chilly. They stopped at a drug store for coffee and toast, then walked to a cab stand where Mary became violently ill.

After Stephen took Mary home, she immediately took to her bed. Dr. Neale was summoned to examine her, and was told that the couple had arranged an abortion. Neale provided morphine for Mary’s pain before leaving. Stephen remained with her until about 1:00 in the morning on Sunday, March 31.

Another Doctor Brought In

Somebody brought Dr. G. M. Redman to Mary’s home between 4:00 and 5:00 that morning. He found Mary in such grave shape that he immediately took her to his car and drove her to the hospital.

Mary was given medicine to contract her uterus but she continued to bleed so Redman contacted the coroner’s office then performed a curretage of Mary’s uterus. Her cervix had already been damaged, showing tearing and pus. During the curretage, Redman retrieved the head of Mary’s fetus along with retained portions of the placenta.

In the mean time, Mitchell had relocated his office to another part of the building. On Tuesday, April 2, Stephen told Mitchell that Mary was in the hospital due to him doing the operation wrong. Mitchell said, Well, everything is all right after three or four days. I will pay the bill and everything.”

Mary’s Death

Redman’s care notwithstanding, Mary died four days after the abortion, which would be Wednesday, April 3. A postmortem examination concluded that Mary’s uterus had developed gangrene due to the abortion, and that she had died of hemorrhage and septic shock.

Another Mary’s Abortion Death

During Mitchell’s trial, Marie Hansen Schaeffer testified that Mitchell had performed an abortion on her in his office in June of 1932. She brought a friend, Mary Schwartz, to Mitchel on May 14, 1934, for an abortion. Marie had suffered no apparrent ill effects from her own abortion, but when Mary Schwartz emerged from the procedure room she was weak and unable to walk. Marie took her friend home and put her to bed. Mary Schwartz suffered hemorrhage and an infection due to retained fetal tissue and damage to the uterine lining. Mary Schwartz died on May 20.

The Alibi

Mitchell’s primary defense was that he was at Auburn Park Hospital, about four blocks from his office, observing surgery being preformed on his sister, Florence Eshliman. The surgery had involved an anesthetist, two nurses, and several doctors who were friends of Mitchell. The operation took place from between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. to between noon and 1:00 p.m. Since Mitchell had accompanied his sister to the operating room, that placed him at Auburn Park Hospital from around 8:30 to 1:00.

Though the others who were present at the surgery said that Mitchell had been there, they had been focusing on the task at hand and not on Mitchell’s whereabouts. They admitted that he had left several times but insisted that he’d likely only been gone for perhaps five mintues at a time.

Ilow Nolan, another of Mitchell’s sisters, testified that she had been in the hallway outside the operating room from 9:00 to 1:00, and that her brother had come out of the operating room on several occasions to give her updates and to answer telephone calls from his office manager. The office manager, Bernice Clement, testified that though Mitchell usually kept 9:00 to noon office hours on Saturdays, he had not done so on the day of his sister’s surgery.

Mitchell said that he had never seen Stephen Zales until April 1 or 2, when he’d tried to shake him down for money for hospital bills for a woman called Mary Novak. He said that when he’d persisted in saying that he’d never touched Mary Novak, Stephen Zales threatened, “I’ll get even with you.”

The Verdict

Mitchell’s alibi didn’t cover the time that Mary was supposed to be at his office for the abortion. The jury evidently didn’t think that it was too much of a stretch to believe that Mitchell walked the four blocks from the hospital to his office to collect the abortion fee and send Mary and Stephen on their way. Mitchell was convicted, and his conviction stood up on appeal.


  • People v. Mitchell, Supreme Court of Illinois, 368Ill.399 (Ill. 1938)
  • “Vote to Indict Physician in 2d Abortion Death,” Chicago Tribune, March 11, 1936